Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The past is indeed a foreign country

The thing about being in a foreign is the way in which the strangest things will trip you up. You are prepared to find that most of the people in Turkey speak Turkish but you may be set aback when you excuse yourself from the dinner table to visit the toilet in your host's home and find that the facilities look rather different than you had expected.[1]

Similarly when one reads books written in fifty or one hundred years ago one expects that gender expectations, indeed the very performances of gender, would differ from those of the present day. If one is at all familiar with the past (or the history of the women's movement) one is not taken aback to learn that women did not have the vote in England in 1914 or that most women in the 1890s did not routinely go to college.

What trips one up is that these changes did not take place in a lockstep fashion. Women did not get the right to vote, go to university, live on their own, open their own bank accounts, sit on juries and hold public office all at the same time. So one will come across rather remarkable scenes such as this one from Barbara Pym's book Excellent Women[2] (the narrative voice is that of Mildred Lathbury, the book's protagonist. The book is set in the early 1950s. Lathbury is what would once have been called "a gentlewoman", unmarried, living alone in London after the death of her parents. She worked for the government during the war and now has a job working with "distressed gentlewomen." Earlier in the book she met Everard Bone through mutual acquaintances. She and Bone are, at most, vaguely friends. One day Lathbury receives a telephone call from Bone:

'I rang up to ask if you would come and have dinner with me in my flat this evening. I have got some meat to cook.'
I saw myself putting a small joint into the oven and preparing vegetables. I could feel my aching back bending over the sink. (p. 284)

My initial response as a reader is to wonder why Lathbury jumped to the (in my mind unwarranted) assumption that Bone was expecting Lathbury to cook the dinner to which he had invited her but it is soon made clear that she is correct in her assumption.

'I'm sorry about the meat,' I said, 'trying to infuse life into our now nearly dead conversation.
'Why should you be sorry about it?'
'Do you know how to cook it?'
'Well, I have a cookery book.'
I had not wanted to see Everard Bone and the idea of having to cook his evening meal for him was more than I could bear at this moment. (p. 285)
Throughout the book Pym (through Lathbury) highlights the degree to which men expect things to simply be done. For women of the class of Lathbury this creates a particular problem since the changing economic structure of English life has changed the ubiquity of servants. Just a few decades earlier men of Bone's class and education would have someone who "did" things for them. They might not have been able to afford a live-in servant but they would not be doing the cooking and cleaning themselves. From my reading of novels set in the 1920s and 1930s many of these men lived in buildings that had a staff that provided meals and similar circumstances. Now such buildings were beyond the financial reach of many of those who might have lived in them before and servants were no longer plentiful and cheap. What was a gentleman to do? Apparently such men, robbed of servants, turned to the nearest gentlewoman to solve the problem.

One imagines that if one had even brought this matter to the attention of a man such as Bone he would have been perplexed as to why it was a problem. "After all," I can imagine Bone saying, "Mildred would have to cook her own dinner anyway. The only difference is now two of us can eat what she cooks." The idea of the reverse (Lathbury calling him to suggest that he come over to cook her dinner) is one thinks, beyond his imagination.

And yet, things are changing. The couple through whom Bone and Lathbury met do not live out the normal gender roles. She is an anthropologist and he is a retired Naval officer. He likes to cook and she refuses to learn to do so well. They do not see themselves as revolutionary and yet their very refusal to do so is perhaps the most transgressive thing about their marriage.

For readers who are interesting in the "facts on the ground" of the way in which gender expectation and performance have changed over the last century reading books such as Excellent Women is the literary equivalent of an anthropologist's field trip.

[1] This example was inspired by an episode of House Hunters International. I was baffled the a woman who was planning to buy a house in Istanbul and move permanently to Turkey should be so taken aback at the sight of a perfectly clean squat toilet. She didn't say that she wanted an American style toilet, she took one look at it an exclaimed in horror "what is that!"

"That", I said back to the television set, "is an indication that you are a typical drive-by Westerner who thinks they know a lot about a country because they like visiting it as a tourist or when staying with friends. I bet she doesn't even carry her own toilet paper with her.

[2] Pym, Barbara. Excellent women. Boston, Mass: G.K. Hall, 1985.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Innumeracy, part one

Tell me what is "wrong" with the second paragraph of this quote from What's fueling Bible Belt divorces:
Southern men and women had higher rates of divorce in 2009 than their counterparts in other parts of the country: 10.2 per 1,000 for men and 11.1 per 1,000 for women, according to a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau released Thursday.

By comparison, men and women in the Northeast had the lowest rates of divorce, 7.2 and 7.5 per 1,000, which is also lower than the national divorce rate of 9.2 for men and 9.7 for women.
Did the writer(s) and editor(s) of this piece not realize that the "national divorce rate" means "the average rate of divorce"? And did they not realize the lowest number of those being averaged must, unless the numbers being averaged are all of an equal value, by definition be lower than average?

This mistake does not negate the observations made in these opening paragraphs--that the divorce rates in the South are not only higher than those in the Northeast they are higher than the national divorce rate. But it does lead this reader to wonder how well those involved understood the data made available by the U.S. Census Bureau. How well would they be able to understand the simplest of statistical analyses of the data made available?

It also gives me some clue as to why so many Americans find it almost impossible to make reasoned judgements about matters of science. Not only do people who are scientifically illiterate and mathematically innumerate do the gatekeeping and the reporting of scientific news the years of reading such reports results in a systemic deskilling of many of people reading them.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Book Review: Excellent Women, preliminary thoughts

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952)

There are books that one can rate, summarize and review as soon as one reaches the last word of the last line. There are others that positively demand to be reread before one does so.

This is one of those books.

To start with "the bottom line" - I enjoyed this book very much. After my first reading I gave it a preliminary rating of 4-1/2 stars. I knew it was good, I knew I enjoyed it and yet I wasn't quite ready and able to explain why.

So I gave it a little rest (48 hours) and picked it up again.

Now, after reading it a second time I have decided that it rates a full 5 stars. I still don't feel that I can adequately explain all the reasons I found it to be excellent or capture all the thoughts reading it sparked.

I need to read it at least one more time so before sitting down to type this preliminary review I ordered a copy of my own so I can return the one I have to the library.

Why did I so enjoy this book? First of all, Pym's writing style was unobtrusively pleasant. It vaguely evokes the feeling of Austen without reading like a pastiche. Pym's voice is not the voice of Austen but one does feel a similarity of taste and tone between the two.

The plot of Excellent Women is at the same time like all of Austen's books and none of them. The protagonist (the "voice" of the book), Mildred Lathbury, is an unmarried woman in her early thirties who lives on a small income after the death of her parents. She is, like so many of Austen's heroines, a gentlewoman of modest means. Lathbury herself notices that though she lives in London her life is very much as it was when she lived in a more rural setting. Most of her interactions are with a rather circumscribed number of people. Gossip, cooking, cleaning, visiting with others, planning church events and shopping fills her life and the lives of many of those around her.

In many ways the world in which Lathbury lives would be familiar to Austen and yet in some crucial ways it is very different. While those around Lathbury may gossip about her "opportunities" and presume that she would accept a proposal from the appropriate man she herself shows little urgency, let alone desire, to marry. She is wryly aware of her attraction to some of the men she meets but these are mild and passing feelings. She is aware of the woeful financial circumstances of some members of her own class (in fact her job involves working with distressed gentlewomen) and is aware that some day she may find herself in a similar circumstance. These financial realities do not seem to have an impact on her interactions with men.

Unlike the unmarried daughters of deceased clergymen in Austen's day Lathbury and her contemporaries feel no shame at holding down jobs. They may, like Lathbury's friend Dora, work as teachers, but they are not reduced to being governesses tucked away in cold and badly lit attics. They can travel freely, they can have male friends and they can even, if they so choose, have careers.

What Pym highlights in this book is the state of male/female relationships at a pivotal moment in time. Men still assume that they will be looked after (a point about which Lathbury has frequent wry thoughts) but they have lost much of their authority and power and seem for the most part of have retained their privileges through societal inertia rather than through any efforts of their own. Pym (through Lathbury) observes English life as the changes in class structure and male/female dynamics begins to unfold.

For any reader who has wondered after finishing Sense and Sensibility "what would happen to Elinor and Marianne today" Excellent Women is an excellent answer.

Rating: 5 stars

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Their target audience doesn't shop at Target

Reading through The New York Times today I cam across this article, New Mortgage Limit May Set Buyers Back and my first thought was that, yet again, some change in American banking/foreclosure/credit ratings was going to disadvantage millions of Americans.

I was wrong.

This article, though published in the middle of times of severe economic constraint, is not about buyers it is about a very particular group of buyers who will be effected by the FHA (Federal Housing Administration) dropping the maximum amount they will insure from $729,650 to $625,500.

Yes, house prices are higher in Manhatten than in many other parts of the country -- but the (estimated 2009) median household income in New York City was just over $50,000. That means (given the advise from a variety of financial advisers) that half of all the households in New York City cannot afford to buy a home that costs more than $150,000. Even if we look only at Manhatten and consider the mean household income the average family cannot afford a mortgage much larger than $360,000.

It is mentioned one than once in the body of the article that this change in the FHA insurance ceiling will only affect those looking for homes costing between three-quarters of a million and a million dollars.

Three things stand out to this reader.

First, the tone of the article is that it would be a bad thing for sellers to have to lower the prices of their New York properties in order to find buyers. As a home owner (who saw hir own home lose value during an earlier economic recession) I understand what if feels like to see the value of an asset depreciate. But this is the nature of most investments--they can go down in value just as they can go up. "Banking" on one's house/apartment is a bad idea. It seems to me that the people who declaim loudly and often about the "wisdom" of the free market should be willing to accept the sad news that market is trying to give them--right now some of the housing units in New York City are overvalued.

Second, a someone whose first summer job as a teenager was with a mortgage company I find my shocked at the idea of someone in this economy even thinking of buying a house with a mere 3.5% downpayment. Do these potential homeowners have no savings? What will they do if one of them loses their job? What will happen if an unexpected pregnancy occurs? What will they do if their health insurance premiums go up? What happens if they run into unexpected maintenance costs? In other words, what happens when life happens? Many American families are only one or two paychecks away from losing their homes and being on the street and this holds true for families who are "income rich/capital poor" as well as for those who are struggling members of the working poor.

Third, articles like this are indications of why "conventional wisdom" and "the talking heads" never seem to know what the average American does and care about the things which worry the typical American. A substantial proportion of Americans today have no jobs. Not only do they have no jobs they have no realistic hope of ever having a reasonably paying job which allows them to use their skills fully. A substantial proportion of Americans who do have jobs are looking at pay freezes (at best) or pay cuts and the reduction of benefits. A sizable percentage of Americans who still have jobs are delaying their retirement.

Most of the householders in New York City are just worried about feeding their children and keeping a minimally acceptable roof over their heads. The "wise heads" at The New York Times should be writing articles about the problems of the ordinary New York City resident (the teacher, the nurse, the waitperson, the people who keep the city running) not about the challenges faced by those whom fortune has already favoured.

But the ordinary people are not the target audience of people who pay the bills at The New York Times and other major newspapers. In the democracy of the dollar zie who has the most dollars gets the most attention, the most respect, the most consideration and the most votes.


Saturday, August 27, 2011

And today I am feeling very Canadian


The way that Canadians have responded to the death of Jack Layton has struck me as - - very Canadian.

Jack....for that is what he liked to called....was never our Prime Minister. He was never a member of the federal cabinet. He was only the leader of the Official Opposition for a few short months.

He was given a state funeral. He lay in state first in Ottawa and then in Toronto.

His funeral was held in Roy Thomson Hall. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra performed. Richard Underhill of The Shuffle Demons played a haunting rendition of Into the Mystic.

The first blessing at the funeral was given by Shawn Atleo (national chief of the Assembly of First Nations) in an aboriginal language. He concluded that blessing by giving a white eagle feather to Olivia Chow (Jack's widow.)

Rev. Brent Hawkes, explained that he was wearing his academic gown to officiate at the funeral in order not to give precedence to any one religion. Later on in the service Hawkes made reference to his own husband, John.

There were readings from the Bible. There was a reading from the

Stephen Lewis gave a rousing eulogy that spoke often about the causes that were most important to Jack (aids, gay rights, violence against women, homelessness). Lewis reminded the audience that Jack's last letter to Canadians was a manifesto for social democracy.

Steve Page (of Barenaked Ladies) sang Leonard's Cohen's Hallelujah.
Martin Deschamps (soloist and lead singer of Offenbach) with Bernard Quessy performed Croire.
Lorraine Segato (Parachute Club) performed Rise Up
Julie Michels and the Choir of the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto performed Chet Powers' Get Together

The funeral is available on demand from the CBC website.

Today I am feeling very Canadian. We are geographically large and numerically small country. We are a people of many languages, religions and belief systems. We break into applause at the rallying cry "for social justice."

Today I feel I am a citizen of no mean country.

Friday, August 26, 2011

We've been framed! - part one

Women "of a certain" age often find it frustrating to talk to women who are much younger about the subject of feminism and women's rights.

This is, in part, due to the fact that the women's rights/feminism movement lost the battle to frame the issue. Being a feminist became synonymous with "man hating" and "lesbian." Leaving aside the question as to what exactly is wrong with being a lesbian one could spend a hour (or a day or a year) discussing the strange lack of equivalence between "man-hating" and "misogyny". In general the critical and popular press in United States treats misogyny as an unfortunate (and perhaps sympathetic/understandable) shortcoming in an individual. Misogynist statements/actions by men who are otherwise considered admirable, interesting, talented and/or entertaining are treated much like evidence that the man in question suffers from questionable hygiene or has been known to spit or urinate in public. Note that his woman hating opinions/statements will be characterized as misogynist, thus removing their visceral impact.

The same critical and popular press treats indications that a woman may be, as they phrase it a "man-hater" as reason to call into question all of her other statements, actions and opinions. Note that the woman's opinions/statements will be characterized as man hating rather than misandrist thus heightening any visceral impact. Any indication of "man-hating" in a woman of otherwise sterling intellectual achievements will be used to undermine and question the validity of all her other statement or opinions no matter how unrelated they may be.

To put it another way; a man has certain opinions and is a misogynist while a women has certain opinions because she is a man hater. Misogyny in a man is like lefthandedness or a weakness for the early movies of John Wayne--only worth remarking upon if they are directly relevant to the subject at hand. "Man-hating" in a woman is evidence of inability to manage anger/emotions that calls into question her ability to make reasoned judgments about anything.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Jack Layton (1950-2011)

Leader of the New Democratic Party, 2003-2011

Leader of the Official Opposition, 2011

Jack Layton was born into a political family. His father, Robert Layton, was first an activist for the Liberal party and later in life became a Progressive Conservative and finally served as a member of Brian Mulroney's (federal cabinet) cabinet. His grandfather was a cabinet minister in the Duplessis (Quebec provincial) cabinet before the second World War. His great grandfather, Philip Layton, fought during the 1930s for pensions and other rights for the disabled and the blind. His great, great uncle was of one of the founding fathers of Canada.

Just a few months ago Jack Layton led the federal New Democratic Party to its best result in electoral history. The NDP swept past the Liberals to become the official opposition. Layton had been been diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2009 but seemed to be winning the (short term) fight against cancer when the recent federal election was called in 2011. On the campaign tail he often appeared to be in pain although he almost always managed to be cheerful on the hustings.

On July 25th of this year he announced that he was taking a temporary leave due to a newly diagnosed (and different) form of cancer. He died the morning of August 22, 2011 -- at home with his family.

Last Saturday Jack Layton wrote a letter to Canadians be with shared with them if he was unable to continue his battle with cancer.

In it he wrote
It has been a privilege to lead the New Democratic Party and I am most grateful for your confidence, your support, and the endless hours of volunteer commitment you have devoted to our cause. There will be those who will try to persuade you to give up our cause. But that cause is much bigger than any one leader. Answer them by recommitting with energy and determination to our work. Remember our proud history of social justice, universal health care, public pensions and making sure no one is left behind.
to all Canadians: Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world. We can be a better one – a country of greater equality, justice, and opportunity. We can build a prosperous economy and a society that shares its benefits more fairly. We can look after our seniors. We can offer better futures for our children. We can do our part to save the world’s environment.
My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.

In this Canadian's opinion Layton's letter (which has been made publicly available) deserves to be read in full.

This is the vision I look to in the people who lead my country. All else, the elections and the party platforms, should be nothing more than a heated discussion as to the best way to achieve that glorious vision.

A better world for all of us to live in.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Anomie and accidie

Every morning, just after I put on my glasses and before I drink my first cup of coffee, I fire up my computer and check out the news online.

Most mornings my computer screen is immediately filled with stories about events which are distressing. There are famines, floods and other natural disasters. There are wars, suicide bombings, forced relocations, insurgencies, military crackdowns and other hardships and sufferings that arise from the actions and decisions of human institutions and governments. There are kidnappings and murders, assaults and thefts committed by human beings alone or in small groups.

What do I feel as I sit reading the news knowing myself utterly inadequate to respond in any meaningful way to those crimes and disasters? Robert Merton might diagnose me as experiencing anomie as a result of "an acute disjunction between the cultural norms and goals and the socially structured capacities of member of that group to act in accord with them".[1] I have been brought up to believe that people should do something in the face of need and to act in the face of injustice. So, along with my dose of news, every morning my computer is delivering to me a reminder of my own inadequacy.

The more I read the more frustrated I become that the world is full of injustices which I cannot attack and needs I cannot minster to. I feel disempowered and disenfranchised. I wonder why I bother to read the news at all. Perhaps I should just pass by the stories about famines and floods. Perhaps I should ignore the news of crimes that cannot touch me and disorders that do not threaten my neighbourhood. I have worked hard all my life -- do I not deserve to sit back and enjoy the fruits of my labour? It isn't as if I can make the life of someone in Horn of Africa better by denying myself my favourite sports shows. My choice to sit back and enjoy a novel won't help (or hurt) an American family about to lose their health insurance and, perhaps, their home.

Then a small voice within whispers to my inner ear "this is but accidie, the sin of spiritual sloth." This is the self-indulgence of focusing on what I can do nothing about so that I do not see that which I can do. By comparing what I do only against the actions of the exceptionally good, charitable and brave I am giving myself license to do no good, to give nothing and be a coward.

I will never know what the world would be like if each of us tried every day to be just a little better, a little more charitable and a little more willing to stand up just a little longer and speak a little louder in defense of others. It is my choice whether I get to see what the world is like if I try to do and be all those things.

[1] Merton, Robert (1968) Social Theory and Social Structure. New York: Free Press. p. 216

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Book Review: The Spanish Cape Mystery

The Spanish Cape Mystery by Ellery Queen (1935)

Summary: Once again Ellery Queen (the authors) twist the plot, settings and characters in order to place Ellery Queen (the detective) at the right spot, at the right time to become semi-officially involved in solving a mystery. The authors have to go to great lengths to provide a setting that is isolated enough to rule out the possibility of random murderer and yet not so isolated that police, the press and various modern facilities are not on hand. The people encountered are either stereotypes or unbelievable as actual human beings (or both.)

For much of the book Ellery Queen (the character) makes speeches or offers explanations whose primary purpose appears to be to muddy rather than clarify the situation. For all the authors' attempts to make this a brain puzzler if one simply ignores Queen's verbal obfuscations the identity of the murderer is obvious.

[Note the first: Ellery Queen, the authors, do not strictly play fair with the reader. It is that lack of fair play that delays the reader from immediately recognizing the actual culprit.]

[Note the second: In addition to the usual racist and misogynist language and behaviour one comes upon in these early Ellery Queen novels this book includes scenes of psychical, emotional and verbal spousal abuse as well as fat-shaming and "lookism" that is extreme even for Queen novels of this period.]

In short: Since this is not one of the better-written of the early Queens, not a good brain-teaser, doesn't play fair with the reader and is full of language and behaviour that is disturbing this reader does not recommend the book to anyone who isn't a Queen afficiando/completist and/or a student of popular culture/mysteries of the 1930s.

Additional Trigger Warning: Chapter Twelve includes a disturbing description of a man verbally and physically assaulting his wife. Although Queen and the other men covertly observing this initially do not intervene because they are able to learn information that will assist them in solving the murder mystery they do nothing, after they have gained that information, to assist the woman and do nothing, even after the husband has left the scene, to render aid to her. The last we see of her she is sitting physically bruised and emotionally battered and the reader is left with no illusions that male observers feel more sympathy for the cuckolded husband than the battered woman.

Beyond here there be spoilers

Friday, August 19, 2011

All other things not being equal

According to a study released by the National Institutes of Health (U.S.) there is:
a 10 percentage point gap between black and white researchers in winning the most common type of NIH grant — even though all held doctorate degrees and had similar research experience. Between 2000 and 2006, about 27 per cent of white applicants won funding compared with about 17 per cent of blacks. [Black scientists less likely than whites to win research funds]
These results hold true even after most variables are held constant (academic qualification and research experience).

What cannot be held constant is the crucial factor of mentoring. Writing research grants is a skill. My own personal experience of applying for a fellowship (and being turned down) is that my own mentor had explained the process to me as one in which you write the initial application in order to receive feedback on it. Armed with those criticisms you reapply.

I applied and did not receive funding. My mentor and I worked over the application. I reapplied and did receive funding.

Mentors are not only crucial in training their students in the process of applying for and securing fellowships and grants they are also play a vital role in access to all resources. For example, access to lab time can be extremely competitive and the decision as to which aspiring doctoral candidate gets the best lab times and the best access to departmental funds and resources is usually determined by "who has their back." Mentors who know how to write grant proposals are vital to the process but data gathering usually requires access to physical resources that not all mentors can deliver.

As the authors of the study put it:
Small differences in access to research resources and mentoring during training or at the beginning of a career may accumulate to become large between-group differences.[Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Award]

Without strong mentoring minority graduate students, research fellows and junior faculty are disadvantaged in receiving funding and lab access. At the same time the very people to whom they look for mentoring have to weigh the time required to do mentoring with the impact it will have on their own careers
The time constraints imposed by serving on minority recruitment committees and mentoring students often leaves precious little time for minority scientists to do their own research. “As an underrepresented minority, you want to give back,” he says. “But as one minority scientist told me once, ‘You do no one, especially other minorities, any good if you don't get tenure.’” [A Minority Viewpoint]

And so it goes. You cannot simply wave away centuries (and sometimes millennia) of unequal access to resources with a wand and say "so, it is all better now." If we do not make an affirmative effort to offset the incremental disadvantages we are merely allow the effects of previous inequities to ripple through the system.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Liking the library

I don't remember a time when going to the library was not an important and yet routine part of my family's life.

Important -- because we had neither the money nor the storage space for all the books my parents wanted to read.

Routine -- because "going to the library," like buying groceries, changing the linen and washing the dishes was built into the rhythm of our lives.

Saturday, after the chores had been done around the house, we were packed into the car and driven to the library. The Army camp in which we lived had a small library and many of the books were donated by the men and women who lived on the base. Because a fair number of the men had married while in England and brought their wives back to Canada and a goodly number of the families had been posted to England or Germany many of the donated books had been bought in (or shipped from) England. I was deposited in the "for young children" nook which was packed full of books written for English schoolchildren.

While I was sitting, enraptured, in the niche set aside for young children my older sister was picking out books she wanted to read and then arguing with the librarian (or, more accurately, one of the women who either volunteered or was paid very little to run the library) as to whether they were "suitable" for a girl her age. Meanwhile my mother and my father would have each struck out for their favourite sections of the building.

After an hour or so mom or dad would gather us all up, we would check out our books and head back home. Where over the course of the next week we would not only read the books we had picked out we would check out everyone else's books.

Later, when we had moved from the Army camp to a medium-sized city, we checked out the various branches of the local library. My father walked by one branch of the library every day as he went to work, and my sister walked past another on her way to school. Since this was before the Internet took off, Saturday became the day when my mother would drop me off at the best "research" branch of the library to do my homework while she ran the weekly errands. I would work for several hours at one of those long wooden library tables until mom returned and then she and I would spend a pleasant hour or so in the stacks before going home with our trove.

During the years that I studied and worked in academia the library continued to be the building that held the books that I couldn't afford and didn't have room to store. Without the library I couldn't do my research. I lived for much of the year within a few minutes walk of a number of major research libraries. Over the years my respect for the skills of librarians flowered. The completion of both of my graduate degrees required years of research, much of which would have taken longer (or been fruitless) without their assistance.

Now I am once again living year round in my home in a small city in Canada. One of the things that I expected to miss was access to a good library system. Yet today I found myself standing in the middle of main branch of our local library and thinking (and almost saying out loud) "I LIKE our library."

The local library is more accessible than it ever was before. It is physically accessible to those who were once unable to negotiate its stairs and narrow entrances. It is virtually accessible to anyone who has get onto the internet. I can browse the stacks from home and request that the books I am interested in be set aside. Much of the library's reference section is available online and so I can still read many of the academic journals in my field.

The library is also more lively than it was years ago. There is large, colourful, and welcoming section for children and for teenagers. There are comfortable chairs for people, old and young, who simply want to sit and read. There are computers and internet access for people who cannot afford either. There are librarians who will help people set up the resumes that they will soon print out on the library printer. There is a little coffee/fruit/pastry stand. People all around me were having fun, enjoying themselves, happy to be in the library.

I stood there for a moment and thought, "this is the center of my community." People go to the library to learn how to apply for jobs, they go to learn new skills, they go to watch movies, take part in book clubs, and to meet people.

In my town the library has, in many ways, replaced the church as the center of the community life.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Look what they're outsourcing now

When they read of outsourcing most Americans and Canadians think of computers being made in China, clothes made in Indonesia and call centers located in Mumbai. Reading today's Washington Post I found out that other things were being outsourced as well. Scandals tarnish Citibank’s image in Indonesia.

An Indonesian man who owed money to Citibank was "invited" to their office in Jakarta. Hours later he was dead. While there are still many questions as to what happened in the small room that was set aside by the U.S. bank for questioning of deadbeat debtors there is no question that U.S. banks are outsourcing debt collection.

While some may see this story primarily as a case of the unfortunate consequences of an American company working in another country outsourcing work to "locals" who do not adhere to American standards and values I suggest that there is an alternate, and much scarier, reading. Outsourcing jobs to countries with a lower standard of living and/or laxer standards of worker/workplace protection has been a useful tool to undermine wages and workers' rights in the United States. The rush toward outsourcing was evidence that these methods of increasing "profits" that the companies involved considered reasonable/within their brief.

Can you find it hard to imagine the day will come creditors is the U.S. will be "invited" into small rooms? Probe after probe and investigation after investigation shows American companies engaging in fraud and coercion in the United States:
House of Cards
Lauderdale man's home sold out from under him in foreclosure mistake
Lawsuit accuses bank of seizing wrong house
Woman says Bank of America wrongly repossessed home
No Mortgage, Still Foreclosed
Bank Wrongly Seizes Home, Takes Parrot

The notable asymmetry of power between these companies and the people whose property they seize (and damage) when the company is completely in the wrong makes chills run up one's back. The only reason that these people have any voice at all is that they are completely "in the right." They are so clearly "in the right" that even the people who normally side automatically with companies recognize a wrong has been done. But what about the people who have no voice? The person who doesn't know who to complain to? Those who are without the privilege of being middle-class or well-educated or sympathetic? What aren't we hearing?

Take for example the case of Mr. and Mrs. Nyerges. A bank attempted to seize their home even though the couple had bought the house with cash. They had to go to court in order to get the foreclosure case dismissed. The court ordered that the bank pay the couple's court fees. It did not.

Finally the couple's lawyer got a court order that allowed them to seize the assets of the local branch and it was only after the sheriff (and the local media) arrived with the order that the couple got their cheque.

While I cheer for the Nyerges and applaud their lawyer's efforts to get them justice I wonder just how many people have horror stories that we aren't hearing.

I wonder if most of America is already sitting in a room set aside by the U.S. bank for questioning of deadbeat debtors.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Book Notes: Ellery Queen, Philo Vance and the American "cozy"

When reading books that were in the past either influential and/or popular it can be difficult for the reader of today to fully understand why the book(s) appealed to past readers. The Philo Vance and Ellery Queen detective novel series are both good examples of this phenomenon. Although I had similar issues reading S. S. Van Dine's Philo Vance as I did Ellery Queen's Ellery Queen the long term success of the two series were quite dissimilar. Van Dine’s popularity dropped precipitously several decades after he was first published while Queen, on the other hand, not only continued to be popular but went on to be very influential within the world of mystery writing. What made these books so popular at the time they were published, why were the trajectories of their popularity were so different and why do modern readers "receive" them so differently than did their initial audience.

The two authorial choices unite these series are the nature of the New Yorks in which they were set and the structures used by the authors allow the detective access to sites, evidence and witnesses and the reader access to the thoughts and actions of the detective.

First, the nature of their New Yorks:

It is difficult to keep in mind while reading the early works of Queen and Van Dine that they were published within a few years of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and Stout’s Fer-de-Lance. The former was published in 1930 and the latter, the first Nero Wolfe novel, was published in 1934. Those two books seem to have been written about a different universe than inhabited by either Philo Vance or Ellery Queen.

This reader felt that Vance and Queen lived in a country and a city that were strange amalgams of England and the United States. Both detectives work in New York City and both encounter the rather stereotypical individuals of New York: the cops with the broad accents and apparently little education; the cab drivers and waiters who have broad accents and cheerfully know their places. But the New York rich, the upper classes, live with the same “different set” of rules as do members of the British upper class in Ngaio Marsh’s detective novels. It is a New York without anything near the broad ethnic diversity one encounters in Rex Stout and with a degree of deference from police officers towards “their betters" that no one shows in his books. Compare, if you will, Inspector Queen with Stout's Inspector Cramer. Cramer doesn’t always get his man, true, but Cramer would not have put up with the affected manners and sense of privilege of either Vance or Queen.

Reviewers and analysts of murder/detective mysteries refer to a type of novel as a ‘cozy.’ Cozies are set in an alternative universe where all the nice things about the past continue to exist without any of its more unpleasant elements. In some the detectives themselves are an element of that sanitized nostalgia. Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn is the son and brother of members of the aristocracy. He is a card carrying gentleman who interviews the upstairs folks while one of his men (often Inspector Fox) interviews the maids, the butler and the rest of the downstairs staff. Not only do servants defer but often the greatest supporters of the class system are members of the “peasantry” whose adherence to an outdated caste system allows for others (their betters) to be protected against that system being breached while presenting themselves as enlightened and even egalitarian.

S. S. Van Dine and Ellery Queen can be argued to have been writing the American equivalent of the cozy, although in their cases this is masked by the fact that they set their murders in New York and present their detectives as world traveled and erudite. Make no mistake, though, these are cozies. In the world of Van Dine and Queen there is an attempt to transpose what the authors believe to be the English class system into the world of New York. The run-of-the-mill police officer in Queen's New York treat Ellery with such a degree of respect that one imagines them tugging their forelocks when reporting to him. The idea that any of the monied and well-connected witnesses in the early Queen books would not have called their lawyers immediately upon being detained and questioned by a man whose only authority is a “pass” written out for him by his father is laughable. The idea that no one in the police force or at city hall would direct charges of nepotism and incompetence toward Inspector Queen is similarly ludicrous. However in these books the reader is assured that in a United States much changed over the last few decades, by immigration as well as the farm boys who returned from war duty overseas only to see their families wiped out by the crash of 1929.

Philo Vance is an Americanized version of that stereotype in English fiction, the eclectic, erudite man of the upper class who travels the world, dabbles in a variety of subjects and has the money and connections to provide him access to the crime scenes. The author makes a point of emphasizing that Vance had acquired an accent while studying in England. Those who are merely police officers (as opposed to persons of private means) are described as differing physically, intellectually and even morally from Vance and his friends.

The New York of these American urban cozies seems far more like the moderate sized towns than many readers lived or grew up in. There are important families and, without doubt, those important families can exert pressure on the police. But this pressure isn’t presented as a form of corruption rather as the natural consequence of people being important and monied. The daughter of a rich man may be a “drug fiend”* but it isn’t portrayed as a form of inappropriate wielding of power and influence for the police to treat her differently than they would the daughter of a working class man.

Second, the structural issues of both Van Dine and Queen:

The further frustrating thing about the Ellery Queen novels arose from their very structure. The original conceit is that they are written, years after the actual occurrences by a friend who had not witnessed the actual cases. The manuscripts are supposedly based on the notes that Ellery kept of the cases and from the clippings he and his father kept from contemporary coverage. It thus makes no sense for the writer to not “open up” the mind of Queen throughout the book. Why is the reader kept ignorant of Ellery’s deductions and some of the information he has until the final unfolding of the criminal? The authors may have felt that if the reader was aware of everything Ellery thought and witnessed the reader would not be attempting to solve the problem themselves they would be witnessing Ellery solving it. The books themselves are set up with the premise that at a certain point the reader has all the information necessary to deduce who “did it” and they are invited to work it out for themselves before turning the page. From that point on the reader is supposed to have a front row seat as Ellery demonstrates his superior abilities to deduce.

This structure/conceit will be dropped over time. The problem that the authors face, the difficulty of presented someone as having an outstanding deductive brain and giving that person reasonable access to the information, sites and people necessary to solve the crime remained. Reading these books underlines the brilliance of the formula that Rex Stout devised for his Nero Wolfe books where it is Archie Goodwin’s POV that is presented to the reader and where much of the setup of many books involves giving Wolfe and Goodwin a reason to have the type of access given so unquestioningly to Ellery Queen and Philo Vance.

If you want to amuse yourself imagine the field day any defense lawyer would have with evidence collected by and witnesses interviewed by someone who was not a sworn officer of the court and not a member of the police force. Of course these books were written long before the birth of the CSI franchise and it is likely that few readers would have heard of the concept of “chain of custody” but certainly any adequate lawyer would be able to call into question evidence and information gathered by the son of the man whose job would be in question if someone was not arrested with due speed.

S. S. Van Dine’s alternative to access through nepotism is scarcely more palatable since his detective gains access to persons and places because of a private relationship with the DA. One imagines that defense lawyers would enjoy the opportunities this irregular relationship would give them to undermine any evidence Vance might have had access to and any statements made to witnesses in response to Vance’s questions.

In summary, both the Philo Vance and Ellery Queen series provided for their readers the same type of reassuring universe that the English cozies did for theirs and neither solve the problem of how to entwine a private detective into the world of the police procedural.

* Drug Fiend is the authors term not mine. The demonization of drug taking, including misleading descriptions of its symptoms has a long history in American crime fiction.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

"Representative" government?

The final picks are in--the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and the Senate have each made their 3 picks for the 12 member "supercommittee" that will determine which Americans bear the brunt of the "sacrifices" to come.

Among those 12 there is one woman, one African-American and one Hispanic.

How does the diversity of the committee compare to that of the American population? Less than 9 percent of the committee is female, African-American or Hispanic while 51% of Americans are female, 16% are Hispanic and 13% are African-Americans.

One can argue (and indeed there are people arguing this right now) that women, African-Americans and Hispanics have less experience in these kind of leadership positions. This is, of course, a self-fulfilling prophecy because as long as the only people we name to leadership positions are people who have already been named to leadership positions then only the kind of people who in the past were given an opportunity to serve in such positions will in the future be deemed to have enough experience to be named to such positions.

This argument, however, avoids the key question "what type of experience are these people supposed to be calling on?" Surely the people who are tasked with deciding "where to cut the budget / government programs" should be people who have some degree of experience with the impact of the budget cuts / government programs.

To give a real world example. One of the college buildings in which I taught was gutted, rewired and repainted. While inspecting the building one day with one of the "important people with experience, training and credentials" I pointed to one of the emergency fire alarms on the wall. "What am I supposed to do with that?" I asked. "Pull the handle in case of fire" he smirked back at me. "And how am I supposed to do that?" I asked, walking over and reaching up my arm. The handle was several inches (about 5 centimeters) above my outreaching fingers.

[Yes, for those who wonder, that was against code -- the point is that not a single one of the men who had inspected the building had noticed it.]

One of the most basic concepts that underlies the push towards diversity is that those who are not part of a group (women, short people, parents, African-Americans, people who use canes, diabetics.....) tend to be unaware of how things will impact that particular group of people.

Sometimes the results of having one group of people make decisions that will have an effect of a group to which they do not belong can be almost laughable---as happened the year in which the committee who decided when the grades were due at a particular college had no overlap with the committee who decided when exams would be held. This resulted in professors being informed that the grades that semester were due before the final exams had been written.

It is not laughable when the people who decide what government program will be cut are not the people who may not be able to pay the rent or the people who may not be able to feed their children or may not be able to get health care or may lose their pensions.

I am not sure whether of not "the fix is in" but I am sure that great injustices will arise from the decisions made by this group of people. Unintended consequences can be just as cruel and lethal as intended ones.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Book Review: The French Powder Mystery

The French Powder Mystery by Ellery Queen (1930)

As I read this book I found myself asking several questions:

Why did The French Powder Mystery open not with the crime or the lead-up to the crime but rather with both Queens and a number of police officers complaining about the officiousness and meddlesomeness of the new police commissioner; why were Ellery's "brilliant insights" so mundane; why were Ellery's mundane insights repeated frequently and at length; why were the "regular police" so painfully inadequate at even the most routine aspects of their job; and finally why was Ellery, a complete outsider to the police, allowed such privileged access to crime scenes and witnesses often without any official oversight at all?

By the time I finished this book I had arrived at the following answers:

Why did The French Powder Mystery open not with the crime or the lead-up to the crime but rather with both Queen’s and a number of police officers complaining about the officiousness and meddlesomeness of the new police commissioner?

By situating the police commissioner as at least troublesome and perhaps an actual antagonist to the regular police force it makes it reasonable to the reader (and to the police in the story) that Ellery withholds clues from the police commissioner and from any other member of the police force who might pass on information to the commissioner. In fact Ellery actually removes evidence from one possible crime scene and in another case sends evidence to an analyst with specific instructions not to let the commissioner know about the result of his tests.

Why were Ellery's "brilliant insights" so mundane?

I am torn in my answer to this question. In part, this “mundaneness” may be due to the fact that the authors wanted to have their literary cake and eat it too -- that is, they wanted the case to look difficult enough to justify calling in Inspector Queen and his son as well as the intervention of the police commissioner. The authors also want the clues to be obvious enough, or at least understandable enough, that the reader immediately sides with Ellery rather than with his doubters.

Why were Ellery's mundane insights repeated frequently and at length

Perhaps the authors thought some members of the audience wouldn’t get them the first time. Perhaps the authors thought that some of the members of the audience were reading the book in a fragmented way and therefore needed to be frequently reminded about what just happened. Perhaps the authors thought (or the authors thought that the audience thought) that that was the way “really educated” people talked--certainly S. S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance also falls prey to the same tendency to speak repetitively and at great length. Perhaps the authors were getting paid by the word or the page. Or perhaps without the repetition it would have been clear that the authors had chosen to write a novel length short story.

Why were the "regular police" so painfully inadequate at even the most routine aspects of their job?

Authorial laziness? Ellery's brilliance is established by his ability to outperform those around him. The more inadequate those around him are the more brilliant Ellery will appear to be. One might also suspect that the authors were themselves rather unaware of routine police procedures and may even have depended on other authors (all of whom also tended to show the police as inadequate) for their information as to how the police functioned. The inability of the police also makes Inspector Queen’s dependence on his son look less like unacceptable.

Why was Ellery, a complete outsider to the police, allowed such privileged access to crime scenes and witnesses often without any official oversight at all?

The only “in universe” explanation I can think of is nepotism. The “our world” answer is that it is the authors response to the problem faced by every writer who has as their detective someone who is not a member of the police force. Some authors, notably Conan Doyle, have their detectives either hired by people who are involved as victims, witnesses or suspects or asked to consult by the police themselves. Others, such as Rex Stout and Dashiell Hammett, had their detectives work, professionally, as private investigators. Every author needs to find a reason to have their detective on the scene of the crime. Ellery Queen, the writers, choose to have Ellery Queen, their detective, given as much access to the crime and witnesses as would a police officer without being limited by the rule of law as to what he could do and say.

The fact that all of these questions arose in my mind while reading this book, as indeed did the answers I have suggested, indicates the weakness of this particular mystery. So far neither the first nor the second Ellery Queen novels have done much to demonstrate to me why this particular fictional detective was so popular although both do highlight the nature of the audience the books appealed to at the time they were first published.

Rating: 1-1/2 stars

Friday, August 12, 2011

Book Review: Unnatural Death

Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers (1927)

Warning: for those who have not yet read all the Wimsey books the text of the “Biographical Note” (purportedly written at Sayers request by Wimsey's uncle) contains spoilers for books published later than this one.

Unnatural Death begins with a scene that situates Wimsey clearly within a particular social milieu. Wimsey is sharing a meal with Charles Parker (Scotland Yard detective and friend) in an upscale restaurant. The difference in class between the two men is established when conversation makes it clear that Parker is neither used to eating snails nor comfortable with the idea. The reader is given further cues to the appropriate social and cultural outlook by the descriptions of the other people in the room:
The fat man on their right was unctuously entertaining two ladies of the chorus; beyond him, two elderly habitués were showing their acquaintance with the fare at the “Au Bon Bourgeois” by consuming a Tripes à la Mode de Caen (which they do very excellently there) and a bottle of Chablis Moutonne 1916; on the other side of the room a provincial and his wife were stupidly clamouring for a cut off the joint with lemonade for the lady and whisky and soda for the gentleman.(14)[1]
The first two descriptions still “work” for the modern reader but the third bears further examination. How does the observer know that the couple is “provincial?” Is it their clothes? Can the listener detect a regional accent in their speech? Surely that is not enough to warrant their dining request to be characterized as “stupid.” Clearly they are unaware of the type of food (or food combinations) that one ordered in an expensive restaurant in Soho. If they had been richly dressed foreigners their confusion might have been considered charming but as “provincials” (read—moderately well-off non-gentry) any lack of prior knowledge of minutia of local food etiquette will be characterized as stupidity. For the modern reader this is a sudden insight in the pernicious nature of the British class/social system of the time. There was even a set way to be a noncomformist and absent aristocratic relatives anyone who didn't adhere to a narrow set of behaviours, tastes and interests was judged “not quite the thing” and excluded from much of social life.

Although this story is set almost a decade after the Great War passing comments make it clear how close “the old days” actually were in terms of gender expectations:
A dear old friend of mine used to say that I should have made a very good lawyer,” said Miss Climpson, complacently, “but of course, when I was young, girls didn’t have the education or the opportunities they get nowadays, Mr. Parker. I should have liked a good education, but my dear father didn’t believe in it for women. Very old-fashioned, you young people would think him.”(35)[1]
The reader will also notice casual verbal racism as in this description of the quality of the ham in a sandwich:
Observe the hard texture, the deep brownish tint of the lean; rich fat, yellow as a Chinaman’s cheek; (64)[1]
At one point in the book a rather remarkable letter is penned by the very proper Miss Climpson to Lord Peter (for whom she was sleuthing) about the judgmental and self-consciously proper behaviour of the former housekeeper of the woman Wimsey thinks may have been murdered when a dark-skinned man paid a call on the lady of the house:
In fact, it appears she refused to cook the lunch for the poor black man—(after all, even blacks are God’s creatures and we might all be black OURSELVES if He had not in His infinite kindness seen fit to favour us with white skins!!)—and walked straight out of the house!!!

So that unfortunately she cannot tell us anything further about this remarkable incident! She is certain, however, that the ‘nigger’ had a visiting-card, with the name ‘Rev. H. Dawson’ upon it, and an address in foreign parts. It does seem strange, does it not, but I believe many of these native preachers are called to do splendid work among their own people, and no doubt a MINISTER is entitled to have a visiting-card, even when black!!! (112-113)[1]
The casual and open racism of everyone is pervasive:
"Perhaps the long-toed gentleman was black,” suggested Parker. “Or possibly a Hindu or Parsee of sorts.”

“God bless my soul,” said Sir Charles, horrified, “an English girl in the hands of a black man. How abominable!”

“Well, we’ll hope it isn’t so. Shall we follow the road out or wait for the doctor to arrive?”(199)[1]
The idea of two English girls—the one brutally killed, the other carried off for some end unthinkably sinister, by a black man—aroused all the passion of horror and indignation of which the English temperament is capable.(203)[1]
Two other things stand out to this reader: first, the casual (if somewhat critical) attitude that people had towards a homosocial relationship between two women and second the meager amount of actual detection that Wimsey carries out over the course of the book.

Not everyone approved of the two woman/woman relationsips but this disapproval did not carry the taint of sin:
There was a many gentlemen as would have been glad to hitch up with her, but she was never broke to harness. Like dirt, she treated ’em. Wouldn’t look at ’em, except it might be the grooms and stable-hands in a matter of ’osses. And in the way of business, of course. Well, there is some creatures like that. I ’ad a terrier bitch that way. Great ratter she was. But a business woman—nothin’ else. I tried ’er with all the dogs I could lay ’and to, but it weren’t no good. Bloodshed there was an’ sich a row—you never ’eard. The Lord makes a few on ’em that way to suit ’Is own purposes, I suppose. There ain’t no arguin’ with females.”(122)[1]
It is clear that some characters (including Miss Climpson) see “weaker” member (generally the one who fulfills a domestic role) of these relationships as sometimes lacking in strength of character and prone to school girlish crushes and swoons but even from a woman who takes her religion really seriously there is nary at trace of moral condemnation

The reader who is taken aback at the overt racism and covert acceptance of female homosocial relationships may miss the fact that class is the ultimate weapon of power in this book. The book opens with a scene in which Wimsey demonstrates his class through his culinary choices and, in fact, the story could not have proceeded had not the doctor who shared his story with Wimsey and Parker not recognized Wimsey as “the right sort” and therefore felt comfortable returning to his flat.

For the rest of the story Wimsey does not detect so much as he delegates the grim, boring and tedious aspects of detection to others. Wimsey is interested in the doctor's story and so he is able to hire people to look up the records, go to the scene of the possible crime, spend hours over tea tables in boarding houses, go door-to-door to canvas neighbourhoods and go through official records. Wimsey is able to go places (if he wishes) with ease because of his wealth and his status. Wimsey boasts at one point that he has a nose for detection. That he is one of those people who has a sense of when a crime was committed. Unfortunately what Sayers seems to have demonstrated in this book is that something more than flair, intelligence, and curiosity is required to solve crimes “the Wimsey way”--status, money and connections.

Rating: 3-1/2 stars

[1] Sayers, D. (1964). Unnatural death. New York: Avon.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

How to tell when male is the default normal

In an article, Pop's gender war: Sexism dictates the media profile of female stars in Wednesday's web version of The Independent Gillian Orr complained about the semi-regular appearance of article about women "having a moment" in music or about women breaking through to dominate the field.

Orr points out that women have not become break-out stars to the exclusion of men achieving success:
Of course, many male artists have broken through over the last few years. But you would be hard pushed to find an article discussing the successes of Tinie Tempah, Example, James Blake, Tinchy Stryder, Plan B, Paulo Nutini and Bruno Mars as some kind of trend. And seeing as this is hardly the first time that a woman has had a hit record, what exactly is going on here?
and she further notes that:
it is not as if female solo success is anything new. If you were to look further back, to cover the period from 1981, you would find that the list of bestselling artists each year for the last 30 years includes 10 women, eight men and 12 groups. Female performers have always had success and will always have success.
Orr asks an important question--why do we not look at the number of female label heads and executives and celebrate the women who have triumphed in those fields.

I think the constant drumbeat of articles about women having a moment in particular fields tells us more about the failure of women to achieve true equality than it does about their success.

Almost anyone who has taken an introductory course in journalism has read/heard the old saw "dog bites man isn't a news story; man bites dogs is." That is because dogs biting men isn't the norm. Thus if every day the biggest headline in the newspaper was dog bites we would suspect that the news editor of that newspaper was out of touch with reality. The editor's "default normal" is dissonant with reality.

When article after article discovers the same thing year after year the reader begins to suspect that the facts that those articles report simply cannot fit into the "default normal" of the editors.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Another blonde beauty is missing

Today while flicking from one channel (tennis coverage) to another (BBC coverage of the riots in the UK) I heard a voice declaim another blonde beauty missing from Aruba!
I opened a browser window and googled another blonde is missing in aruba and this what came back.
Another american blonde female missing in Aruba
Another american blonde female missing in Aruba (different sites, identical headlines)
Yet another Hot Blonde missing in Aruba (the link is to a message board)
Another blonde chick missing in Aruba (the link is to a message board)
Maryland woman missing in Aruba
Another Blonde American Missing in Aruba
Another American Beauty Missing in Aruba
Another missing Aruba gal
Let's deconstruct those headlines.

Including the information that the woman is either American or from Maryland answers the implicit question why should we care about some woman in Aruba? The headline explains why the disappearance of someone in another country is making news in the United States.

The inclusion of the word "another" is in itself interesting because someone who was not aware of the Natalee Holloway case might assume that American women were going missing from Aruba with some frequency. But since Holloway disappeared six years ago the word another must signify something else. What? Perhaps it encourages the reader to look for parallels between to the two cases. There are both women, both blonde, both Americans vacationing in Aruba.

Aha, as one reads further you realize that both cases allow for a certain degree of salaciousness. And salaciousness sells tabloids. It sells mainstream newspapers. It gives a bump in the ratings of the news shows.

But something else is there. It is the word blonde.

Why is the women's hair colour included in the headline? After all these are not APBs sent out to help people find the missing women.

Telling us that the women were blonde tells us that the women were white.

So this is the story the headlines actually tell us. Another white woman has gone missing under circumstances that are open to salacious interpretation while visiting a country full of not-white people.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Is London burning?

I watched London burning on the BBC news last night.

To me London isn't just a place I have read about in books or seen on television or in movies. London is a city I feel homesick for though I have never truly lived there. I loved visiting London. I spent weeks venturing out every day from our small tent to forage through bookstores for used (or remaindered) treasures. I spent weeks walking each day from our tiny room at the B&B to the tube station and heading off museums, art galleries and, of course, bookstores. I have sat for hours in London's parks reading books and feeding pigeons.

I know London well enough that I could follow the reports of riots, fires and looting and think, "now they are near that lovely little shop," "I remember walking along that road," and "oh, no they are near where [a friend] lives."

The experience of watching London burn was not only coloured by the fact that I knew the city well enough to worry about, to mourn for and to empathize with the people who lived there. Watching disasters in "real time" is quite different from hearing about them even a few minutes after the fact. Once something is over you can be sorry, you can try to understand and you can feel angry. Watching something unfold before you on the television or computer screen is much more like watching a tragedy unfold outside your front window. You may not be personally in danger but you do feel that you should do something. You feel that if you don't you are either condoning it--or you are a coward.

So I watched London burning and I felt impelled to do something and yet there was nothing I could do except meditate on the exact nature of the social contract that kept every city, town and village from burning along with London.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Only know they are our cousins

When I was a child my mother would recite poetry to entertain me or to pass the time. One of her favourite poems was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha[1]
Whenever my mother got to these verses:

"On the grave-posts of our fathers[2]
Are no signs, no figures painted;
Who are in those graves we know not,
Only know they are our fathers.
Of what kith they are and kindred,
From what old, ancestral Totem,
Be it Eagle, Bear, or Beaver,
They descended, this we know not,
Only know they are our fathers.

a chill would run up my spine. Imagine, I would think, not knowing which grave was that of your grandmother? Imagine knowing only that you grandfather was somewhere in that field.

As I grew older and read about archeology I loved to read about tomb excavations and the recovery of mummies. It was years before I connected archeology to that passage of Longfellow's poem. I can't remember whose lament it was that moved me to understand that one culture's science was another culture's grave robbing. Now instead of imagining that I didn't know which headstone marked the grave of my grandfather or grandmother I imagined if I didn't even know where their bodies were. Worse, I imagined that I knew that their bodies had been dug up and examined by strangers without my permission. I imagined that pictures of their corpses were published in journals for all to read. I imagine that tourists in some far off country were paying to walk by the bodies of my grandparents.

Which is, of course, what happened. People from western, industrialized countries, swept down on the peoples of the countries they had colonized or invaded and stole from them the bodies of their ancestors just as they stole from them their other treasures.

In time (although it took far longer than it should have) the practice of scientifically sanctioned grave robbing came to a halt. Now the institutions that held the stolen remains were left with a conundrum. What should they do with the bones and corpses they had plundered from around the world? The task was relatively easy if there was a solid record about where the remains had been taken from. But there were many remains for which there were no paper trail. What should be done with those?

Today I found out that the Government of Saskatchewan had been, for some years, been providing a way for the remains of First Nations individuals to be, in a sense, repatriated:
The government set aside the four-hectare parcel of Crown land in 1998 to re-inter remains that had no where else to go — bones lying on museum and university shelves, unearthed during construction or discovered due to land erosion.

They find their final resting place at the sacred site if there's no way to determine if the dead belonged to a certain tribe or there's no way to return them to the places where they were found. . . . "elders representing eight different linguistic groups hold burial ceremonies and pray for the bodies to rest in peace." [Saskatchewan Government Running Sacred First Nations Burial Ground]
Why am I, an atheist, so moved by this story? Not because I think that the souls of the dead demand decent burial--after all I don't think that such a thing as 'a soul' exists. I am moved because I agree with Immanuel Kant that we should:

Act so that you treat humanity, both in your own person and in that of another, always as an end and never merely as a means.
[The Categorical Imperative]
By the very act of treating these remains as we believe those people (and their descendents) would wish them to be treated we ceasing to treat them as means.
I buried my mother according to her wishes because she was not a means for me to demonstrate my atheism to the world but rather someone who had her own desired ends.

Of course, it is easier to treat ones family as ends in themselves and the rest of the world as means. Yet every person who ever lived is a relative of mine. Every person alive today is a relative of mine. I might have to go far back in my family tree but if we but had the records to do so we could construct a family tree that connected each one of us to everyone else. To paraphrase Longfellow:

"On the grave-posts of our forebears[2]
Are no signs, no figures painted;
Who are in those graves we know not,
Only know they are our forebears.
Of what kith they are and kindred,
From what old, ancestral Totem,
Be it Eagle, Bear, or Beaver,
They descended, this we know not,
Only know they are our cousins.

[1] Each of my parents had different favourite portions of the poem and thus when I read it to myself the voice in my head is sometimes my mother's and sometimes my father's.

[2] I tell myself to understand "our fathers" as "our forebears" just as I tell myself that mankind means humanity and manpower means staff.

Friday, August 5, 2011

My "to read" list looms ever larger

My "blog plan" for today was to trim and update the list on my "to read" page. Trimming isn't much of an issue since I merely needed to go through and check that I had removed from me "to read" those books that I had recently reviewed.

What rattled me was the fact that in the time since I first posted my "to read" list my meatworld "to read" list has at least doubled in size despite the fact that I have been steadily working away on it every day.

How could that happen?

Some of the reasons are obvious:
  1. People who respond to my reviews give me wonderful suggestions of other books that I might find interesting.
  2. People who respond to my reviews ask me questions about the book/author in relationship to another book/author which fuel my interest in those books/authors.
  3. Authors I follow publish new books (yeah!!!!)
  4. I find out that authors I already liked had written books I hadn't known of (sometimes writing under another name.)
  5. I read book reviews which lead me to read the book reviewed, works discussed/referenced in the reviews and sometimes books written by the reviewer.
  6. I read the LibraryThing recommendations (which based on the books in my library.)
  7. I read books that are rated highly by LibraryThing friends
  8. I read books that are rated highly by LibraryThing reviewers whose past reviews led me to books are ( now value

People to blame for the fact that my "to read" list just keeps getting longer:
  1. John Scalzi, who not only writes books and stories I have enjoyed, he uses his own website, Whatever, as a platform to allow writers to introduce Scalzi's community to one of their books. The Big Idea posts are written by these authors (not Scalzi himself) and usually include a description of the book, an explanation of "why the book was written"/"how the author got the idea" and a link to a free-sample of several chapters of the book in question.
  2. Jo Walton (directly) has introduced me to many wonderful books through her reviews at
  3. Jo Walton (indirectly) has added to my "to read" list by changing the way in which I read and the way I write reviews of the books I read. I can't claim to write as well as Walton nor to have as much insight as zie does--but I do try to make the effort to do both. Therefore I can't always simply sit down and quickly type a review of a book I read years ago without any conscious intention of reviewing it.

    I may have well remember a book that I first read several decades ago, however, in the intervening years I have read many books as well as many book reviews. I have had life experiences and academic training. To do the book justice and to do the book review justice I have to sit and read the book again. So many books on my "to read" list are actually on my "to reread" list. Indeed many of the books on my "to read" list move immediately, once read, onto the "to reread" list because I feel they need repeated readings before I can write a good review.

I have already reached the point of realizing that even were I to live as long as my parents (mom to her mid-nineties and dad working on his late nineties) and even if I, like my father, never go a week without reading at least four books I will never finish the "to read" list.

And that is a thing of joy for it means that reading a book (and crossing it off my list) does not diminish the number of books left to read. I need never fear that the day will come that I will run out of things I want to read.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Suffer the children

[Trigger Warning: child starvation, suffering, and death]

Most of us have seen the picture--children crowded around the back of a relief truck as aid workers spoon out gruel into cups, bowls and outstretched hands. Today I read something that made me realize that if I had been ever been one of those children it would be unlikely that I would have lived to write this blog. If my father had been one of the starving people in the refugee camp he would probably not have survived.

Celiac/coeliac (both spellings are common) disease is, to quote the article The Global Burden of Childhood Coeliac Disease: A Neglected Component of Diarrhoeal Mortality?:
a systemic autoimmune syndrome involving a gluten-induced chronic inflammation of the small bowel mucosa, with extensive short- and long term negative health consequences if untreated. Symptomatology can vary for an individual over time, and often mimics other diseases, which, combined with low global awareness of the disease, results in many cases remaining undiagnosed or being ineffectively treated. Examples of signs and symptoms are malabsorption with diarrhoea and consequent under-nutrition, short stature, anaemia, stomach pain, and increased incidence of many infectious diseases.

For someone like me (middle class, educated in the appropriate diet and living in an area where gluten-free foods are affordable and available) celiac disease can be, for the most part[1] controlled through diet. It is sometimes challenging (and occassionally dangerous) to eat at restaurants and at the homes of friends but you can stay healthy as long as one buys, cooks and eats only food that is gluten-free.

The symptoms of celiac disease are sufficiently like those of a number of other conditions that it is often misdiagnosed and someone living where most food is relatively gluten-free might be a celiac and not even realize why they never felt quite well. Now imagine a famine hits that area and aid organizations fly in food from around the world. Much of that food has gluten in it. Now the adults and children who were "never quite well" become very, very ill as the amount of gluten (in proportion to their overall diet) becomes greater and greater. Soon they are having violent, painful and unending diarrhoea. The normal medical interventions do not work to alleviate the problem and indeed some of them make it worse.

Now that picture of the children has become personal nightmare fuel for me. I imagine I am one of those hungry children desperate for food. I imagine I fight to the front of the pack and hold my hands out for a handful of gruel. I imagine burying my face in my hands almost inhaling the first food I have had in days.

Then I imagine myself lying on the ground having lost everything that I ate and more curled in agony surrounded by pools of my own vomit and diarrhoea.

Somewhere today that happened to a child we thought we were helping.

[1] I don't know of anyone who has been a celiac for years who does not have "mysterious" attacks of violent symptoms when they know of nothing they have ingested that could have caused the problem. People who don't live with you always assume that you have simply "forgotten" about that off-diet item one ate. People who live with you and see everything you eat soon come to realize that it is indeed true. You ate nothing that should have made you ill and yet there you are curled up 0n the floor of the bathroom.....well, I won't detail all the symptoms.


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Where are they now?

You come across them in books written in the 1900s and the first half of the last century. People who were not, perhaps, technically rich and yet, in some ways, were rich beyond the wildest imaginings of most people in the western/industrialized world today.

In book after book we meet characters who "live off a modest competence," who "inherited a tidy sum" from a maiden aunt or bachelor uncle, men who retired in the prime of life from some branch of the services and live comfortably on their pension plus the money left them by an elderly relative and the women who can just manage to sustain appearances if they pool the dividends from the money they inherited from their father's small estate together with their mother (who has a life-interest in her deceased husband's pension.)

Seldom would any of them do what would be recognized today as work. The women might work as a secretary to a "great man" of letters or even as a companion but to work in shop or as a secretary to a businessman was out of the question. The men might work as agents on the estate of a monied landowner. All of them resented the idea of jobs and all seemed to fear (quite justifiably) that by working for a living they might lose some of their class status.

They would be invited to dine with those who were truly wealthy for although they belonged to a different monetary class they were members of the same social class. The conversation around the table would often turn to the ruinous effect of taxation, the frightening drop in dividends and the almost extortionate insistence of members of the working class of being paid wages that reflected both their work and the cost of living.

Almost inevitably at some point in the conversation one of the characters would state that these changes were going to destroy their way of life.

They were right.

We certainly have millionaires today. Indeed we have billionaires. But we do not have a substantially large class of people who maintain what we would consider a middle class lifestyle without holding down a job. Changes in the economic system wiped them out.

For the last half a century we have continued to have a middle class but this group of people depended on income generated from jobs rather than from dividends. These were people who worked all their life, saved assiduously and if they were lucky could look forward to living in retirement much the way that vanished long ago middle class did.

I wonder if in another fifty years the literate public will look back on our job dependent middle class much as we do on the rentier middle class of England before and between the World Wars. Perhaps in fifty years there will simply be the rich and poor and very little in between.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Budget Booster Challenge

Viewing in my household breaks down into four categories: sports, entertainment, news and guilty pleasures. The entertainment category is the thinnest. We watch TV series and movies on DVD or streaming. The hours spent watching sports can be light or heavy depending on the year and the time of the year. News can expand to fill hours of time if there is a major event or ongoing crisis.

And then there are the guilty pleasures. The shows that rivet my attention for reasons I don't always wish to explore. The shows that make me feel good about my life by showing me the way other people live. I always feel vaguely uncomfortable as I watch (I am, after all using these people instrumentally) and yet I find myself continuing to do so.

One of those shows has very much been on my mind in recent days is Til Debt Do Us Part a Canadian show which features Gail Vaz-Oxlade, a financial planner, who responds to the pleas of couples who are drowning in debt by putting them on a strict budget and subjecting them through a series of challenges that are designed to help them to understand better how they got so badly in debt, how to get out of debt and how to stay out of debt. The (usually) couples can earn up to five thousand dollars in cash from Gail if over a four week period they stay on the budget she gives them and successfully complete the challenges while having what Gail refers to as "the right attitude." Over the many years of the show I have seen participants receive as little as a thousand dollars for their efforts.

I was thinking a lot of Gail as I watched American political figures argue about how to deal with the debt. What, I wondered, would she say to them if they were on her show.

First, she would tell them to stop with the attitude and quit making excuses. It may be emotionally enjoyable to assign blame but placing blame doesn't help to solve the problem.

Second, she would tell them to stop playing games and start communicating honestly.

Third, and most important, she would assign them one of her "budget booster" challenges. In many an episode she sits down and tells the people who are in debt that she simply cannot make their budget balance. Their challenge will be figuring out how to bring in more money on a sustainable basis. The people to whom she directs this challenge often protest that it is impossible. A surprisingly large percentage of them do find a way to increase their income. She will not let people use funds that should be set aside for long-term savings and ongoing maintenance to pay for current expenses.

I find this relevant right now because of the continued reiteration in Washington of statements to the effect "the national budget should be run the way the household budget is run." At least one household budget specialist would, if looking at the national budget/debt demand that the adults in the household get off their duffs and bring in more money.

If they want to have an argument down the line about whether the fixed costs could be lowered by selling the house and downsizing they are welcome to do so--but only after raising enough money to pay the debts they currently owe without taking any funds out of the children's milk money.

For some of the couples Gail counsels making more money means working a second job, working overtime or even delivering papers. The politicians in Washington have it much easier since they don't have to go out and pound the pavement to chase down possible jobs.

They just have to raise taxes.

Monday, August 1, 2011

I owe Margaret Atwood two apologies

Over the years I have had some rather harsh words to say about Margaret Atwood due to two things: some statements she made in 1996 about Bill C-32 (an amendment to the Copyright Act of Canada) and libraries; and what I considered to be the poor world-building in The Handmaid's Tale.

I have never had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Atwood and presume that unless she reads one of the blogs where I comment she is completely unaware of my opinions. Nevertheless I feel the need to offer her two apologies.

For those who are not aware of it, in recent days the Mayor of Toronto and some of his council (particularly his brother) have been signalling that they think that closing several branches of the Toronto library system would be a damn fine way to save the city money. Atwood has been among the most prominent of voices of those who are fighting to protect the libraries. Her spirited support of Toronto libraries has resulted in a grass roots "Atwood for Mayor" campaign. The next civic election is a long way away but the viral success of the pro-Atwood movement suggests that many people who love books, literacy and the City of Toronto (a group which includes me), would like to express their thanks to Ms. Atwood.

My second gripe with Atwood was with the world building that underlay The Handmaid's Tale. As a long-time lover of SF Atwood's repeated denial of the fact that this was a science fiction booked irked me since it seemed to suggest that "writing science fiction" was a lesser thing or something to be ashamed of. And, as a long time fan of the "dystopic future" story, I felt that Atwood had done a bad job of explaining how and why the United States could be transformed into an officially misogynist theocracy.

I should have taken Atwood at her word when she said she wasn't writing science fiction for what she did write was a chilling "what if we go down this road" story that identified elements of American culture and extrapolated from existing attitudes to possible future attitudes. When I first read The Handmaid's Tale I simply refused to believe that Americans would allow their personal freedoms to be so eroded. I refused to believe that Americans would not have rioted in the streets at the first sign of a looming theocracy.

Now, as I read my morning papers, I see bill after bill being passed into law in various American states that could have been included in the backstory Atwood provided for the dystopian America. Now, as I read my morning paper, I read about legal efforts to claw back from women the rights they have recently won. Now, as I read my morning paper, I read about official efforts to disenfranchise portions of the American population. Now, as I read my morning papers, I read about legal efforts to further entrench Christianity (and only certain flavours of Christianity at that) into American law.

In short, every day as I read my morning papers I realize that I should not read The Handmaid's Tale as a non-science fiction writer's attempt to write within an established genre but as chilling and insightful examination of the American political/social psyche.

So, Ms. Atwood, I owe you two apologies. All I ask in return is that you continue to be the writer and involved member of our community that you already are.