This is bianca steele's Typepad Profile.
Join Typepad and start following bianca steele's activity
Join Now!
Already a member? Sign In
bianca steele
Recent Activity
I haven’t seen the sequel, Magic Mike XXL; this is about the original. Magic Mike and Haywire were among the last films directed by Steven Soderbergh, who’s better known for big movies like Traffic and Outbreak, and going farther back, the groundbreaking independent movie, Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Magic Mike is probably best considered as a musical. Channing Tatum is a good dancer and a lot of fun to watch. The nominal plot revolves around a male strip club frequented by middle-aged women and bachelorette parties. Matthew McConaughey runs the place, and he and the Tatum character pick up a new guy and break him in. It’s about loyalty and betrayal, second families, mentors, and growing up. It has a similar feel to movies like, say, Burlesque and Rock of Ages (possibly also Showgirls, and for all I know, Drumline), which is to say that the story and dialogue feel stilted by ordinary standards, and there’s an obvious point, a lesson, about human interactions, but one that I thought didn’t ring true. Disappointed with Magic Mike, I didn’t expect much when a while later I rented Haywire. Haywire is one in the large and growing genre of movies about kick-ass female assassins. (The star of this one is literally a professional kickboxer, rather than an actor.) It’s well within the current range of action pictures like The Bourne Legacy, for the most part, and it’s notable for giving Ewan MacGregor the least rewarding role I’ve ever seen him play. Round... Continue reading
Posted 6 hours ago at Bianca Steele
A couple of books have come out recently that seem related to Matthew Crawford’s The World Outside Your Head, which I wrote about fairly recently. Intelligence in the Flesh: Why Your Mind Needs Your Body Much More than It Thinks was written by Guy Claxton, a psychologist at the University of Winchester in England. He was interviewed by Tom Ashbrook, on the NPR show On Point, a couple of weeks ago, along with Crawford. Claxton’s arguing that a lot of our thinking doesn’t happen by way of computer-like logical operations that are controlled by a rational consciousness, but rather involves processes that happen outside of the brain and engage the physical world directly. His evidence for this has some things in common with the argument made by Daniel Kahneman (based on research he did with Amos Tversky), in Thinking Fast and Slow, but his emphasis is very different and his argument, in places, is almost the reverse of Kahneman’s. It also recalls work on emotion that was published several years ago by Antonio Damasio. I think what he says seems plausible and convincing, though I’m dubious of any kind of absolute dualism between “mind” and “body,” even one that claims to be giving the neglected side of the binary its due. There’s more information about Claxton’s work on this topic, here, here, and here. Claxton’s and Crawford’s arguments have a lot in common, I think, as should be obvious, since they were both brought on the same show. But their... Continue reading
Posted 2 days ago at Bianca Steele
Lately, I’ve been picking up a lot of novels and putting them down again, unfinished. One I read straight through to the end was The Middlesteins, by Jami Attenberg. The Middlesteins got a lot of press a couple of summers ago when it came out. It’s the story of a Jewish family based in the Chicago area. The family’s matriarch is morbidly obese, a lifelong compulsive eater, and needs to get her health on track or she’ll die. The story follows her family as they deal with the consequences. Although it’s a kind of family saga, The Middlesteins is a compressed kind of saga, in about the 350-page range. It’s told from different points of view, narrating backstory and tracking the main current-day plot, in which Edie’s grandchildren prepare for their b’nai mitzvah and her somewhat estranged unmarried daughter begins to devote herself to her mother’s health, in the wake of Edie’s surgeries and her husband’s filing for divorce. It seems he wants to have a regular life, and feels this is the last moment in his life when he’ll still be young enough to go for it. The sudden breakup of their parents’ marriage gives Edie’s son and daughter a glimpse into the history they’d never known, and leads to the parents’ attempts to find new love. Edie, as it happens, is a very good lawyer (forced into early retirement because of her weight), a brilliant student up until law school, when she discovered she was only mediocre. She’s... Continue reading
Posted 4 days ago at Bianca Steele
If you remember, there’s a controversy about “trigger warnings,” and part of the controversy involved the teaching of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Columbia’s Literature Humanities course, a seminar-type course that’s required for all and taken by mostly first-year students. It’s not entirely clear to an outsider where the complaint came from, in the form it eventually took, but it seems the issue was taken up by an organization created to discuss and combat sexual harassment and related problems. Students in the course read and discuss classics of Western literature. The first semester covers the classical period, the second covers the Middle Ages and the modern period, up to the present day. The original intention of the course was to provide baseline knowledge for students. In a second required course, students read influential texts in the history of political and economic theory; “Lit Hum,” as it’s called, is for literature, history, and ethics. A third, newer course, introduces students to world cultures. The question that was in the news involved scenes that describe the rape, or attempted rape, of mortal women by Greek or Roman gods (e.g., the rape of Daphne by Apollo, which was thwarted only when a different god took pity on the girl and turned her into a tree, so that she might avoid the awful fate of being defiled against her will). I intend to write more about this, but first I want to point out two items in the most recent issue of the alumni magazine, Columbia... Continue reading
Posted 6 days ago at Bianca Steele
I’ve been using the free, ad-enabled version of Word for editing since my old laptop crashed a few years ago, and only upgraded to the latest version of Office this week. I thought the flat, square-cornered design of the new windows and menu bar was peculiar and distracting, but then I started actually writing things with Word. I figured it out: They have, basically, animated the cursor movement so it duplicates the action of an old-style text-only terminal from forty years ago. They’ve put in a small delay, and mimicked the way old phosphor-based cathode ray tubes would have an afterimage that lingers on the screen. In fact, quite literally, if you hit return at the end of an almost-full line, you can watch the cursor zoom backwards across the screen. When you scroll a page up or down, you actually watch the “page” moving. With normal (fast) touch typing, it makes the cursor move more smoothly across the screen, revealing one letter after another. The previous version just deleted the cursor in one place and made it reappear in another. There was no movement that you could see. The effect now is like what you would see in a 1980s movie when output from a slow dial-up connection would appear, byte by byte, in glowing green or amber letters, while the characters and moviegoers watched. It’s an interesting choice, and I’m sure that I’ll get used to it sooner or later. Continue reading
Posted Sep 26, 2015 at Bianca Steele
I’ve been seeing this phrase in a lot of places recently, and it seemed to be new. Its basic meaning is pretty obvious: someone’s “saying the quiet part loud” when they actually say the real intention behind sleazy propaganda. But where did it come from, and why am I seeing it so much now? How did it get linked, apparently, to discussions of culture-war issues like racism and sexism? I did an unscientific Google search to find answers. Here is the first use of the phrase I found. It’s a “nitpick” list about old Dallas episodes: (originally posted August 26, 2002; source: Wayback Machine) - What an odd conversation between Bobby and Jenna. Both say things normal, intelligent men and women don't say to one another if they want to preserve their relationship. Bobby tells Jenna he was just trying to use her for sex. Jenna admits she's bedded countless men with no protest but turned Bobby down. It was very odd, but I'm not surprised. The writers really had to strain here. Their whole point was to tell us a tale of three relationships going sour, and I think some editor read the script and said, "Guys, I don't know what you're trying to say here." So the writers had to throw in a lot of expository dialogue which really belongs in the category of saying the quiet part loud and the loud part quiet. This seems mostly like literary criticism: the writers are telling when they should... Continue reading
Posted Sep 24, 2015 at Bianca Steele
I read almost half of this Sunday’s NY Times Book Review piece by Caitlin Flanagan before I realized who the author was, and I wonder what the paper was thinking. It’s a slightly odd review. There are three books considered. Two are books of popular psychology, both about narcissism. One is a balanced consideration of narcissism, which can be either good or bad. The other is about recognizing narcissism in others and protecting oneself against them (I guess along the lines of a book from a few years ago about “the psychopath next door”). The third is a photography book by, and about, Kim Kardashian. It’s by Rizzoli, the respected art publisher. All but one paragraph of the review is about Kardashian. If you want to know more about the psychology books, you’ll find the authors, titles, and publishing information in the review itself, but other than that, I’ve just told you just about as much as Flanagan will. If you want to know more about what it’s like to be Kim Kardashian, however—whom Flanagan, no liberal, considers the perfect heroine for modern feminism—the review may tell you more than you needed to know. Continue reading
Posted Sep 22, 2015 at Bianca Steele
Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Purity, has been all over the web for the past couple of weeks. I’m pretty sure I’m going to read it, but there’s little chance I will write about it. Generally, I tend not to feel comfortable writing about books I think are really very good, but complex (and I put The Corrections and Freedom in this category). I have less trouble making absolute statements about films I feel that way about, because I don’t care as much about film, generally. For me, film is something that entertains, and maybe says something important, but not something that’s important in itself, to the extent I feel novels are. I think I’ve written about this before. But Purity, in particular, I feel especially queasy writing about. For one reason why, look at this Gawker article by CML. It could very well be a satire of the most ridiculous response to Purity that could possibly be imagined. It could very well be intended to make people who write negatively about Purity look bad. It could be intended to make me feel bad! And I feel bad already just reading it, even though I haven’t written anything negative yet, and even though, even if I did, it almost certainly wouldn’t be what Gawker’s CML has written. On the other hand, there are things that would have to be gotten out of the way before I could say anything about the novel itself. Things that would have to be gotten out... Continue reading
Posted Sep 20, 2015 at Bianca Steele
Sometime "Red Tory", "Front Porch Republican" Russell Arben Fox asks, “What happened to communitarianism?” A good question. I’m nowhere near being a scholar of these things, but in the 1990s I got interested in what was called “the liberalism/communitarianism debate” and did some reading about it. In the 1990s, thinkers as diverse as Amitai Etzioni, Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Michael Walzer, and Michael Sandel were identified with the “communitarian” side of the debate—the most well-known public face of which was probably the left-leaning magazine Tikkun, published by Michael Lerner, a rabbi who came to prominence through Hillary Clinton’s championing of his ideas. (For whatever reason, Lerner also came to be ridiculed, for instance by the Border’s clerk who rang up my purchase of the magazine one day.) By 1998, though, when Sandel published a second edition of his Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, with a detailed bibliography on the controversy, he disclaimed the label. In 1992, it seems (I drew most of this information, including the references to other books in this list that I’ve read—except for Etzioni, whose books my town library had around that time—from Charles Larmore’s 1996 essay collection, The Morals of Modernity), Jürgen Habermas published a critique of communitarianism, in German. In 1988, Will Kymlicka, similarly, had published a book in defense of liberalism. Amy Gutmann had critiqued the movement in 1985. So, sometime between about 1982, when the first edition of Sandel’s book was published, and 1998, broader interest in communitarianism seems to have... Continue reading
Posted Sep 18, 2015 at Bianca Steele
Enough Said is a romantic comedy, written and directed by the established independent filmmaker, Nicole Holofcener. The leads are played by James Gandolfini (who died before the movie was released) and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, neither of whom, I think, had been in this kind of film before. Other roles are played by Catherine Keener and Toni Colette. The movie is understated and holds all its characters a bit at a distance. I thought its depiction of a mother’s feelings as her daughter left home for school was very nice, its observational humor of the way women and men act in their daily lives was acute and funny, and its plot engaging (in spite of a twist that you could see a mile away). I also thought it was a little more meanspirited towards almost all its characters than it needed to be, and ultimately nowhere near as original in the way it handled its resolution as it had promised. Holofcener has been making movies for a while, and I’ve seen a couple of them: small, intimate, talky pieces about a circle of friends, many of them women, all of them educated and upper-middle class. They have a decided “indie-film” feel. That isn’t to everyone’s taste. I guessed that this movie might be riffing on the kinds of filmmaking preferred these days by younger directors, like mumblecore—but I don’t watch those directors myself, and when someone like Noah Baumbach similarly addresses current twenty-something tastes, I tend to find the result similarly creepy.... Continue reading
Posted Sep 16, 2015 at Bianca Steele
The New York Times on Sunday announced that one of Harvard’s final clubs will now be admitting women. I couldn’t help thinking of Secret Society Girl, a book by Diana Peterfreund about the year when a club very much like Yale’s Skull and Bones goes co-ed. I couldn’t finish it—it’s a bit of fluff, now included in the “New Adult” listings (that’s “Young Adult” with sex and drugs)—though I skimmed to the end. Suffice it to say (unless you want to read it) that its protagonist finds she’d been selected as a token and things aren’t as terrific as they seem. Much better: Jennifer Miller’s The Year of the Gadfly. Or this. Continue reading
Posted Sep 14, 2015 at Bianca Steele
Scott Esposito, editor of the online literary magazine, the Quarterly Conversation, says there’s been a lot of talk about Laura Miller’s piece in the New Yorker this week, about “litchat” and the phenomenon of the reputation of David Foster Wallace. I did some searches and didn’t find it (more recently, an interesting take appeared here), but I guess it’s all been on Twitter, which I can’t yet figure out how to navigate. I agree basically with Esposito. The New Yorker piece is overblown and underargued. What it demonstrates, I think, is how the world of readers, the world of writers, and the world of critics and literature professors constitute, really, many more than just three worlds. What people thought of Wallace, before the media outpouring that followed upon his death—what people thought everyone else thought of Wallace—depended on who they were listening to, what kinds of media they followed, and how they were connected (or not) to the various literary subcultures out there. Laura Miller thought Wallace was not well regarded before his death; I, on the other hand, repeatedly heard the opinion—which I then thought and still think true—that Wallace wrote in a way others admired but didn’t think could ordinarily get published nowadays—that he was “a sop to the avant garde,” the one writer who could get into print, in a mode of literature that everyone nevertheless pretended was really quite important (but that only a few writers, and fewer readers, actually cared about). There are a lot... Continue reading
Posted Sep 12, 2015 at Bianca Steele
The New York Times last week ran a blurb, in its “things we liked on the web” column, about this piece on “A Nerd’s Guide to Art,” at the “explainer” site FiveThirtyEight. The Times’ description: “worth the time if you don’t think of art as art but as a collection of differently sized frames acquired at various times” In fact, the article’s pretty interesting, and the Times’ characterization is unfair. True, it’s hard to see why anyone would want to do statistical analyses of the sizes of canvases in the museum’s collection, even when graphed against acquisition dates. Such numerical analyses can’t really tell us anything interesting about art or art history. I suppose they could help us understand the implications of events like when a museum became more ambitious, or when its endowment started to run dry, or changes in the style preferred by painters the museum preferred. But all of those are trivial. But it could be pretty interesting just to see what those dates of acquisition were. The original FiveThirtyEight post has one example: a chart graphing the year in which each painting in MOMA’s collection was completed, against the year in which MOMA acquired it. It’s a pretty dense blob of dots, for the most part, and—at first glance, at least—doesn’t tell us much about anything much at all. But look close, and you see that MOMA concentrated pretty heavily on a very few decades, near the beginning of the modern period, for a very long... Continue reading
Posted Sep 10, 2015 at Bianca Steele
Here is another book I actually read last year, The Submission, a 9/11 novel by Amy Waldman. The Submission was very well received and it’s been on my to-read list for a long time. I was looking forward to it. It’s Waldman’s first novel, but at the time she began it, she was already an experienced writer, having been a reporter for the New York Times, on the foreign affairs beat. So it is smoothly written and sophisticated. But I didn’t like it. (I read through the whole book, planning to look at the late D.G. Myers’ blog after I was done, to see exactly why it was that I disagreed with him on this, only to find that he’d actually hated it. I must have gotten it confused with The Believers.) I frankly could not finish this book, and I can’t recommend it. The Submission describes the aftermath of a contest to find a design for a 9/11 memorial, to be erected on the site where the towers had been. There are three main characters: Claire Burwell, the “family representative” on the selection committee, a well-off and well-connected widow of a wealthy man who had died in the attacks; Paul Rubin, the committee chair; and the American architect of Arab descent whose design is eventually chosen. There are also a couple of regular-person characters, one from each “side” of the situation, both survivors, one Muslim and one not. The novel has been praised for the way in which it... Continue reading
Posted Sep 8, 2015 at Bianca Steele
Yesterday I went to a golf tournament. I expected lots of nicely groomed older couples wearing overpriced sportswear. I expected fresh air and sunshine. I expected pollen, too. I got that. What I didn’t expect was lots of smelly tobacco smoke. There were smokers everywhere, and evidently lots of them were cigar smokers. One guy stood less than ten feet from where my daughter and I were sitting, obliviously puffing in our direction. Between allergies and smoke, today my lungs still hurt. What with the pollen, the heat (in one Portapotty I thought I was going to pass out), and the smoke, by the time we got back to the car, I was more or less ill. In Massachusetts, it’s been illegal for several years—I guess this must have coincided more or less with the beginning of a boom in cigar smoking among the cool—to smoke in restaurants or bars. I used to come home sick almost every time I went out for dinner or drinks. Coincidentally, since the law went into effect back then, that doesn’t happen anymore. Continue reading
Posted Sep 6, 2015 at Bianca Steele
I haven’t seen the movie, and I probably won’t, even though it stars Ben Whishaw. The first part of the book is basically an undergraduate story, following Charles Ryder through the two years he spends at Oxford and a little while after. Ryder is from a well-off but not fashionable background. His father has some vague aesthetic or scholarly interests, not deep enough to offer him a career, which he keeps to himself. Charles has some idea of doing something similar, and perhaps of becoming a don and writing books about art history. He arrives at Oxford knowing little of how to behave there, and he makes a set of similarly vaguely scholarly friends. But then he meets Sebastian Flyte and Anthony Blanche and their set, and discovers, as he puts it, the secret door in the garden wall that leads to the life Oxford truly promised. Sebastian is the second son of an aristocratic Catholic family riven by marital conflict, and Blanche is more than a little dubious, and their high-born friends are really quite rowdy. These men drink too much, spend too much, and behave irresponsibly (to themselves and to one another), and Ryder is led to follow their example. For him, the center of it all is Sebastian, in whose rooms the crowd usually meets. Sebastian eventually invites Charles to his family home, called Brideshead Manor, and Charles is duly impressed by the house and, eventually, by the family. They travel to Europe and visit Lord Brideshead... Continue reading
Posted Aug 7, 2015 at Bianca Steele
The past two movies I’ve rented were not very good. Since they starred Sigourney Weaver and Winona Ryder, I think they may combine to equal an attack on the feminist aspects of the Alien movies; but I’m not wedded to that hypothesis. First, Red Lights. I’d like to be able to say that this movie will be liked by people who like this sort of thing, but unfortunately, that isn’t true. Red Lights is a kind of suspense-thriller in which a scientist (played by Sigourney Weaver, who is pretty good, and fun to watch) and her assistant (played by Cillian Murphy, also good and fun to watch) go around the country, helping people who seem to be experiencing hauntings, or other kinds of psychic phenomena. They’re opposed by the pro-psychic phenomena contingent in their university department, and its leader, played by Toby Jones (who’s played Truman Capote, Alfred Hitchcock, Karl Rove, and Dobby the House Elf), and eventually by a major star of a blind psychic healer and concert giver, played by Robert De Niro (who chews the scenery nicely). And they team up with an undergraduate who arrives to flirt with the assistant, played by Elizabeth Olsen (who was not that fun for me to watch, but tastes may differ). The real story turns out to be about why the scientist is opposed to the possibility of any psychic phenomena, ghosts, or life after death, and why her assistant is working in the field to begin with. And, eventually,... Continue reading
Posted Aug 4, 2015 at Bianca Steele
I read this around the same time I read Neuromancer, because Gibson and Gibbons are right next to each other on the library shelves. I’d wanted to read Cold Comfort Farm, someday, ever since the movie version came out in 1995, and had never gotten around to it. I tried to take out a copy that didn’t have an introduction, which was by Lynn Truss (author of the grammar peeving book Eats, Shoots, and Leaves), but was unsuccessful. All the copies the library had were Penguin editions with the Truss introduction included. The one I got out also had illustrations on the cover by Sage Stossel, the New Yorker cartoonist. My daughter really liked these (she was five at the time). I was happy, in the end, that I’d read the introduction first, because it included several facts, of varying degrees of importance. First—a fact, the importance of which will appear only later—the book (which appeared in the 1930s) is a kind of cult classic, beloved of many among a certain generation of English readers, who it seems are given to quote lines like, “I saw something nasty in the woodshed!” at the drop of a hat. Second, the book is set in a vaguely futuristic possible world, in which videophones and private aeroplanes are common. This would be easy to miss, as the videophone appears late in the book, and the airplane could simply be a function of its owner’s wealth. Third—and most important—Cold Comfort Farm, the first book... Continue reading
Posted Aug 2, 2015 at Bianca Steele
The following is a post I wrote a couple of weeks ago and never got around to editing and polishing up. In the interim, the site Public Books published an excerpt from Fredric Jameson’s most recent book, where he discusses Neuromancer and touches on some of the same issues I have with the term “cyberspace.” I haven’t read the whole article, which is long and uses jargon, and quotes from the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which I find only sometimes helpful. I’ve inserted one comment about the Jameson piece within this one. I actually read this book last summer, though it appeared thirty years ago, in the year I graduated from high school. It’s Gibson’s first novel, the book that initiated the idea of cyberpunk, and defined the term “cyberspace.” The main character is a former hacker—surgically altered in order to connect to the necessary equipment—who’s become a drug addict and is offered the chance to do one last job and win his freedom, and get clean and sober in the process. Actually, he isn’t given the choice. He’s been surgically altered again, by force, so that recreational drugs will have no effect on him, and so that if he doesn’t get an antidote, when the job is over, he will die. He has to complete his task and persuade his employer to allow him to live. I didn’t like it a whole lot. I’m pretty much always irritated by the depiction of “cyberspace” as a space in which people... Continue reading
Posted Jul 9, 2015 at Bianca Steele
Matthew Crawford is a one-time philosophy student who left the academy to work with his hands, as he described in Shopcraft as Soulcraft. The World Beyond Your Head is a follow-up, and billed as an argument against our accepting a virtual-reality like world of mental representations. George Scialabba and Rebecca Goldstein both have helpful reviews. Other reviews have placed Crawford’s writing at the center of a discourse of “manliness,” in which craft is associated with the workshop and work itself is seen as an attribute of the male. It was Goldstein’s review that encouraged me to pick it up, and it’s interesting but not exactly what I expected. I listened to it on audiobook (which means the notes were not included), and I think I’d buy the book itself to read again. There’s not as much philosophy in it as you might expect. Crawford discusses Kant at some length, and later mentions Kierkegaard, and I think Nietzsche. Possibly the most interesting philosophical discussion in the book for me was a reflection on Kant, as Crawford had introduced him to that point, from Kierkegaard’s point of view. The philosophical argument is, more or less, as follows: Kant, as the most important philosopher of the seventeenth century Western European Enlightenment, is the writer who most successfully elaborated the kind of person that we, in the modern era, now think of as ideal. This person is a person who is autonomous, who bows to no man and to no social grouping in the... Continue reading
Posted Jun 24, 2015 at Bianca Steele
I’m sure nobody’s thinking about Mad Men anymore, but I had one more thing to say about it, I think. I have some definite ideas, which I’ve written about before, about how the show was handling Peggy’s and Joan’s careers. I didn’t write all of them out and publish them, because I wanted to see how they’d eventually play out. I didn’t want to speculate about the future consequences of past events, only to have future events refute my speculations—worse, to have Jeffrey Weiner announce that my opinion was definitively wrongheaded. I didn’t want to be a bad fan! But I do have opinions. I wrote a while ago that Peggy probably should have gone to McCann-Erickson the first time they bought the agency. She did okay for herself in subsequent seasons of the show, and the last few episodes have shown the transition to the new place to be a bit rough. There’s a reading of the show that would argue that she’s in for a lot of trouble now, and not much good will come out of it for her. She didn’t appreciate Sterling, Cooper enough when she was there. She never really accepted its prevailing ethos; instead, she fought against it, and won what ground she got in spite of her superiors. She should have taken Joan’s offer to create an equal partnership in a new field. I really don’t agree. McCann-Erickson is an imperfect place, but if Peggy—out of deference to Don Draper or because she’d... Continue reading
Posted Jun 17, 2015 at Bianca Steele
I have a novel on my shelf that I bought many years ago and haven’t ever finished. It’s the story of a man who has a near-death experience that brings him to the revelation that the woman he knows as his sister is actually not his real sister. Possibly she’s been abducted by aliens on the road and replaced with a replica. Possibly he’s just discovered some kind of distinction between our spiritual and our bodily forms. It’s not clear. Whatever the reason, he decides that he needs a different kind of woman in his life. That’s Richard Powers’ 2006 novel, The Echo Maker. No, not really. It’s The Echo Maker as imagined from the point of view of one of the most important male characters in the novel . . . who is not, however, its narrator. The narrator is his sister, and the novel is, in fact, about a woman who resigns her corporate job and returns to her hometown, to live on her savings and to help her brother, who’s been in a serious car accident, the cause of which nobody knows. But when she visits him in the hospital, he insists that she’s an impostor. Those are, of course, the same story, the same content—and of course they can’t be. The Echo Maker isn’t about a woman who pretends to be a sister to its protagonist, yet can’t possibly be the kind of sister he needs. It’s about a man who angrily rejects his sister, in... Continue reading
Posted Jun 13, 2015 at Bianca Steele
I once worked with a guy who was very into the idea of his personal autonomy. Once we had to design an API (in C), and it had to have a doubly-linked list in it. We always used doubly-linked lists, because we had an existing API that offered them “for free”: no work on the programmer’s part involved. Then we moved some software to a different platform that didn’t have any similar API’s for it, so we had to write our own. Eventually some people at a different location wrote a general doubly-linked list API and offered to support it for anyone in the company to use, but some people still rolled their own. So, we had a choice of requiring users to set up a doubly-linked list that would be compatible with one of those API’s. The in-house API was set up in the standard way, with 0 indicating both the end of a list and an empty list. The legacy API was set up with -1 indicating both of those things. This guy decided that our interface would require 0 in some cases and -1 in others. Reviewers complained, and in person he agreed to change it back. Then he thought about it some more, and decided that he would require 0 in some cases, and -1 in others. But in different places. He came into my cubicle and told me he was going to do it. I repeated the arguments from the review. He gave a bunch... Continue reading
Posted Jun 9, 2015 at Bianca Steele
It’s come to my attention that Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is being bashed as anti-Catholic, and given that I adore Mantel’s novels, I’d like to come to her defense. Caveat: I’ve read only Wolf Hall, and not yet Bring Up the Bodies. I’ve seen only the first twenty or so minutes of the Masterpiece Theatre adaptation, and that only because I’d never seen Mark Rylance in action, nor in (as it were) trousers. But I’ve read all of her earlier novels except one. My understanding is that Mantel’s novel An Experiment in Love is largely autobiographical. That is, like her protagonist Carmel in that novel, she was born in England to a working-class Irish or Anglo-Irish family, was educated as a day student in a Catholic convent, and studied law at the University of London in the 1970s, when she dabbled in leftist politics and university Labour Party organizations. And further, that like Frances in Eight Months in Ghazzah Street, she travelled with her husband to Saudi Arabia and lived there for a time as an expatriate. As far as I know, she is still a woman of the left. I was unaware until today, clicking hyperlinks, that she no longer considers herself a Catholic. It is not something I would ever have gathered from her novels, and while her account of Tudor England is clearly sympathetic to the Protestant side, I can’t understand why it must be seen as anti-Catholic. The problem cannot be that More is depicted as... Continue reading
Posted Apr 28, 2015 at Bianca Steele
“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” I was watching a trailer online for Deep Web when my six year old daughter walked in. I don’t watch documentaries much and this one didn’t look especially interesting, but she disagreed. I’m not sure what to make of that, but here is an article (via the author’s blog at Crooked Timber) discussing how the Silk Road turned from libertarian paradise to bureaucratic prison state, in the way familiar from Animal Farm. Farrell’s discussion reminds me of the first season of The Tudors. The most interesting part of that show, I thought, was how it followed the court of Henry VIII as the power that initially was invested in the person of the King, Henry, gradually and inexorably was distributed to the figures around him, whether because they were his friends or because they could help him run the government in the grand fashion he’d been persuaded he deserved. The Tudors were the beginning of the end of absolute monarchy in England. Once they’d used personal power to accumulate that much power into the national government, the power itself turned against them, as it couldn’t be used effectively using the same means that had been able to gather it. (The novel Wolf Hall makes a somewhat related point.) In a similar way, the man known as “The Dread Pirate Roberts” eventually... Continue reading
Posted Feb 20, 2015 at Bianca Steele