I don’t know what this is, but read it in all its majesty

The Fluoride Uncertainty Theory  Flickr
The Fluoride Uncertainty Theory on Flickr, click to read the whole thing

Somehow, I don’t think she will get to pass without hindrance

page188 - Let Mademoiselle Cortornieu pass

Copycats and Psychopaths, OR: Why children’s books aren’t for adults

Whom will Catie copy next?!!

One of my three-year-old son Finn’s favorite books is Juliana Howard’s Catie the Copycat.  It’s a cute story about a little girl who starts off the story copying everything other children do.  Then, in a dream one night, she discovers inner confidence and learns to be herself.  Here are a couple key passages:

…She walked like Wanda, talked like Tonya, practiced Patty’s pout.
Catie was a copycat, there wasn’t any doubt!

For Catie didn’t know herself. She didn’t trust her heart.
Her insides and her outsides were a thousand miles apart!

She always watched the other kids to see what she could see.
She couldn’t hear the voice that said, “Be what YOU want to be!”

and later, when she has met her self-image avatar:

“Your search is over,” Catherine said. “You’ve found your strength and power.
YOU are the Queen. I live within!”…

…And from that very hour
When Catie wonders who she is, she gazes in her mirror,
And Catherine smiles and nods her head as if to say “I’m here!”

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a very nice story with a good message that I’m happy to have Finn think about.


I can’t help but think about the opening episodes of Dexter, in which he reveals that his entire life is a performance because he has does not have the same emotions as everyone else.  He has to watch how the other children laugh and play and interact, and then mimic them in order to pass as normal.  There are scenes in the show that look a lot like the drawing that illustrates Catie practicing Patty’s pout.

And then, like David Berkowitz chatting with his neighbor’s dog, we see Catie chatting with an idealized regal version of herself who has taken over the mirrors in this little girl’s life.  One hopes her newfound confidence will help her be a productive member of society, but that all depends on whether Queen Catherine keeps saying “I’m here” and doesn’t move on to “Kill them all!”

So there you go: Digital Sextant, ruining children’s entertainment since 2005.

See Also: On The Little Mermaid


Once again, on a list of ‘bizarre’ college classes

This list has been circulating in various forms for several years, but since it hit the CNN blog this time, I’ll mention it.  My zombie class is included, once again, in a list of 22 fascinating and bizarre college classes.

I’m happy to see it appear again, but I wouldn’t mind if just once a reporter actually tracked me down and asked about it.

Futility, or Wreck of the Titan

Wreck of the Titan
The Titan looked nothing like this

by Morgan Robertson

The Wreck of the Titan sounds like a derivative story.  Here are a couple excerpts of the first chapter that highlight the similarities between the ship in the book and the Titanic:

She was the largest craft afloat and the greatest of the works of men. In her construction and maintenance were involved every science, profession, and trade known to civilization….

From the bridge, engine-room, and a dozen places on her deck the ninety-two doors of nineteen water-tight compartments could be closed in half a minute by turning a lever. These doors would also close automatically in the presence of water. With nine compartments flooded the ship would still float, and as no known accident of the sea could possibly fill this many, the steamship Titan was considered practically unsinkable.

Of course, steaming at full across the North Atlantic in April, the ship hits an iceberg, turns over on its side, and sinks like a rock.  The remarkable part of this story? The book was written in 1898.

Much has been made of the similarities between the book and the real events, but there are significant differences too.  One of the Titanic books I read last summer made interesting argument that the similarities were a statistical likelihood, as the 50 years before the Titanic sank were full of stories about huge ocean liners and iceberg collisions, especially as iceberg collisions were not uncommon in the North Atlantic.  Also, notice that the cover I found online depicts the Titanic sinking –not the Titan, which turned on its side and sank very quickly, leaving only one lifeboat holding just a handful of people and a couple more huddling on the iceberg.

While the opening of the story rings strongly of the real tragedy, the remaining story focuses on melodrama, love, survival at sea, and a rumble with a polar bear.  Pretty enjoyable, IMO.

But “The Wreck of the Titan” is only one of four stories in the book.  Quick bits about the other three:

“The Pirates” follows a young naval officer who gets captured when a group of naval prisoners breaks out and steals a prototype fast destroyer from the naval yard.  “Beyond the Spectrum” is a science-fictional story about a super weapon employed by Japanese sailors in a war against the United States (another prophetic story from Robertson, if only the Japanese had used a long-distance blinding ray).  “In the Valley of the Shadow” is a nice little story about a sinking submarine and treachery among lovers.

All four stories have melodramatic love tales mixed in with the excitement of sea adventures.  In three of the stories, the hero runs into a love from his past while at sea in a completely different context, and he overcomes his difficult circumstances to win out in the end.  Filled with Dickensian plot twists that are so out of vogue these days (long lost uncles? anonymous benefactors?), Robertson’s stories are nice little adventures.  My favorite is “The Wreck of the Titan” of course, and my least favorite is “The Pirates,” mostly for being too long.

Well worth a read, and downloadable for free from a variety of places, including my favorite: Manybooks.net

Check below the link for the whole first chapter of “The Wreck of the Titan.”

Continue reading Futility, or Wreck of the Titan

Imperial Art Appreciation Class

I don’t know why I like this so much, but I really, really do.

Thanks to JD Hancock for making these photos CC licensed.

2011-08-28 Tweets

  • The one time our reclusive kitty Circe is happy to see me? When the basement door has been accidentally closed and I arrive to open it. #
  • Finishing slides for a talk and am shocked there's no @xkcd comic about power law distributions (at least, none found easily via search). #
  • If this doesn't warm make you smile, you're a cold-hearted bastard (via @boingboing) http://t.co/8GcHzXQ #
  • #ccctransform P Carpenter: The economic and cultural crisis is in a failure of distribution, but also of imagination, of creativity. #
  • "Maitre Magloire was a man of no little energy, and a fervent believer in the value of time. His alacrity was proverbial…" #EmileGabroriau #
  • In order to collaborate, you must live in the tension between detachment and involvement. #ccctransform #
  • @bmcnely The bed-side lights at San Francisco's Hotel Vertigo are white horse heads with orange lampshades. in reply to bmcnely #
  • Scariest of the Beloit college 2015 mindset list: "Ferris Bueller and Sloane Peterson could be their parents" #
  • C. Stross asks what the most important novel since 2000 01 01 is: http://t.co/SIdTczU #
  • Just read the engaget review of the Motorola xoom, which is now $499 on the Motorola website. ME WANT. Sigh. #
  • Oh Man! Bill Bailey is playing the House of Blues. Damn you, my already crowded schedule! http://t.co/EIWi0g7 #

Powered by Twitter Tools

Collaboration in the age of the ebook

At our faculty retreat last Wednesday, I was part of a panel called “The Future of the Book in the Age of the Ipad.”  True to form, I talked about “books” only a little.  I had a lot of ideas, but when we compared notes, it seemed I had the most to say (out of the group) about Collaboration.  I spoke extemporaneously, but worked up the talk from the rough script below the fold (Click slide to see full-size image).

In MY version, Han shoots first: Remix, Collaboration, and the future of “books”


How might the collaborative possibilities opened up by new technologies offer new ways to construct texts, demand new ways to think about texts, and ultimately change what we think a book might be?  My talk will intersect a little bit with Kevin’s (especially as I bounce off the notions of the dynamic text) and a little bit off Teresa’s (especially with regard to the relationship between the book and its place in academic tenure and promotion evaluation).  The new possibilities for collaborative scholarship will depend, in many ways, on the changes the digital era brings to how we understand the process of book writing, the distribution of book writing, and the place of text in the ephemeral digital world.

Continue reading Collaboration in the age of the ebook

Consider Phlebas

Consider Phlebas
Consider Phlebas

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

When a genre fiction book starts with a T.S. Eliot epigraph, you worry that you might be in for some rough times, or at least, you do if you’re me.  But Banks’ book doesn’t cling to pretentiousness, it dives into the space opera subgenre headfirst, and works very well as it does so.  The novel follows the adventures of Horza, a man serving the military intelligence of one side in a galactic war.  Horza gets captured by a bunch of space pirates and joins them for a while, and then he drags them along on his quest to re-capture an escaped A.I. hiding on a forbidden planet.

A few thoughts:

  • Banks builds this galactic war (which the appendices explain ranges over .02% of the galaxy) as a conflict between two species, the Iridians, a three-legged warrior culture on a religious jihad, and the Culture, a science-minded society that acknowledges machine sentience and seems a little bit like the Star Trek Federation, with a hint of the Borg in there.  Horza comes from a dying subspecies called Changers (who can, with a little time and effort, transform their bodies to mimic someone else) being used by the Iridians.
  • The space opera adventure aspect of the novel stems, in part, from the vast and varying environments Horza finds himself in: a castle, several spaceships, a dying megacity, a desert island, an ice planet, and more!  He bounces from one to the next at an astonishing pace.
  • The book has a bunch of disturbing sequences, from torture scenes to cannibalism to a gambling game that involves betting real lives.  Banks presents each of these quite thoughtfully and with sufficient flair that they fit the worlds they emerge from (though the cannibalism thing is pretty gross!).
  • One of my favorite minor characters is a repair drone Horza picks up along the way.  He’s forced to accompany the group on their adventure to the dead planet, and seethes at being called drone all the time, instead of by his name.  By the end, his constant grumbling reminded me of Marvin from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a comparison it wouldn’t surprise me to learn Banks intended.
  • Horza represents an interesting ethical waste land (no pun intended), a man who appears to have keen values and ethical motivation but does an awful lot of bad things to accomplish his goals, with apparently little regard for that fact.  A quick browse of the web suggests that the titular line from Eliot’s poem urges the reader to ponder the finality of death, the idea that regardless of all of one’s accomplishments, when one dies one is just dead.  But what do I know about poetry?

Overall, a strong space opera for fans of the genre, with enough literary oomph that it would probably survive a closer inspection, if you’re of an hermeneutic mind.



The most recent series on Masterpiece Mystery! focuses on the eponymous detective as he navigates the tricky waters of Roman policing and Italian politics.  The three mysteries were all pretty enjoyable, though the second (“Cabal”) was my favorite.  A few thoughts:

  • Rufus Sewell does a good job playing Zen, an honest Venetian cop in the midst of the corrupt Italian police.  The premise of the show is that he has such a well-known reputation for honesty that the corrupt ministry officials want to use him for corrupt things (because no-one will suspect that he’s been corrupted).  Of course, the pleasure of each episode comes in his figuring out how to solve the problem without being corrupt.  Usually it involves some slight of hand that makes the minister think he’s corrupt when he’s not.  It’s great!
  • At the same time, the story gives Zen lots to be gloomy about.  Not only is his romantic life difficult, but almost every case involves peril and a lot of pressure (“Solve this case or your career is over”).  So he spends plenty of time moping.  It’s not like watching Wallander, but closer to that than Midsommer Murders or any other happy-go-lucky drama about murder.
  • “Vendetta” establishes all the things we need to know about Zen.  It also gives us a nice glimpse into the provincial parts of Italy, and the vast network of caves that dot the countryside.  Reminded me a bit of Murder in Mykonos.
  • “Cabal” revels in the Italian tradition of high-flung conspiracy.  I learned, in reading The Monster of Florence, that Italians have an innate love of conspiracy theory, and that the notoriously corrupt judicial system revels in deep and theoretical secret organizations.  I wonder if the long history of mafia conspiracy, combined with the Roman church’s wide-reaching yet privately controlled power, has primed the populace for this kind of revelation.
  • “Ratking” was perhaps the most conventional mystery of the three.  It also has the least understandable name.  In an amusing addition to the story, the new hardass teetotal boss hates Zen, the only honest cop on the force.  Sheesh, a guy can’t catch a break.

Zen mopes under pressure
Zen mopes under pressure

Wallander mopes all the time
Wallander mopes all the time

Overall, not bad.  Not my favorite Mystery! series, by any means, but enjoyable.


Murphy’s Law

Murphy's Law
Murphy's Law

Murphy’s Law by Rhys Bowen

Jenny has been on a kick of late 19th century or Early 20th century mysteries lately, often focusing on impetuous, clever, brave ladies solving mysteries in a world where women were supposed to be none of those things.  Bowen’s Molly Murphy series seems to be one of these.   We read Murphy’s Law together and it was an enjoyable romp.

Molly Murphy is on the run from Ireland when she stumbles into a way across the ocean, impersonating someone else on the boat trip to America.  When they arrive in Ellis Island, a man she’d butted heads with turns up dead, and a murder inquiry nabs one of her friends.  Alone and nearly friendless in New York, Molly must find a job, a place to live, and the murderer only she can identify. Some thoughts:

  • The single greatest problem amateur detectives face, from a narrative perspective, is the motivation to solve the crime.  Molly seems driven by two equally strong motives: her allegiance to her friend Michael, arrested for the crime she’s sure he didn’t commit and her burning curiosity.  The latter is a common trait among amateur detectives, and the one most likely to make me shout “Come on.”  Being a relatively even-handed person, I find it difficult to empathize with a character who continually puts themselves in harm’s way on the flimsiest of motivations.
  • Bowen does a fantastic job developing Tammany-era New York.  We feel strongly for Molly’s difficult situation, watching intensely as she navigates the rough-and-tumble streets of the vicious city.  The only thing she missed were the mountains of horse poop which plagued the metropolis.  And I mean mountains. (See Superfreakonomics for a discussion of the horseshit problem).
  • The budding romance between Murphy and the police detective on the case is satisfying and interesting, without being so Harlequin as to turn me off.
  • The mystery, too, is a solid and interesting one that leaves you guessing right until the end and doesn’t feel too forced.  As with most mysteries that eschew the manor house model (where the suspects are locked away and thus each given ample attention), Bowen introduces enough for us to understand the story but not enough to solve it without the final clues that emerge when Molly discovers them.  And this is as it should be.
  • Murphy has a sure hand in developing minor characters.  The grotesque couple whose apartment she stays in when she first arrives are both well-drawn and realistic, as are the agreeable characters (such as the photographer she meets partway through the story).

An enjoyable mystery, especially great if you like Victorian mysteries like the Fremont Jones or the Cyrus Barker series.


2011-08-21 Tweets

  • Radiolab's Jad Abumrad says Metallica's "Enter Sandman" is about adaptive sleeping behavior in ducks. CF "Sleep" episode. #nerdistry #
  • First day back from sabbatical. Here we go again! #
  • Thanks to Steve K for pointing to this great article about "extraordinary teachers" http://t.co/eSvgjNP #
  • Favorite similie of the week, from Neil Gaiman's FRAGILE THINGS: "She had curves like a Raymond Chandler similie." #
  • fiction today: 983 words #

Powered by Twitter Tools

Pet Tales

Jenny’s parents have always had dogs.  Shortly after we started dating 12 years ago, they got a third and since then have not bought any more.  Just a couple weeks ago, the day we drove up to visit them, they had to euthanize the last of the three, Allie.  We didn’t really talk about it with the kids, because Avery only understands death a little bit, and it doesn’t register with Finn at all.  When we arrived, neither kid said anything for a while, then Avery said “Is there a dog here? I sure hope so.”  So we explained that Allie had died and wouldn’t be back.  We readied for the extended conversation along those lines, but it never came.


Anyhow, I thought I’d write a bit about our own pets a bit today. We have four pets (not counting the fish) living in our house: two cats, one dog, and a guinea pig.  For your Saturday edification, here’s one tale about each:

  • Loki is our oldest pet.  We adopted him in Gainesville shortly after we got married, and he was about 8 months old at that point.  He also had the unfortunate name Lugz.  Today’s story comes from that early era, when Loki was a pup who liked to chew stuff when we left him at home.  We returned home from an excursion to find that he’d chewed up a library book.  Shagrinned, I trekked to the local library to pay my fine and apologize.  When I explained what happened, the desk worker said, “Yeah, I’ve seen this before.  You’d be surprised how many dog-training videos and books come back chewed.”  In retrospect, I shouldn’t be surprised.  Also, we call Loki “Iron Bladder” because it seems like he can happily go all day without going outside.
  • Circe, the ghost cat, appears only occasionally, when you aren’t ready for it.  You feel a cold wind and a prickling on the back of your neck and Poof! she’s arrived.   She likes to visit Jenny in the bathroom, particularly at night–Circe cruises in for some petting.  One night not too long ago, I got up in the middle of the night and Circe came to get her attention.  She peeked around the corner of the door, saw it was me, and disappeared into the night once more.
  • The newest member of the family is Chewy, Avery’s recently adopted guinea pig.  He’s cute as a button and twice as nice.  When we went to visit Jenny’s parents in Michigan (as described above), we took him along in his little cage, and he spent the whole time with his head stuck in his tube, his butt sticking out, quivering nervously when I had to brake.  (By the by, did you know guinea pigs got their name because their hairless corpses look like hogs?  That, and they usually cost 1 guinea at the butcher shop.  A guinea pig can more properly be referred to as a cavy.)
  • Our other cat is Hermes, an orange rescued street cat named Kookee by the shelter people.  He’s very affectionate (especially with me) and also temperamental, occasionally scratching the children to thank them for petting him.  While I wouldn’t want a downright mean cat in the house, I tend to think an unpredictable cat adds some zest and reminds us all that animals aren’t just there for our amusement, but they’re their own beings.  Hermes got outside the other day, and the whole family had to watch as Jenny and I tried to wrangle him out from under the neighbor’s bushes.  Having gotten back to nature, he went native, immediately becoming Feral Cat: hissing, scratching, and biting at me.  It was quite a display.  After we got him back inside and I tended to my wounds, I went upstairs to work.  Within  a minute, he was twining around my feet, looking for his morning lap time.

Circe and Hermes

The power law and open source and teaching

I’m preparing to give a talk at our upcoming Faculty retreat as part of a panel on the future of the book.  I’m flogging my same old dead horse spinning another version of my interest in remix and collaboration (as possibilities made manifest by digital media).    One of my examples is Wikipedia, and in talking about it, I wanted to use both Clay Shirky and Eric Raymond to talk about why Wikipedia matters.  But in putting those two next to each other, I came up against the perhaps essential reason it’s so fucking hard to get student collaboration to work really well at the classroom level.

"put your hands up if you're having a good time" by micn2sugars
"put your hands up if you're having a good time" by micn2sugars

First: Raymond.  I use Raymond’s ideas of the Gift Culture to help organize and understand creative collaboration in the classroom and elsewhere.  Laurie Taylor and I wrote about this in “Open Source and Academia.”  The long and short of it is that the notion of the gift culture, where reputation is generated through what one gives away, can be a useful model for building classroom collaboration experiences.

Second: Shirky.  In Here Comes Everybody, Shirky spends a lot of time on the power-law distribution, the fact that in collaborative social communities, the top few contributors do FAR more than the average contributor, and many contributors do little or nothing by comparison.  Wikipedia works this way (less than 2% of users ever make an edit at all), as do listservs (how many mailing lists have/do you lurk on?) and blogs (I sure hope there are a lot of you out there reading silently).

The connection I feel stupid for never having made before is obvious given my title and the lead-ins here.  The power-law, of course, applies in teaching as well.  Thus, if you’ve ever tried to do an open, free collaborative digital project with students, you invariably discover a couple who get really into it and do everything, and tear your hair out at those who do hardly anything.  Of course, ultimately your grade cudgel forces action out of the most hesitant students, but you never want to do it that way.

In the past, I’ve tried to urge more participation by building in a diverse array of tasks drawing from different talent sets, so students who want to do digital stuff can do so, students who want to do live performance can do so, etc etc etc.  I’ve also removed as much of the grade cudgel as I could, building broad outlines for participation requirements and asking students to write self-reflective self-grading essays at the end to aid me in grading them.  But still, the power-law distribution rears its head.

So for those of you who ask students to do large-group collaborative large-scale projects, how do you deal with these issues?