November 2005 Archives

Molten Bron's Green Briefs

Somebody got here recently by searching for "Molten Boron 'Green Briefs.'" Huh. I was curious about the combination of the phrase "Green Briefs" with a variant on my name. Apparently I'm the sixth hit on Google for such a search, since they use Molten Boron as an alternate spelling for Molten Bron. My guess is that the searcher stumbled on my page while looking for a series of erotic stories featuring a character named Molten Bron, whose hobbies appear to include standing before people while wearing only green briefs, being ravished, and canings. Here are the excerpts Google provides for the relevant hits:

"... well developed shoulders and chest. Dressed only in green briefs, Molten Bron was a very stimulating sight. Burke made a mental note to ..."

"... Molten Bron stood between the doctor's legs in nothing but his faded green briefs. Benway tugged the underpants down at the front and began ..."

I'll leave it to your imagination (or googling skills) what happens to my fictional namesake next.

Feminist Follow-Up

Just going to note in passing some reaction to that piece I linked to earlier by people who have a lot more experience with feminist blogging than I have.

11D quibbles with Hirshman's foundational statistics, particularly her reliance on the Sunday Style section of the Times. She then argues that feminism is not, in her phrase, the handmaiden of capitalism. Urging women to become corporate drones might not be an ideal step for the feminist movement.

Bitch Ph.D agrees almost entirely with Hirshman, at least with respect to the home life aspect of things, and offers some elaborations and advice.

Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon agrees in large part with Hirshman, but disagrees with tactics. Her argument here, as it is on a lot of the feminist issues she blogs about, is that you shouldn't blame women and the choices they make. Rather, you need to blame the Patriarchy. The idea is that women exist under an oppressive system, and blaming women for making the wrong choices within that system is not unlike blaming rape victims because they were asking for it. In real life, sometimes women make non-feminist personal choices, not because they're quislings but because that's the best choice the system offers for them personally and they can't live their whole lives for the feminist revolution.

Yellow Rose of Texas


I was reading the internet today (when I ought to have been paying attention to class formation in Civil Procedure) and I saw something I thought was unbelievable. Texas has a ban on vibrators? Sure enough, Texas has a ban on vibrators. Huh. Vibrators can be sold as novelties, and presumably also as "Personal Massagers" (scare quotes inserted because I believe that that is the convention used when trying to sell vibrators that you don't want people to know are vibrators), but if you tell somebody it's for sex, you've violated Texas's obscenity laws.

So: Formerly no birth control. Until a couple of years ago no sodomy (defined as anal and oral sex, but limited in enforcement to gay men). And still no sex toys. It seems like it'd be easier for them to just mandate what kind of sex is legal, rather than naming all the sex acts and products that are illegal. They could even use a Federal Register-style administrative regulation! "Sex shall be defined as the following: 1. Featuring one (1) man and one (1) woman. 2. It shall involve the insertion of the male sexual organ into the woman's vagina. 3. No other orifices or protrusions may be involved in sex. 4. The positioning during sex must involve the man on top, facing downward, with the woman on bottom, facing upward (Henceforth, the "missionary position."). ... All deviations from the standards defined herein shall be punishable by fines and other administrative actions."

Choice and Feminism


There's an interesting article on the web edition of The American Prospect: Homeward Bound, by Linda Hirschman. The broad thesis is that a large number of women with successful careers are opting out of them early in favor of home life. There've been a number of articles on this recently, in the New York Times most notably, and to an extent it's been overblown. Nonetheless, the phenomenon is real. The take-away point in a lot of the earlier articles has been something to the effect of "Gee whiz! I guess after all that feminism, women just want to be mommies after all!" or, in Maureen Dowd's alternate-but-no-less-troubling take, "This is a lesson to all the feminists: Choosing a career means turning down motherhood and relationships, and vice versa. You can't have it all."

This article derives a different message from the trend: the problem is not that feminism has gone too far, forcing careers on women who don't want them. Rather, feminism has not gone far enough. It has established, in general, equal opportunities in the work place, but it has left alone structural inequalities in home life that force women to choose between work and family. The task for feminism, therefore, is to turn its attention to restructuring home life.

I've got a lot of thoughts on this, and they're pretty much all in agreement with this article. To start, one of the most irritating things I hear is the wistful warning "you can't have it all." That is, women can have a career or a family, but not both. The unspoken, but implied, second clause of that is "you can't have it all, because you're a woman," or, alternatively, "you can't have it all, because you're not a man." Men, in case you haven't noticed, can have it all. ABA studies have shown that men who are married are likely to be more successful in their careers than single men. Contrariwise, single women are more successful than married women (This is in terms of salary and in terms of promotion to Partnerships, the upper rank of private practice lawyers. The studies also control for age). The reason is simple. When men and women are single, they have to work at their careers and also take care of themselves. When they marry, suddenly the man only has to work, while the woman has to take care of herself and the man. And that's before kids enter the picture. (This, of course, is under the classic marriage partnership agreement that "the woman does all the housework," which, as the article points out, is surprisingly common to this day). So marriage lifts a burden from the man and shifts that burden onto the woman.

There's also a lot of societal pressure to become a homemaker. Men go their entire lives being told that it's their duty to marry, have kids, and have a productive career that supports that family. Women have been told for thousands of years that it's their job to marry, have kids, and care for the family at home using the money the husband brings in. Now, in the last 40 years, women have been told "try to have a career, but if that doesn't work out you can always quit and become a homemaker." So men are told they have no option but a career, while women are told that they're free to try out a career, but if things aren't easy they can always give up. Further, there's subtle pressure that not only is giving up a career to become a homemaker acceptable, but all things considered it's preferable. Careers are great and all, but the purpose of a woman is to have kids and make the home. If you want a career, that's nice, but family must come first.

I've encountered some of this in law school. For starters, it raises my hackles when I talk to a woman in law school who prefaces a comment with "I'm no feminist." Oh really? You're not a feminist, yet you go to law school? You're in a place where there were precisely 0 women 40 years ago, at an institution, Columbia University, that only began accepting women to their undergraduate program after you were born (1983), and you don't consider yourself a feminist? So you've chosen to stand on the shoulders of feminists and kick them in the face? But of course, that's not fair. What they mean is not "I don't believe in any species of feminism at all." What they mean is "I like what feminism's done so far, but I have no desire to go any farther." But a surprising number of the women I've talked to here have already accepted their eventual economic inferiority to men. They plan to graduate, work a few years in a big firm to pay off debt, then marry and leave their job to raise kids, maybe do some part time work for a non-profit if they can find the time. I don't mind when people are unambitious. But are they being unambitious because they lack ambition, or are they unambitious because society has told them that that's how a woman should be?

Essentially, the problem is that feminism has opened up a lot of choices for women, and they keep making the wrong ones. Or, rather, they now choose to do what they were forced to do 40 years ago. This is one of those problems that can't be solved with a big government program. You can't pass a law forcing women to stay in the workplace, or forcing married men to do 50% of the dishes. The only solution is to build a movement and convince women (and men) to make the right choices. Part of that is building institutions that attempt to educate women and get them to make choices according to what they actually want, not what society wants. Another part would be attempting to change the message society sends to women, to emphasize autonomy and de-emphasize motherhood. The author proposes a few solutions, but they're pretty small beans compared to the task at hand (don't get a liberal arts degree, focus on your career, don't have more than one kid).

I'd be interested in hearing others thoughts on the subject. I have a tough time outright condemning women who decide to stay home for a living because, frankly, I wouldn't mind doing it myself. I'm not particularly ambitious and have no great sweeping career plans, so if I had the opportunity to be a stay-at-home husband, I'd probably leap at it. Hence the trouble in distinguishing between women who would stay home regardless (as I would) and women who stay home due to societal pressure to do so.

One other thing...

One other aspect of Personal Jurisdiction: There's also a thing called in rem jurisdiction, which is jurisdiction over property rather than the person. That is, I can sue you in a state where you have property, but no other relevant personal jurisdiction (no minimum contacts, no general jurisdiction) on the basis of that property's presence in the state. So in the hypothetical below, if Dianna were to stay at a motel while driving through Oregon and accidentally left a pair of pants in the motel room when she left, Molten Boron could sue her in Oregon for her negligence in Seattle, using the derelict pants to establish in rem jurisdiction.

The catch is that Molten Boron can only enforce a judgment in Oregon up to the value of the property used to establish jurisdiction. So Molten Boron would be limited in his suit against Dianna to the forgotten pants. So while he may not get full compensation for his injuries, he can still sue the pants off her. Har har har.


I've been devoting my time since leaving Phoenix to non-stop studying for Civil Procedure. I find the cases and concepts I understand best are the ones about which I've blogged, so I thought, in preparation for my Civil Procedure exam in less than two weeks, I'd post on some big concepts. Hopefully it won't be too boring. I'll leave out specific cases for the most part and focus on hypotheticals, which are helpful insofar as they allow me to present and discuss a swathe of different issues, while a real case generally turns on only one issue.

Today's lecture/lesson/sermon is on Jurisdiction. Broadly speaking, jurisdiction is the right that a given court has to hear a case. Generally speaking, in America we allow plaintiffs broad discretion in crafting their case. We let them plead the cases they want, exclude the arguments they don't want, include or exclude parties as they like, etc. We also allow plaintiffs broad discretion in choosing the forum where their case will be heard. This discretion, however, is mitigated by the right that we give defendants to challenge jurisdiction. The plaintiff gets to choose the court, and the defendant has the right to shout "No fair!"

There are three questions to ask in determining whether a case is properly before a given court. All three of these questions must be answered in the affirmative, or else the case will be removed or dismissed. First, does the court have subject matter jurisdiction over the type of case being heard? Second, does the court have personal jurisdiction over the defendants being sued? Finally, is this the proper venue for the suit?

Now seems a good time to give this abstract discussion more grounding by bringing in the hypothetical example. Let us take a purely hypothetical person named, say, Dianna. Dianna was born in California, raised in California, and, in order to eliminate potential distractions, has never left the physical bounds of the state of California her entire life (until now). Let us also assume that Dianna, good person though she is, is quite careless about pulling books off of bookshelves, and has a tendency to cause a rain of books to fall from the shelf as she retrieves her desired volume.

Dianna is desperately in need of a rare book on archaeology. After much research, she discovers that a copy may be found in a small library in Seattle, Washington. She hops into her car and drives to Seattle. Once there, she races to the shelf, finds the book, and pulls it off, precipitating a hail of books. One of these books conks a fellow patron on the head; let's call him Molten Boron. Molten Boron is perturbed, particularly because Dianna, in her excitement, ran from the library without so much as an apology. Molten Boron decides to get even by suing Dianna for negligence.

Assume Molten Boron is a citizen of Washington. Where can he sue Dianna? Technically, he can file a suit in any state or Federal court in the country, but they're likely to just throw it out. The rules of jurisdiction tell us where his case is likely to be taken seriously.

Let's start by recognizing that there are two parallel legal systems in the United States (well, actually, 51 parallel legal systems, but in any given state there are just two). Every state has its own legal system and the federal government has an over-arching legal system with branch offices in each state. The Constitution establishes a division of labor between state and federal courts, ostensibly to prevent the federal government from horning in on the autonomy of the states. Federal courts are authorized to hear matters of federal law (naturally), admiralty cases (law of the seas), patent and copyright cases, suits between states, suits against the federal government, and suits between citizens of different states. These last are called diversity suits, and there'll be a lot said about them later. Every type of suit not in the jurisdiction of the federal courts is the provenance of the state courts. Due to these limitations on what suits the federal courts may hear, the vast majority of cases in this country occur in state courts and are judged on the basis of state law.

This brings us to subject matter jurisdiction. Subject matter jurisdiction is the right of a court to hear the type of case before it. If, in our hypothetical, Molten Boron were a Californian suing Dianna, a Californian, for an incident in the University of California's Doe Library on negligence grounds (a state cause of action), a federal court would have no subject matter jurisdiction over it. It would be unconstitutional for a federal court to hear this case, because it would be a violation of the separation of judicial powers established in Article III. Federal courts lack subject matter jurisdiction over such cases because it would violate State's Rights for them to have such jurisdiction.

At the state level, states generally have trial courts of general jurisdiction. Whereas federal courts can't hear a case unless it is of a type that they are specifically allowed to hear, state courts of general jurisdiction can hear any case unless that type of case is explicitly given to a different court (for example, divorce and custody cases are often explicitly delegated to special family courts). To add a layer of confusion, state courts of general jurisdiction are also given subject matter jurisdiction over all federal law cases unless Congress explicitly forbids them from hearing a type of case (patent law cases, for instance, may only be heard in federal courts). So if you have a federal law dispute, you have a choice of having it heard in either a state or a federal court.

Generally, federal courts may not hear claims arising under state law. The exception is diversity suits. Here a citizen of one state sues a citizen of another on a state law cause of action. Provided he is completely diverse from all defendants, he may bring suit in federal court. The justification for this is that whatever state the plaintiff sues in will be biased toward parties from that state. In order to preserve fairness, you therefore need the neutral federal government to hear the case. This makes sense until you think about it. For one, if a citizen of Wisconsin sues a citizen of Minnesota in Iowa state court (assuming the Iowa court has proper jurisdiction) why would you need the federal government to hear the case in order to prevent bias? It's also worth noting that, on the one hand, federal courts must step in to prevent bias in suits between citizens of different states, because state courts will inevitably be biased towards their own citizens, but, on the other hand, federal courts have subject matter jurisdiction over suits against the federal government, because only the federal government can be trusted to fairly hear suits against itself.

In summary, subject matter jurisdiction is nearly always satisfied if you sue in state court, but satisfied only under specific circumstances in federal courts.

Applied to our hypothetical, subject matter jurisdiction doesn't limit Molten Boron's options with respect to where he sues. Every state with a negligence cause of action (which is to say, every state) will have subject matter jurisdiction. Further, because he is diverse from Dianna, he can sue in any federal court under diversity jurisdiction. Subject matter jurisdiction is not a problem for him.

Personal jurisdiction is another matter. Personal jurisdiction derives from the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, which guarantee due process of law. The idea is that you can't be held answerable to a given jurisdiction's laws unless you have willingly submitted yourself to them. You submit yourself to a state's laws by living there, doing business there, etc. Molten Boron can't sue Dianna in, say, Alaska because Dianna has no contact with the state whatsoever. She's never been to Alaska, she doesn't want to go to Alaska, she's never had anything to do with it. Alaska can go hang itself for all she cares, so why on earth should Alaska be allowed to haul her into a court in Juneau and make her stand trial for a conking in Washington? In Lockean terms, there is no social contract between Dianna and Alaska. She has nothing to say to it, and it has no more authority over her than does Cambodia.

There are two types of personal jurisdiction: general jurisdiction and minimum contacts jurisdiction. You are under general jurisdiction in a state when you establish residence and deep roots there. For Dianna, this would be California. By living in California, conducting daily life there, doing business there, etc. she has officially submitted herself to the totality of California's laws. She has hung up a shingle on her door saying, "Direct all lawsuits here." The other, more tricky, type of personal jurisdiction is minimum contacts jurisdiction. If you engage in some activity within a state, you can be held liable in any suits relating to that activity. So, per our hypothetical, Dianna has only the barest of contacts with Washington state, she zoomed in, got her book, and zoomed out. But in getting her book, she caused an accident and has been sued for it. When she entered Washington State and retrieved a book, it is said that she willingly submitted herself to all of Washington's laws with respect to that book retrieval.

And now a clarifying twist: Suppose that Molten Boron woke up the morning after the conking, poured himself a cup of coffee, opened the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and saw on the front page that, with great fanfare, the governor of Oregon had just signed landmark Anti-Conking legislation, providing strict liability and huge punitive awards against those who can be shown to have conked others on the head with books while negligently pulling books off of shelves. Molten Boron sees an opportunity and runs to his lawyer, begging him to find some way of suing Dianna in Oregon. Can he?

Probably not, due to lack of personal jurisdiction. This is in spite of the fact that Dianna has some minimum contacts with the state, insofar as she drove through it to get to Washington. The problem is that she doesn't have the right kind of minimum contacts. To further elaborate: Suppose Dianna did not just drive through Oregon. Suppose, instead, she decided to take a vacation to Oregon and incidentally drove to Seattle. She takes three weeks off from work, spends that time in Portland with friends, then on the final Saturday of her vacation drives up to Seattle, grabs the book, conks Molten Boron, and drives back to California. None of that matters. She spent three weeks in Oregon, but that isn't nearly enough to establish general jurisdiction, and her activities there had nothing to do with the book conking. She could be sued for her driving in Oregon. She could be sued for any accidents incurred by her myriad other activities in Portland. But she can't be sued for the conking in Seattle, because her minimum contacts don't have anything to do with the incident.

(Now, what if Dianna weren't going to the Seattle library for her own leisure, but was rather dispatched there by her boss at the Doe Library? Suppose that she was sent on a tour of a dozen school libraries in the Pacific Northwest, and was told to report back on how each of them manages their stacks. She traveled to Oregon and looked at the libraries at the University of Oregon, Oregon State, the University of Puget Sound, etc. The incident at issue then occurred while she was inspecting the University of Washington's library. Could Molten Boron sue her in Oregon, on the grounds that she was engaged in the generalized business of library inspection, and that she therefore submitted herself to Oregon's laws with respect to library inspections? Quite possibly, but the case would probably still be dismissed for lack of venue, as we shall see).

A final, annoying point. One would generally assume that personal jurisdiction is the opposite of subject matter, with respect to the relation of the State and Federal courts. State courts have general subject matter jurisdiction, while federal courts have narrow subject matter jurisdiction. Contrariwise, state courts have narrow personal jurisdiction while the federal courts have, one would assume, broad personal jurisdiction. After all, everyone in the United States has submitted themselves to the United States's general personal jurisdiction, with the exception of foreigners here for a visit. But such is not the case. In matters of personal jurisdiction, federal district courts adopt the personal jurisdiction standards of whatever state they're sitting in.

So where does this leave Molten Boron? He can sue Dianna in Washington state court, which has minimum contacts personal jurisdiction and general subject matter jurisdiction, in California state court, which has general personal jurisdiction and general subject matter jurisdiction, in Washington federal court, which has minimum contacts personal jurisdiction (referring to the Washington state courts) and diversity subject matter jurisdiction, or California federal court, which has general personal jurisdiction and diversity subject matter jurisdiction.

There is one final problem to be addressed: Venue. Venue asks whether the court being sued in is convenient for the defendant. Of course, the courts can't actually ask the defendant what's most convenient for them, because the defendant will always say that it's most convenient not to be sued at all. Venue comes from statutes passed by congress, not from the constitution. This is important to understand because venue and personal jurisdiction come from different directions but, as a practical matter, tend to reach the same conclusion. So, while they correspond most of the time, sometimes they don't, and understanding where they're coming from will help to explain why they occasionally reach different results.

In order for venue to be proper in federal diversity cases, the defendant must be sued in 1. a court in the federal district where they reside, 2. a court in the district where the incident giving rise to the action occurred, or 3. any other district where the defendant "may be found," but only if the other two cannot be satisfied. The third part is a catch-all that ensures that there is always at least some court in which a person can be sued. A simple analysis of our case shows that venue alters (almost) nothing. Molten Boron can sue Dianna in California, because that's where she resides, or in Washington, because that's where the incident occurred. Venue does impose a limitation on where Molten Boron can sue Dianna in California federal court. California is divided into three federal districts, the northern, central, and southern districts. Assume Dianna lives in Berkeley, in the northern district. Venue prevents Molten Boron from suing her in the Southern district, which would force her to haul herself all the way to Los Angeles to be tried. On the other hand, he can sue her in Washington federal courts, so he can force her to go all the way to Seattle for trial.

Some interesting wrinkles: The Supreme Court, for whatever reason, has upheld one other way of establishing personal jurisdiction: personal service within the state. Suppose Molten Boron really wants to sue Dianna in Oregon, and devises a scheme before she has left Washington. He sets up a roadside stand along the highway Dianna will be traveling, with a big sign offering free vegan snacks for travelers. Dianna stops, walks up to the stand, and is served process by a big, burly process server. In terms of personal jurisdiction, Dianna is, to use the technical legal term, SOL. If the right person hands you the right piece of paper while you're physically within the bounds of a state, you are fully subject to that state's jurisdiction with respect to whatever matter you were served process upon. Personal service doesn't satisfy venue, however, and Molten Boron would still have to find a way of establishing venue for a suit against Dianna in Oregon. The whole personal service in the state thing is something of an antique, and it's a bit surprising that the courts have held onto it. But, there you go.

So that's a case where Molten Boron can establish personal jurisdiction but not venue. How about a case where Molten Boron can establish venue but not personal jurisdiction? This is tricky with people, but relatively easy with corporations. Corporations are held to reside for venue purposes wherever they are incorporated, have significant facilities, have their primary place of business, or conduct significant and regular business. For purposes of personal jurisdiction, however, they are under the general jurisdiction only of the states where they're incorporated and have their primary place of business. Anywhere else they do business or have facilities is subject only to minimum contacts jurisdiction. So let's take the case of Amalgamated Dianna, Inc. Amalgamated Dianna, being an amalgamation, manufactures two entirely distinct products: Widgets, a form of industrial gadget, and vegan snacks. The two aspects of the business are kept largely separate. Amalgamated Dianna is incorporated in Delaware, has its headquarters in California, has a vegan snack plant in Arizona, and a widget factory in Ohio. Molten Boron, a citizen of Wisconsin, buys one of Amalgamated Dianna's vegan snacks, bites into it, and finds a chunk of pork. He sues for breach of contract, defective product manufacture, and mental distress. Any federal court has subject matter jurisdiction, and he can establish venue in California, Delaware, Arizona, and Ohio, because Amalgamated Dianna has facilities there. He could also likely establish venue in Wisconsin, either on grounds that Amalgamated Dianna does substantial business there or because the incident giving rise to the claim occurred there. Personal jurisdiction is a different matter. Suppose Molten Boron has a lawyer friend in Ohio. The lawyer can't, or won't, practice anywhere else, but as a favor he'll take Molten Boron's case free of charge, provided Molten Boron sues in Ohio. The problem is that, while Molten Boron can establish venue in Ohio, Ohio lacks personal jurisdiction in this case. Amalgamated Dianna has a widget factory there, and can be sued there for incidents arising out of its manufacture of widgets. But its vegan snack business has nothing to do with Ohio. Amalgamated Dianna has not submitted itself to Ohio's food safety laws, only its widget manufacturing laws. Personal Service within the state also doesn't work (it applies only to individuals, not corporations). This all makes sense if you understand the different justifications behind venue and personal jurisdiction. Venue is about convenience. It's convenient for Amalgamated Dianna to be sued in Ohio; it has offices there, it has executives there, and presumably it retains Ohio lawyers. Venue is satisfied, in theory and in practice. But Amalgamated Dianna has not submitted itself to Ohio's food safety laws, so Ohio lacks personal jurisdiction.

That's about all I want to say on the subject. Long as this post has been, it's only the general outline of the topic. There's a lot more to talk about, and that's just based on the cursory overview we get in first year Civil Procedure. Next up, if you're lucky: Choice of laws and the Eerie doctrine, determining which laws are used to decide cases when federal courts exercise diversity jurisdiction. Fun!

Limited Batch Flavor


I had an odd dream last night, one part of which I recall vividly. Transcription follows:

My sister Kelsey, my dad, and I are walking through the frozen section of the supermarket.

Kelsey: Ooo, let's get some Ben and Jerry's!  I need Chunky Monkey.

Dad: (Normally he's not cruel in this way, but these are the lines my dream's script gave him) Haven't you been complaining about being fat lately?  All that pig fat will go straight to your butt.

Me: Pig fat, dad?  Don't you mean milk fat?

Kelsey: Ha ha.

Me: Although it could be a new Experimental Flavor.  Makin' Bacon!  Bacon grease ice cream with fat swirls and chunks of real bacon!

Out of Town


I'm leaving town to visit family in Arizona for Thanksgiving. I should still have internet access, but it'll be spotty. Treat this as an open thread and talk amongst yourselves. Or yourself, as the case may be.

Thoughts on A Song of Ice and Fire

As I have mentioned before, I am not, generally, a fan of high fantasy novels. Tolkien, sure (although it took me longer than I'd care to admit to get through Lord of the Rings), but most of my excursions into fantasy have been of the light fantasy variety. When J. Bradford DeLong recommended A Game of Thrones, I approached the recommendation skeptically, but nonetheless decided to follow it. I'm glad that I did, because, thus far, A Song of Ice and Fire, of which A Game of Thrones is the first book, is one of the best series I've ever read.

To start, this is the sort of fantasy that you can enjoy even if you aren't a fan of fantasy. It discards much of the fantasy baggage of magic and faeries in favor of a strong focus on politics and interpersonal relationships. This is not to say that there is no magic, just that it's relegated to the background thus far. The story, as far as I can piece it together, is that once there were dragons all over the place in the world, and with them came magic. But dragons are now extinct and magic has been slowly dying out. Only a few magical things remain, on the far periphery of the land, and they're rare enough that most people treat claims of magic with a heavy skepticism. But strange things are afoot on the mysterious eastern continent, and magic is slowly ebbing back into the world, though the people of Westeros are too busy playing at war to notice it.

And it is this war making that is the major focus of the novels. The books take place in the land of Westeros (which looks strangely like England), known colloquially as the Seven Kingdoms. Here, again, you have to piece together the details of the story, but the short version is that for a long time the land was divided into seven kingdoms. Then the Targaryen family invaded, conquered all of the kingdoms, and set themselves up as the rulers of all the lands of Westeros. Things stayed as they were for hundreds of years, until Robert Baratheon led a revolt against House Targaryen. Most of the Targaryens were slaughtered; the only survivors were two of the Targaryen children, who escaped to the eastern continent. Robert then declared himself the new King of Westeros, and House Baratheon its new ruling house. Fifteen years pass, and we arrive at the start of the first novel. Robert has become a fat, slovenly drunk, though, we suspect, still good at heart. He's in over his head as king, however, and he calls on his old friend from the revolution, Lord Eddard of House Stark, to become the King's Hand (think Prime Minister) and help him deal with the day-to-day troubles of kingdom management, which are now too much for him, and his scheming wife Cersei, of the Lannister clan. But, as you might imagine, all is not well. Despite the current peace and seeming prosperity, there are signs of impending troubles. Winter, as they say, is coming.

The book is told in an interesting style. Chapters are given the name of the character whose perspective they are told from, and Martin freely skips between characters hundreds (or thousands) of miles away from one another. It's interesting because something major will happen in, say, King's Landing, and it will take two or three chapters for a character in Winterfell to hear about it. He has a roster of about 8 characters that he switches between, and he varies it up enough that you can generally keep the plot threads fresh (though I can attest that this can be a beastly series to put down for a month or two and then come back to). By telling the story in many locations and from many perspectives, Martin allows for a grander scope than would otherwise be possible. And by bringing us back to the same narrative characters, he helps us forge bonds with many characters and get to know them more personally.

These are long books, but they're fast reads. A Game of Thrones is about 800 pages. A Clash of Kings is 900 pages or so. A Storm of Swords is 1150, and he switched to a smaller font size, so each page is more dense than the previous books. A Feast for Crows was going to be over 1600 pages, but he cut off a big chunk of it to include in the next book. This, in turn, means that a saga that was once going to be told in four books, and then six, has now expanded to a projected seven books. Current estimates are that Martin will finally pull the story down at around 7,000 pages, so this is not a good series if you have book commitment issues. At the same time, these books are quick reads. Martin comes to novel writing from television. When writing dramatic television, you have to learn to design plots on the Scheherazade principle: give your audience a climax just before the required commercial break, and force them to come back for the resolution. Martin makes sure the plot is constantly moving. It's not that we don't get character development, but he makes sure that every chapter has a purpose that advances the plot. And he spins his story compellingly, so you stay interested throughout all of the thousands of pages.

It also helps that he has likeable, well-developed characters. As mentioned, he tells the story from many perspectives (with characters entering and leaving the narrative core) and this helps the reader to bond with more characters than if he just focused on one hero or one group. Above all, and here I mush gush like the squealing fanboy that I am, I love Tyrion Lannister. The Imp! The dwarf son of the evil Tywin Lannister! Brother to Cersei Lannister, the scheming queen, and Jaime Lannister, the callous and narcissistic Kingslayer. Uncle to the petulant Prince Joffrey. He's spawned of evil, he looks evil (the Evil Dwarf is one of the classic stock villains of Medieval literature) and throughout the novels thus far he works selflessly to advance evil. And yet... He's essentially a good guy. He's loyal to the Lannister family because they're family and family comes first, but he's basically decent, though cynical. Tyrion approaches problems with a subtler touch than his almost comically evil siblings, and because he realizes that beating the people into loving you often isn't the best tactic, he's far more effective than his brethren. Tyrion is great because you can't read a Tyrion chapter without rooting for him, then as soon as you're done you think "God damn it! If Tyrion had stayed out of it and left his scheming sister to stew in her own juices, the Starks would have won by now." Tyrion is a valuable asset to House Lannister because he's such a good person, and if Tyrion were in control of House Lannister they wouldn't even be the problem that they are. But, of course, he's not in charge. Everyone hates him, especially his family, because he's a malformed dwarf. But still he works to serve their ends, because family comes first.

Enough of that. Some caveats. First, an analogy: I'm a Democrat (So's George R.R. Martin, by the way). Many of my readers are, too. Surely many of you recall the feeling of dread on Election Day last November. The feeling that events beyond your control were conspiring to do really bad things, and you were utterly helpless to stop them. You could only sit back and watch the large-scale nation-wide slow-motion train wreck. If you read these books, starting about a third of the way through the first book, you will begin to feel that exact feeling, and it will never let up. It will only grow worse as you move through. Early on you learn that Martin isn't afraid to let terrible things happen to his characters. You will constantly feel that doom is about to descend on the people you know and love. Any good moments are overshadowed by the sense that a horrible payoff is just around the corner. Sorry to be so melodramatic here, but Martin does a great job of getting you emotionally involved with characters, only to sucker punch you in the gut. Fairly warned be ye, says I.

Another thing: John Snow and Daenerys Targaryen. They're narrative characters from the start. But John Snow is hundreds of miles from the main action of the novels, and Daenerys is thousands of miles away (and doesn't know anyone involved in the main plot). They'll be important. Eventually. But, 2000 pages into the saga, they aren't important yet, and this gets annoying. You're moving through the plot at a good pace and then WHAM! you have to stop everything for a John Snow chapter. I was moving rapidly through the books, then took a several month break when I came to a John Snow-Daenerys-John Snow sequence. Again, I know that eventually they'll be important, and their chapters can be interesting, but it's irksome to get involved in the main plot, then have to drop everything to see how Daenerys is doing off in the East or how John Snow fares in his forays beyond The Wall.

The one other thing that bears mentioning is the appendices. These are pretty much limited to lists of the members of the Great Houses and their relationship to the heads of the houses. They are incredibly useful. You will find yourself consulting these charts nearly constantly at the beginning, because there are hundreds of characters. Eventually you start remembering who everyone is, but even after reading thousands of pages of the books I still have to peek at the back to refresh my memory occasionally. One other note about the house lists in the back: do not, under any circumstances, glance at the house lists for later books before you have finished the books before it. The house list for each book reflects the state of the houses as of the start of the book. But things happen. Characters die, characters join houses, characters switch sides. The house lists of books you haven't gotten to yet are giant spoilers. Just a warning.

All told, gripping and fun. I highly recommend them. Now, if only Martin could speed up the writing process a bit. Or at least keep his target from moving further and further away from him. Reading these books as they come out feels like Xeno's Paradox given life.

Ten Movies I Hate


Apropos this post on Traumdeutung, I thought I'd post ten movies I hate. This was actually really tough for me, and I had to spend most of my intellectual energy during Contracts section thinking about this. I generally like most movies. That is to say, if I go to a movie in a theater, it's rare that I don't leave entertained. It's also pretty seldom that I rent a movie I don't like, on some level. It's possible that I'm just preternaturally good at selecting movie's I'm likely to enjoy (I DO read a lot of reviews), but more likely it's that I just enjoy watching movies. I love going to the movie theater; something about being in a dark cave with the image filling my vision and big theater sound greatly enhances my ability to suspend disbelief. I almost always enjoy a movie as I'm watching it. It takes hours, even days, to regain my objectivity and assess my experience.

I tend to enjoy movies I watch at home less, because I can't invest my entire being in the film. I'm still very aware that I'm a guy sitting on a couch in an apartment watching a movie. The phone rings. I get up to get a snack. I shift positions on the couch. My roommate enters or leaves. I get bored and start screwing around on the internet and watching out of the corner of my eye. But given that I can distract myself, I have a tough time calling a movie bad even if I lose interest. After all, it's not like I didn't find other ways to entertain myself during the time.

So I had to sit and really think about movies I even just dislike, let alone hate. It took about fifteen minutes to just come up with three movies that I didn't like. Eventually it came pouring out, though, and I came up with thirty I dislike, which I culled down to the ten I disliked the most. So even though this is "Ten Movies I Hate," it's more "Ten Movies I Quite Dislike." The criterion for making it on the big list if it was a theater movie was how I felt leaving the theater. If I was disappointed, or otherwise felt I hadn't gotten my ticket price's worth in value, I didn't like the movie. Similarly, for a home movie, if I wound up on the internet or reading a book or something 2/3 of the way through the movie, I didn't like it. So here we go. 10 Movies I Hate. Bear in mind that this list is both over-inclusive, since I had to struggle and pad the list with some that I merely dislike, and underinclusive, since there are a lot of forgettably bad movies that I couldn't remember even having seen. In no particular order:

1. Manos: The Hands of Fate
I had a rule, setting out on this excursion, that I would only include one movie that I'd seen through Mystery Science Theater 3000. After all, you can't go into a show like that expecting diamonds. On the other hand, my excuse for allowing even the one was that I knew that that one would be Manos. Manos is the worst movie ever made. There is no excuse for it. You can't watch the entire thing in one sitting; you need to take lengthy breaks and drink lots of fluids. The actors can't act, the story is vague and slow and doesn't really go anywhere, the sound production is so terrible that more than half the dialogue is completely incomprehensible, and the content of the film is repugnant. It's something about a dark lord (Manos) with a bunch of wives, who might be dead, and a family winds up in his evil... shack in the desert. And he has a henchman named Torgo, a classic movie monster whose scary feature is his huge knees. In the end, there're a lot of women dancing around in their underpants, then everyone dies bloodily. There's no understandable reason why these things are happening, but you're just happy to see that there's no one left alive to talk at you, so it must mean the movie's over. Don't watch Manos, it's not good, and it's not "so bad it's good." It's soul-crushingly bad.

2. Star Wars: Episode I
I didn't mind Episode II, insofar as I liked the second half, so it met the "leaving the theater happy" criterion, though it did so on a technicality. I thought Episode III was serviceable. I spent the first half of Episode I expecting it to get awesome any minute now. I spent the rest just wishing something would happen to make the movie okay. But no. Nothing. I won't go on. The badness of Episode I is the deadest horse that's ever been beaten. I wouldn't even have included it if I hadn't been looking to pad this list to ten entries. I mean, I really didn't like it, but I don't have anything unique to say about it.

3. Total Recall
Poor Phillip K. Dick. On the one hand, he died far too young. On the other hand, at least he didn't live long enough to see his stories turned into utterly terrible sci-fi action movies. Total Recall is based on a Dick short story called "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale." Total Recall is also one of those action movies, peculiar to the period from the late-80s to the mid-90s, which you can only enjoy if you have no soul. It's the kind of movie where car chases occur in which the hero mows through hundreds of innocent people, and we're expected to just ignore their gruesome deaths because, damn it, he's gotta get the bad guy! This is also the movie where I reached a startling realization: Everyone loves Arnold Schwarzenegger (well, not everyone, especially now, but you get my meaning), and yet he has never made a good movie. Ever. Really, go look. This leads to another question (which I bugged my co-workers with at the stacks a couple of years ago): What other stars can you think of who are famous for making movies but have never actually been in a good movie?

4. Blade Runner
I have seen this movie so many times. So many times. Probably a dozen. For a long time I was convinced this was a good movie and the only reason I didn't enjoy it was because of a defect on my part. But now I have attained film self-actualization: This is a bad movie, and I don't care what anyone else thinks. Yes, it's stunning visually. But god damn it, they cut out every interesting aspect of the book, they butchered Dick's subtle and insightful religious message to replace it with a goofy allegory, and they did it in a way such that you have no idea what the hell is going on or why things are happening the way they are. And this isn't intentional/artful confusion, this is bad screenplay/poor editing confusion. This was the first Dick work to be butchered when transferred to screen, but it wasn't the last. After Total Recall there was Minority Report (which I avoided) and Paycheck (a serviceable action movie. Nothing painful, but idea-free). If there's one thing that can be said for the recent spate of Dick's work being turned into movies, it's that it seems to have grabbed the literary world by the lapels and forced them to take notice of him. The local pretentious book shop here, which pointedly does not have a science fiction section, stocks a selection of Phillip K. Dick books in the Literature section, the only representative of the genre other than Kurt Vonnegut. So good for him. I'm still not seeing A Scanner Darkly when it comes out, though.

5. Breakfast at Tiffany's
This one might be a bit controversial, but it's definitely one that I genuinely hate, not just one I kinda dislike. I've read the novella. I love the novella. This movie is a travesty. It takes an engaging tale of a spirited young woman, told by an interested but ultimately unengaged third party, and turns it into a cliched romance. Even ignoring the fact that her love interest in the movie was gay in the book, the movie has the wrong feeling from start to finish. And it gets off on absolutely the wrong foot by giving us Mickey Rooney, whom I hate to begin with, playing possibly the worst Japanese stereotype set to mainstream film. Ugh. I still have nightmares of him saying "Mee-suh Go-Right-Ree! I must protest!" Probably enjoyable on its own, but in light of the book it's irredeemable.

6. Gone with the Wind
Yes, it has some great lines, but they're buried under a big four-hour mound of bullshit nostalgia for the glory days of the Old South coupled with the longest break-up in movie history. This movie is one of the great perpetuators of the Lost Cause mythology that allowed segregation, Jim Crow, and the disfranchisement of African American's in the South to continue unabated for a century after the Civil War ended. I'm unable to enjoy this movie because I spend the entire time I'm watching it dissecting every part of it that serves as propaganda for a truly repugnant racial, social, and economic ideology that should have been discredit long ago. And it doesn't help that the entire last two hours is spent watching Rhett and Scarlett fight. On several occasions while watching this movie I screamed "Just tell her you don't give a damn already and walk off into the mist! Why must you torment yourself, and me, by staying with that shrew!" A film desperately in need of an editor.

7. The Corporation
Hey, speaking of agitprop, The Corporation has it coming from the opposite direction. I'm much more sympathetic to leftist arguments than rightist ones, but I still don't like being lied to, and I really don't like being lied to for two and a half hours. Yes, corporations do a lot of bad. At the same time, they do good, too. And I don't mean good in a figleaf charity to cover up their evils way sense. I mean that corporations, and capitalism generally, is a very effective way of ensuring that a variety of goods are produced in enough quantity to satisfy both people's needs and their wants. The thesis of this movie is that corporations are the evil creation of evil people designed to wreak evil upon the world. The creators, in short, commit the error of assuming bad faith on the part of their targets. Now, they make quite a few valid points. They also make a lot of invalid or screwy points, and they generally fail at answering the question "so what should I do about this?" The two answers hinted at, and they are only hinted at, are "unite and overthrow your corporate overlords!" and "some weird thing in India where people pass seeds back and forth, and I don't even think it's relevant to the point they're making, but an Indian woman insists that this is cheaper and far more efficient than what corporations do and who are we to doubt her?" This is the only movie I've ever seriously considered walking out of, but I was in the middle of a packed row and I didn't want to disturb people. Nonetheless, this is a movie I genuinely hated. I also didn't much like that Enron documentary from last year, but mostly because it was boring and did a poor job of creating a coherent narrative. But you want to know what propaganda documentary I really did like? The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Clearly biased, but it has some amazing and unique footage.

8. Akira
Amazing visually, but the plot was utterly incoherent. And not on purpose; they had to cram a 3000 page comic book into a three hour movie, and on top of that the screenplay was written before the comic book was done, so they just had to wing it for the last hour. Good insofar as it was the thin end of the wedge in terms of bringing Japanese animation to an American audience, but its importance can be overstated. After Akira it was still years before Japanese animation and comic books built a large enough audience in America to be considered mainstream, and a lot of unsung heroes of localization invested and lost a lot of money trying to bring this stuff over before it became popular. Back on topic, though. Akira was pretty but incoherent. It also gave the false impression that all Japanese animation is sexual, ultra-violent, and incomprehensible. Not (necessarily) so.

9. Ghost in the Shell
This entry is padding. Again, I couldn't think of ten movies I genuinely hate, and, while Ghost in the Shell and Akira are, as you may have noticed, different movies, I tend to lump them together in the same category as vastly over-rated early Japanese animation imports. One distinction between GitS and Akira: Akira is at least based on a good comic book. Ghost in the Shell's comic book alternates between action that's too complex to convey in the comic medium and pages upon pages of incoherent high school-grade techno-philosophizing. I didn't really mind the Matrix 2 all that much, if only because I'd already been inoculated to its peculiar brand of pseudo-philosophical nonsense by Ghost in the Shell.

10. Mission to Mars
I include this because it's the absolute worst regular mainstream movie I've seen, but at the same time it's highly entertaining. I was laughing throughout, which was embarrassing in a crowded theater. From the painful product placement (they stick a Pennzoil sticker on the outside of the Mars lander, they find an air leak in the shuttle by opening a packet of Dr. Pepper and watching where the droplets are sucked out) to the laughable take on genetics at the end, I was kept in stitches the whole time. So it's probably not fair to call this a hated movie, but it sure was bad.

Word nobbling


I just noticed this in a Washington Post article, and it annoyed me enough to post about it.

My younger sister told me a story about visiting the home of friends when the teenage daughter's date arrived. The daughter came downstairs in a T-shirt that read, "Strippers do it with poles." The parents seemed nonplussed; it was the boy who said to them, "You're letting her go out of the house in that ?"

This passage utterly misuses a word. Not that the contents of the article don't annoy me, but the misuse of the English language is what has me on a tear at the moment. Can you spot the mistake?

In the above quote, the author misuses the word "nonplussed." The sense in which they have used nonplussed there is "Ambivalent, not caring one way of the other, not having particularly strong feelings on a subject." This is the way you generally hear nonplussed used. It is completely wrong. Nonplussed does not, under any circumstances, ever, mean ambivalent. I imagine the incorrect meaning comes from a mistake in puzzling out the word's meaning (Non-plussed, without plusses, that is, not positive, meaning not caring. So nonplussed must mean not caring, or not positive, but also not really negative) coupled with frequent misuse.

Nonplussed means, and you can check the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Websters, or to back me up, "to be at a loss for what to say, think, or do. Bewildered, confused, or perplexed." One can understand how so many people get the wrong sense of what the word mean; there are a lot of situations where, in the context of a sentence, describing someone as nonplussed, if you don't know what the word means, could equally well mean that they are confused or that they are ambivalent, since in either case it means that they won't act. And, as mentioned above, the word seems to lend itself by its construction to meaning something like "neutral" or "ambivalent." Nonetheless: that's not what it means. When the girl came down the stairs in her lewd t-shirt, the author almost certainly did not mean to say that the parent were shocked into utter speechlessness. She meant to say that they just didn't care, in which case nonplussed is the wrong word to describe them.

...The hell?

Lawyers don't write well. Judges, being lawyers, don't write well. I present to you an example of legal writing at its most incoherent. The following comes from Judge Carl Scacchetti, Jr.'s decision in People v. Bonnakemper, from 1973:

Gentlemen, the Court has wrestled with the statements contained in Section 79- h, Subdivisions (a)(6), (8) and (b), Subdivisions of the Civil Rights Law of New York State, and now as far as the first argument posed by counsel for the defendant, Wayne Bonnakemper, regarding that the motion is premature, it is the Court's ruling that of course it is not premature. Further, the Court states that the only effective means available to the subpoenaed one, Gannett Press in this instance, would be by way of an Order to Show Cause and to bring it on before trial so that the matter can be fully and fairly determined by the Court. As to that Argument, the Court makes the ruling as stated, at this time.

Now I've been known to write many a convoluted sentence myself, but Judge Scacchetti has me beat. He's got three sentences here and each one packs in between two and five different ideas. Scacchetti needs to slow down, take a deep breath, and break each of his ideas into its own unique sentence.

UPDATE: Huh. Upon googling Judge Scacchetti, I have learned that he was removed from office and sentenced to a 2 year jail term in 1981. For accepting bribes and giving favorable rulings to friends, not, as one might expect, for crimes against the English language.

At the Movies

I wandered down to Union Square today after class. I went to the Barnes and Noble there, looking for a particular book. No luck. So I went to the one in Astor Place about 5 blocks down (Barnes and Noble is ubiquitous in New York. It's not quite as omnipresent as Starbucks is on Market Street in San Francisco, but it's close). Still no luck.

So I tried The Strand (16 miles of used books!) but with no more luck and considerably more annoyance. The Strand is a fine used book store in many respects, but they clearly hate Science Fiction and Fantasy. It's relegated to one bookcase in the far back corner (far less than is given to, for example, Egyptology. Not that there's anything wrong with Egyptology, but, you know, if you pitted all the SF/F fans against all the Egyptology fans in a cage match, it would, you know, have to be a really big cage. But not for the Egyptology fans. I'm saying there are more SF/F fans than Egyptology fans. A lot more). Further, whereas other sections are organized alphabetically by author, Science Fiction and Fantasy is organized by whereever the fuck there was room when some SF fan sold their book to The Strand, forcing the bored clerk to walk all the way to the back of the store and put it away. That is to say, the SF/F books are not organized at all. I found 6 Piers Anthony books on the case, two on the top shelf, one in the middle, two on the second shelf from the bottom, and one on the bottom shelf. This is why I have never bought books from The Strand, despite having visited on many occasions. While they offer large numbers of books at low prices, I'm an incurable dork who always heads to the SF/F section whenever I enter a book store. When I find The Strand's SF/F section in such a state of disrepair, I get upset and stomp out of the store in a huff.

So after leaving The Strand I wound up at the UA Union Square, and watched Jesus is Magic (Quick Review, because there's not much to say: It's an hour and fifteen minutes of Sarah Silverman doing stand-up, intercut with some musical numbers. I thought it was funny throughout. But: The material is somewhat racist. Not, like, Hitler Youth racist, but it makes fun of racial issues. I can see and understand people getting offended by it. If I were writing a full review, I'd gush about how Sarah Silverman provides a daring post-modern ironic hipster view of racism in America. But I have neither the energy nor the inclination to write an essay on the sociology of ethnic jokes, so there). I arrived about 15 minutes early, and so I was forced to sit through most of The 20, which is UA's way of punishing people who get to movies on time. The 20 refers to the 20 minutes of advertisements they inflict on you before the movie starts. Just as I'm not going to bore you with thoughts on racist jokes, I also won't make you sit through my rant about ads before movies. Long story short: I watch ads on TV because it's free and the ads subsidize the programs. But movies in theaters aren't free. They're making me pay twice to watch their movie, first robbing me out of my front pocket with $10.75 movie tickets, then robbing me of my time and mental energy by forcing me to watch advertisements. Grr!

During the pre-movie ads, there was a local ad for Carmel Car Service. You know how companies get catchy or easy to remember phone numbers so that you'll call them when you're stuck and want Service X, but don't want to grab a phonebook? Carmel Car Service got one of those numbers, but the one they settled on, easy to remember though it is, is (212)666-6666. Carmel Car Service: The Car Service of the Beast.

I returned to Barnes and Noble after the movie to do some holiday shopping. As usual, I found myself in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section. I had decided to buy a book for myself, but nothing particularly leaped out at me. So I decided to let randomness pick my book for me. I chose, as I always do, to play Eenie-Meaney-Miney-Moe. You would be surprised at how many decisions in my life have been made with Eenie-Meaney-Miney-Moe. I'd guess well over half. I have a very specific way I play it: I count by syllables, not words, and the words I say (contradictory though they are) are: "Eenie-Meaney-Miney-Moe, catch a tiger by the toe, if he hollers let him go, Eenie-Meaney-Miney-Moe. My mother told me not to pick the very best one and you are not it." This eliminates whatever I land on, and I play again until only one remains. The way I decided to play in the bookstore was to set each bookcase as one distinct item. I would eliminated down to one bookcase, then go to that bookcase and eliminate down to one shelf. Then I would pick one book from that shelf, altering the game slightly so that I would pick the one I landed on, rather than eliminate it, so as to not spend too much time. Barnes and Noble had 11 bookcases of SF/F books, so eliminating them took a while. During that time, I scared several patrons, who walked into the area only to find me frantically pointing at bookcases while mouthing quietly to myself. After about 10 minutes, I adjourned to my chosen case and proceded to point rapidly at the shelves while mouthing to myself silently. Unfortunately, I had neglected to exclude the licensed book section from my random selection, so I wound up on a shelf of Forgotten Realms-based novels. I took this as a sign and decided not to get a book.

Fun with Spam



Your current situation has been presented to the important boards, and upon vigilant contemplation, we are able to put forward to you the consequent prospect.

The Important Boards? Really? All my life I've aspired to one day wield enough political influence to attain a seat on the Important Boards! And, while this is obviously not an offer of a place in that illustrious institution, it's flattering to know that my current situation is worthy of presentation to (and vigilant contemplation by!) them.

Based upon vigilant contemplation you are eligible to acquire a attractive rield on your initial property investment.

Wow, a rield! An attractive rield, no less! I had to think about that property investment, though. I rent my apartment, so what could they be talking about? I think the biggest property investment I've made lately is in a butternut squash. I've been sitting on it for a few days, and I think it's appreciated in value since then. Nonetheless, I feel that the bubble may be about to burst on my butternut squash, so I've been considering cashing out (at dinner tonight, perhaps). Now I have to consider the prospect of an attractive rield on it if I hold out a bit longer.

By completing the consequent attached form in a timely manner we will be able to settle our appraisal, and we feel positive you will acquire not only a lowered rate of interest, but also a cash return that will perform all your holiday needs and more!

It would be nice to get a better interest rate from my butternut squash investment. And, after all, why shouldn't I be able to perform all my holiday needs on the basis of my prudent and timely squash investments? I'm worried about the appraisal, though. I got it for about $3, but that's a New York price. What if the appraisal finds it's really worth less than that? I might end up getting a better interest rate on a less valuable principal. Hmmmm...

Please go here to settle this portion of the contract.

Wishing you all the best over the holiday period,

Carmela Mcgill

Should you prefer not to grab hold of this holiday prospect you can go here.

I think I'm going to ahve to fail to grab hold of this holiday prospect. Much as I'd love the higher interest rate, I think I'd be happier eating butternut squash tonight. Thanks, though, Carmela!

Lazy Professors

I'm taking three classes currently, and, as such, have three course syllabi. Of these, one has assignments attached to specific dates. This is quite useful, as it's annoying to have to scan through the actual contents of each assignment to figure out where we are in the class and what the next lecture's reading assignment will be. Since these are all electronic syllabi in PDF format, I can't just mark off assignments as they're completed.

The other two do not have dates attached to them, merely "Lecture #" or "Assignment #." Charitably, this could be an attempt by the professors to acknowledge that they're likely to fall behind their lesson plan. They thus omit dates to avoid embarrassment and to prevent confusion. This would be plausible were it not for the remarkable fidelity that all of my professors have shown toward their schedule. The most any class has been behind all semester is perhaps a half a lecture. That is, they will always at least partially cover the day's topic, and will usually speed up the next day in order to catch up. Nothing is skipped, and we're seldom behind. This contrasts favorably with my undergraduate experience, when we were lucky to cover two-thirds of the material on the syllabus.

The less charitable, and more likely, explanation is that my professors are lazy. They're recycling their syllabi from previous semesters, and if they don't include dates for reading assignments they don't have to update them each semester. That's pretty sad. This suspicion was confirmed when I noted that the file information for my Civil Procedure syllabus indicated that it was the property of Fordham Law (My Civ. Pro. professor is visiting from Fordham). So my Civil Procedure professor couldn't even be bothered to change the organization heading when he moved from Fordham to Columbia.

On the plus side, at least they're teaching. One thing I'll say for law school; the professors put in a lot more effort than they did in undergrad (note again their tendancy to stay on schedule) and the students are a lot more engaged. Now, part of this engagement arises out of the constant mortal fear of being called upon and verbally flayed alive in front of the class over the details of some obscure case from the Iowa Appellate Court, but not all of it. After all, if getting called on in class were the only motivation to study and pay attention, a good portion would just not show up at all. With the exception of a few frequent absentees, I would estimate that 90-95% of the seats in my classes are filled every day. That's pretty darn good attendance compared to undergrad.

So: Law professors are lazy, but not as lazy and uninvolved as undergraduate professors tend to be.


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For the second time in less than a week, I'm getting strangely light-headed. On both occasions I had been eating well, taken vitamin tablets, and experienced no other symptoms (nausea, cramps, etc.). I've been getting plenty of sleep (8 hours last night and the night before) and haven't been exerting myself too much, nor have I been particularly sluggish. I don't feel tired or lethargic, my head just feels very light. I have a tough time concentrating, I get dizzy easily and periodically stumble when walking or otherwise fall apart when doing something physical. And no, I haven't been drinking. Any ideas what the hell this could be?

More dorkfulness


I thought I'd pass along this link (via Teresa Nielsen Hayden). It's a sciencey toy shop in Great Britain that sells all manner of grown-up toys. I'm most interested, thus far, in the Gaussian Gun, the Non-Transitive and Sicherman Dice, and the Bikini Pen (not sexual). I feel particularly compelled to buy a set of Sicherman Dice. Then I imagine whipping them out to show friends:

Friend: These aren't normal dice.
Me: No! They're Sicherman Dice! When rolled together, the probabilities of getting any given potential sum are exactly the same as with a pair of standard dice!
Friend: Huh. So they function exactly the same as regular dice, but with different numbers.
Me: Precisely!
Friend: So why not just buy a pair of regular dice!
Me: ... Because these are cooler.
Friend: How, exactly?
Me: Well... they're... different... and clever!
Friend: I don't think we can be friends anymore.

I also recommend taking a look at the video demonstration of the Gaussian Gun (found under the Article link for the entry). I imagine that, if I had had that as a kid, I would have gotten no end of time-outs for using it to inflict harm on my sisters, likely based on the faulty legal reasoning that I shouldn't be punished for hurting my sisters with science. Science!

Dorkier than Thou



After going to two video game stores, inquiring, being told they didn't have it, returning home despondant, nearly ordering it on Amazon, finding out that they had one in an Electronics Boutique on the Upper East Side, calling that store to ask them to hold it, taking the subway downtown, crosstown, and uptown, running through the rain to the store, then making my way downtown, crosstown, and uptown back to my apartment, I am now in possession of likely the dorkiest purchase I have ever made, let alone devoted 4 hours of my life to obtaining. Behold!

Here's a closer look at my glorious acquisition:
It's a Playstation 2 controller! Shaped like a Slime! From Dragon Warrior!

I guess that's about it.

I ran into the Barnes and Noble in Union Square at 9:59. It closes at 10. I wanted to check on something in a Piers Anthony book. Piers Anthony, for those who don't know, is quite fond of puns, particularly in the titles of his books. The book I wanted to check was Isle of View. I ran upstairs. Science Fiction was on the fourth floor. By the time I got there they were clearing people out. I got the security guard to let me check just this one thing, quickly. There was a young woman standing in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section. The following dialogue ensued:

Clerk: I'm sorry, we're closing now.
Me: I just have to check one thing fast, I know exactly what I'm looking for.
Clerk: Tell me what it is and I'll get it for you.
Me: Okay. It's by Piers Anthony, Isle of View.
Clerk: WHAT.
Me: No, I mean, Isle... Of... View
(Here it should be pointed out that, it being late, me being under a lot of stress, and the clerk being an attractive female, I was stuttering like crazy here. My first sentence in this dialogue was more like "I ... j-j-j.. ust ... have t-to ... ch-ch-check one thing ... fffffffast, I knnnnnnow ex...actly what I'm ... lllllooking for." So, when I carefully said "Isle ... Of ... View," spacing out the words, it didn't sound materially different from how I'd been talking before)
Clerk: I think you'd better leave, sir.
Me: No! I mean, it's like a pun. It's Isle, like, I-S-L-E Of, O-F, View, V-I-E-W.
Clerk: *glances at books* We don't have it. Please leave.
Me: Alright (At this point I saw it behind her, but wasn't about to contradict her)



While waiting in line at a book signing tonight, I noticed a New Arrivals shelf. Prominently displayed on the top shelf were four "For Dummies" books.

Dating for Dummies
Depression for Dummies
Anxiety for Dummies
Stress Management for Dummies

I'm not sure what's worse, that I could use all four of them, or that I couldn't decide which one I needed most.

Light Fantasy


I've been thinking that I need to give fantasy more of a try. I realized, in thinking about it, that I've read a lot of fantasy, but don't really consider myself a fantasy fan. I think part of the reason for that is that what I've read is almost entirely light or humorous fantasy, like Piers Anthony's Xanth series, Robert Asprin's Myth books, Craig Shaw Gardner's Saga of Ebenezum and Ballad of Wuntvor, and Terry Pratchett's Discworld. On the other hand, the science fiction reading I've done has been pretty much heavy throughout. I thus tend, unfairly, to consider fantasy to be much more light and frivolous. Also, I tend to have a somewhat skewed perspective on fantasy, if only because most of my encounters with it have been in the form of books that subtly or not-so-subtly poke fun at the genre and its conventions.

In thinking about this, a thought occurred to me: it seems like there are quite a few light or parodical fantasy series, many of them very long-running. Is there anything similar in the science fiction world? Have I missed the humorous SF literature, or is there just none to be found? The only one I can think of is the Phule series by Robert Asprin, who really did most of his work in fantasy and just dabbled a bit in SF. If this isn't observational error on my part, if there is indeed a paucity of light SF, the question then becomes: which genre is the aberration here? Is there something about fantasy that makes both its authors and its fans inclined to take it somewhat less seriously? Or is Science Fiction so caught up in its own importance that it feels it is something that should never be made fun of, ever?



Borrowing a term from Websnark, I declare this evening, in a very localized context, to be National Drunk Writing Night (NaDruWriNi!). This involves getting drunk (check!) and then writing something, anything, and refusing to edit it once it's been posted. Today I: Stayed up non-stop since 9 AM yesterday, took a red-eye flight from San Diego to New York, attended classes, gave blood at noon, and then went out for drinks on Columbia's bill at a local bar. So now I'm drunk and writing. So there you have it.

I have been itching like hell lately, but only in New York. It went away when I flew to San Diego, and now it's back. It didn't start until after I took a shower. Do you suppose it's hard water? Does hard water cause itching? What the hell is hard water? Something to do with having metally stuff in your water, from what I recall. In any case, I have a sneaking suspicion that complaining that my water is hard to my superintendant and demanding she do something about it will result in my getting laughed at and then still having hard water.

You know what are a great set of novels? The Song of Ice and Fire books by George R.R. Martin. I'm not generally a fantasy fan, but these books are different. They're almost more books of medieval politics than they are fantasy novels. They remind me, in a way, of the early chapters of Dune, when it's largely about politics and house organization and not so much about spirituality and Muad'Dib and the Kwisatz Haderach. It's fantasy without the magic. Except there is magic. Only it's very small, and peripheral. For now. In any case, there's much good to say about them, but it will have to wait until my mental state is more composed.

Which reminds me of Least I Could Do. The author of Least I Could Do is also a George R.R. Martin fan, but man have I come to loathe his strip. I read it daily for the same reason I used to read Mallard Fillmore, because I feel I don't have enough raw hatred in my life and I need to artificially inject more reasons to be hateful. I found the strip a while ago when they advertised on Something Positive. It often has funny gags, but it makes you feel like a bad person for reading it, and it gets old very fast. The plot, in a nutshell: Raine is astoundingly good at getting sex. Raine is surrounded by friends who spend all of their time wishing they could be as amazing as he is at getting sex. There's a certain cleverness in the punchlines much of the time, but the whole thing comes crashing down when you realize that Raine is one gigantic galloping Mary Sue, an avatar for the author who can do no wrong and is everything the author wishes he could be. I also don't like the current artist. The original artist had sort of a cartoonish style with interesting character designs. The current artist seems to possess more raw artistic talent, which he prudently deploys to make all the girls look like they're posing for Playboy centerfolds at all times. He also seems to have mastered only two facial expressions for girls: Come Hither Stare and Googly-Eyed Wild Take. Nyah! Hate it so much!

Finally: Quick poll time! I'm feeling a bit peckish. What should I go out and eat? A. Indian Burrito Things (it's an indian restaurant that serves burritos stuffed with indian food instead of, say, beans and rice) B. Felafel or C. Pizza.



Apropos Dianna's review of the various manifestations of Dune, I thought I'd throw in a thought on my own tastes.

(Completely stupid tangent that you can safely skip: I can't use the word "Apropos" without thinking of the Three Musketeers. Aramis! Porthos! And Apropos, the musketeer who builds on the accomplishments of other musketeers!)

Dianna makes mention of Dune's extensive appendices. Its glorious appendices. I've read Dune a couple of times, but I've read its appendices dozens of times. This leads me to probably my favorite aspect of science fiction and, to a lesser extent, fantasy novels: world building. Plot, sure, vitally important, a force of nature and all that. Characters, great, fleshed out, the rounder the better. But what really wins me over is the world. I don't just mean a high concept (Howsabout a planet where apes evolved from man?). I mean books where we don't just get a place, we get the place's geography, its races, its ethnicities, its religions, its cultures, its political forces, and, most importantly, its history. I probably care more about how the world got to be the way it is than I do about how it is now.

In some ways, I feel like good world building expands the value of a novel beyond the confines of its particular circumstances. A well-made world is a playground for the imagination. You can read and appreciate the events of the novel, sure, and see them as a sort of starter adventure, but once it's done you're free to explore your own ideas for grand political intrigues and smaller personal dramas.

That's one of the reasons, moving on to lower-brow science fiction, that I love Star Wars. Not the movies, even the original trilogy, none of which are amazing. But there is an extensive secondary literature surrounding the Star Wars universe that fleshes out the important figures, the groups, the races, the planets, the history, etc. It's one of the most well-developed science fiction universes out there. My big disappointment with the prequel trilogy was that the history I'd constructed in my mind of the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire based on the robust secondary literature was so much grander than the tale of adolescent rebellion that George Lucas gave us. But who cares? I still have my Star Wars Encyclopedia and Ship Schematics Manual. I can make my own fun with that.

That's also why I tend to buy a lot of manuals for pen-and-paper role playing games, even though I hardly ever play them. I haven't really found a group to play with, but I can have hours of fun leafing through the supplemental books on regions and groups and deities.

I realize I'm pretty far out of the mainstream on this. Seldom do readers say, as I have, "I'm bored with this character! Tell me about the hats these people wear, along with the 500 year history behind their appearance and symbolic meaning. And, if you have time, include a Foucaldian analysis of the way in which the wearing of hats subtly reinforces the society's dominance structures." On the other hand, I feel like a well-built world can be useful even within the context of a single novel, without outside imaginative play coming into it.

For starters, a thoroughly imagined world has more immediacy and interest than one simply slapped together from stock cliches. You can certainly carry an adventure in a generic fantasy world on characterization, but they'd better be some damned lovable characters. It also makes the reader care a lot more about the plot. They come to know and care about a deeply sketched world a lot more, and will be more likely to throw their emotional weight into their reading. It also, I would imagine, helps the author in plotting to have a thoroughly planned world in which to work.

Obviously, though, this world building needs to be integrated smoothly into the plot. It doesn't matter if there's a fascinating story that you've developed about why all your elves have exactly nine toes and eleven fingers if it never gets mentioned in the book. At the same time, it can't be done ham handedly. "Lord Flostrand shook the elf's six-fingered hand. By the way, have I mentioned why elves have eleven fingers? It's a fascinating story... (Here follows six pages on the elves and their hands, before we finally get back to the beleagered Lord Flostrand, who by this point has gotten bored and gone home, taking the reader with him)." Appendices seem like a nice compromise for getting all of your favorite world-building points in that you couldn't fit into the actual novel, and they avoid burdening uncooperative readers with tedious exposition about matters not directly relevant to the plot. On the other hand, they are a bit of an awkward kludge, and it's obviously better to seamlessly integrate everything you want into the actual novel.

So, there you have it. Effective world-building is a strong positive, provided it is handled in a deft manner. I would argue it's important in both science fiction and fantasy, but even moreso in science fiction, given that much of the point of science fiction is to explore how our world would be/will be different if certain things develop in a certain manner. And even Science Fiction not of a speculative bent benefits (What if, in the future, we traveled through space by folding it in the minds of special humans mutated by a spice which only grows on one planet in the universe, and the universe were ordered along feudal lines, and also there's a cult of witches who have a great master plan to breed a messiah who can bend space and time without the spice? And also...). In fact, Dune is arguably a novel in which the speculative elements have been entirely thrown out in favor of world-building.

So that's it. Writing advice from someone who's never written a novel. Hope it helps!

Programming Difficulties


They don't show movies that feature plane crashes as the in-flight movies on airplanes. This makes sense. Lots of people are already on edge about flying, no need to exacerbate the problem by showing them the worst-case scenario. Jet Blue has in-flight movies available, but they also have a selection of regular cable television channels. Regular cable television channels are not screened for airplane suitability. Perhaps you know where I'm going with this.

Last night/this morning I took a Jet Blue flight from San Diego to New York. It was pretty uneventful. We got off the ground without incident and the televisions switched on. I flicked around the channels, because Jet Blue flights are pretty much my only exposure to cable television (I don't get cable, both because it is too expensive and because I really don't need any more time-gulping distractions in my life). I reached the Sci-Fi Channel just as an episode of The Twilight Zone was starting. I watched a lot of Twilight Zone in my formative years, but haven't seen an episode in a while, so I decided I'd settle in and watch this one.

The episode was Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.

For those who don't know, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (written by Richard Matheson) is the famous (within Twilight Zone circles) episode in which William Shatner (before he got tubby and his acting got hammy) plays a travelling salesman on a long flight. He's returning home after a stay in a sanitarium following a nervous breakdown, and is flying with his wife. He's extraordinarily nervous about the flight, but he manages, with the help of his wife, to keep calm through take-off. The plane flies through a storm, and Bob cautiously glances out the window. There, on the wing, he sees the outline of a man. He tries to tell his wife and the stewardess, but every time someone else looks out the window the man is gone. Eventually, as he looks on in horror, the man opens up a panel on the engine and begins tearing out wires. Bob, needless to say, goes apeshit. The captain tries to trick him into taking sedatives. Bob does so and then pretends to go to sleep. He then gets up, sneaks over to the air marshall and steals his gun. Returning to this seat, he steels his courage and opens the emergency exit, causing himself to get sucked out as his wife tries to hold him in by his legs. He aims his gun and fires at the gremlin on the wing, causing it to fall off the plane. The episode ends on the ground with Bob being carted off in a straight jacket.

I enjoyed it, but needless to say it possibly wasn't the sort of show that would show up on the in-flight entertainment if there were planning involved. I also watched an episode of Quantum Leap, and I learned, through the person sitting next to me, that The Tao of Steve is an amazingly long movie for a film in which, essentially, nothing happens.

California, Here I... Am


I'm in San Diego.  Right now!  For about a day and a half.  I've officially decided that visiting San Diego for a weekend from New York is profoundly not worth it, particularly if I'm leaving from class on a Friday and returning in time for morning classes on Monday.   It takes about an hour and a half to get to JFK airport by subway, then the wait to board the plain, then a 6 hour flight (which was delayed an hour this time, so 7 hours), then doing it all in reverse when I go back home.  I almost spend more time travelling than I do here. 

On the plus side, I find I appreciate home a lot more when I spend some time away from it.  Note, when I say "home" I mean "Where I live that's not San Diego."  Family's great and all, but I feel a heavy sense of oppression and doom whenever I go to the house in San Diego, even for a short visit.  This time was a new record: The pall descended on me when I was still on the subway in New York.  Usually I don't feel it until I catch the first glimpse of the house.  Ah well.  A short visit will be fun.

Stupid Legal Metaphors


Cliche metaphors tend to have a life of their own. They get passed on through common usage even after they lose their evocative power and their original meaning is lost to time. The law is particularly bad about this, propogating antiquated metaphors long after they've become meaningless. I was reminded of this by my Civil Procedure professor's discussion of the claim preclusion doctrine. The idea here is that, once a verdict has been entered on a lawsuit about some incident, you can't, generally, come back and sue again based on the same incident. The "generally" in that last sentence is why we spend several days on the topic, because there are always exceptions. As a general example of the doctrine, if you're black and your application for a license to build a disco is rejected, and you sue for racial discrimination and it gets thrown out, you can't sue again for the same rejection on grounds that, say, there was a conspiracy between the Board of Commerce and the disco across the street. You have to make all your claims in one case, because once the case is done, the matter is considered decided.

That's not the point. The Official Favored Legal Metaphor for the doctrine of claim preclusion is that "you don't get a second bite at the apple." This makes complete sense. It is well known that apples are not a fruit which can be bitten twice, or even more than once. The example of taking single bites out of apples, but being constrained from taking more, is entirely analagous to the idea of being able to sue once, but no more. Verbal irony aside, did the originator of this metaphor even know how apples worked? Why do lawyers (and, more to the point, law professors) propogate this silly metaphor? Surely some of them have encountered apples and discoverd that you can, indeed, take a second bite of the apple.

Quick Google Bomb

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Molten Boron. Molten Boron. Z. Slorpe. Molten Boron. Molten Boron Law Student. Molten Boron Columbia. Molten Boron Poke. Molten Boron Berkeley. Molten Boron History. Molten Boron Future Supreme Court Justice. Molten Boron Soy Milk.

Sorry about that. People have been finding the page searching for Molten Boron, but they wind up in the Weblogs category, which is both sparse and gives no indication that it is a slice of the blog and not the whole blog. Hopefully these links will send people to the homepage. But I have no real idea how Google works, or how to bomb it, so who knows if this'll be successful.

Google Research

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Google hits for the phrase "I Love Lawyers": 581
Google hits for the phrase "I Like Lawyers": 444
Google hits for the phrase "I Don't Like Lawyers": 541
Google hits for the phrase "I Hate Lawyers": 12,000

Ahem. I guess the nays have it.

In any case, since I feel a need to steer this post toward sex, Shakespeare's Sister has a good post on a new treatment gaining popularity in Serbia for men who want birth control, but aren't fans of using condoms. The answer? Electric shocks to the testicles. I feel like this is a classic "cure that's worse than the disease."

This leads to my general rule about prescription medications. Read the list of side-effects on a bottle of pills. Now, imagine your situation was reversed. Suppose you had a disease that gave you some or all of those side-effects. Now, imagine you had a pill that would eliminate all of those side-effects, but in return would give you genital herpes. Would you take that pill? If so, you probably don't need the medication.

Donning & Doffing


Kevin Drum has a post on a subject near and dear to my heart, donning and doffing of safety equipment for poultry plant workers. The Supreme Court ruled on the issue and, surprisingly, came out unanimously on my side of the issue, which favored the workers. It would have been nice if they'd included time spent waiting, but you can't win them all, and that really was a pretty tenuous point. I made a couple of comments on that post, if you're interested, down around #60 and 61. If anyone's actually interested in the compensability of donning and doffing, I'll be happy to discuss it in comments.

My Trip to the Soup Nazi


Yesterday I went downtown to east lunch at Al Yeganeh's Original Soupman Restaurant. Mr. Yeganeh is the real-life inspiration for the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld. For those not familiar with the Soup Nazi, the makes fantastic soup but enforces draconian punishments on people violating the rules of his line. This includes kicking people out of line for a moment's hesitation in ordering, after that person has just waited 45 minutes for soup. I've tried going down there a couple of times before, but he's been closed; apparently he goes to Argentina for the Summer. This time I was going to get my soup.

Something happened on the subway ride down that doesn't happen on BART. I stepped into the car and found myself in the middle of a mariachi band serenading the car in the hopes of getting donations. I had to smile at the delightful incongruity o fit. What an odd city.

I eventually got down to the Soup Nazi's new location at 42nd Street just off 5th Avenue, across the street from the New York Public Library. Al Yeganeh wasn't there. At least, he wasn't out front. Apparently he's gotten a big corporate financier and is trying to turn his restaurant into a national franchise. This 42nd Street location is the cornerstone of his new Soup Empire. He's also got a new corporate manager, who handles the business side of things.

As such, the store's lost a lot of its authenticity. It used to be a standard Midtown hole-in-the-wall lunch place, little more than a counter with a cash register. Now it's bright and cheery. They serve the same soups, but also have a salad bar and sell pannini sandwiches. There are TVs showing video clips about food (and a generous number of puff-pieces about and interviews with Al Yageneh). You're served by a friendly crew clad in Soupman uniforms (inspired by McDonald's uniforms, by the way, not S.S. uniforms, in case you were wondering). There are signs with the Soup Nazi's rules posted, along with things like "My rules must be followed 101%, not 99%!"

But it's all a show. If you break the rules, somebody might eventually tap your shoulder and give you a friendly reminder. Nobody gets kicked out of line, everyone gets their soup. The authoritarianism is strictly for show, a kitschy wall decoration like they put up in T.G.I. Friday's.

I'm sure this is standard management operating procedure. You can't create bad will by kicking customers out. But you can market the whole Soup Nazi thing to bring in customers.

I don't like it, and I don't like it for two reasons. First, the middle-class liberal well-intentioned ephemeral reason: They've taken something quirky and unique and turned it into something standardized and corporate. But I have a more practical objection. Al Yeganeh didn't make the rules because he was evil. You know what the rules are? 1. Have your order ready when you reach the register. 2. Have your cash out and ready to hand to the cashier when you order. 3. After ordering, walk to the far left to receive your order and get out of the way of the next customer. Nothing unreasonable, all designed to keep the line moving, because Yeganeh gets a big line. More stores should have such rules. The only difference between Yeganeh and others is that Yeganeh strictly enforces his rules, while most places just give gentle reminders. So the upshot of lax enforcement at the new Soup Nazi's place is that people ignore the rules. They fish for their cash, they flounder at the register deciding what to order, they start conversations with the cashier, and it slows the line way down. These aren't hard rules to follow, and they're just polite. Not enforcing them rewards jerks at the expense of people who can follow simple instructions.

So how was the food? Really good. Amazing. I had the butternut squash soup (the only one that had plausible deniability for veganism. All the other vegetarian soups had cheese in the name) and it was exquisite. Rich and creamy and perfectly seasoned. The soup came with sesame bread and a pear, which were both quite good, and I say that as someone who really doesn't like pears. So regardless of the corporatization, the food quality doesn't seem to have suffered. So that's good, at least.

Superficially, these two movies have almost nothing in common, other than having been shot on film. Fucking Åmål (which I shall henceforth refer to by its English title, Show Me Love) is a slow-paced, deeply character driven romance by Swedish director Lukas Moodysson. Primer is a low-budget science fiction film (with a heavy emphasis on the science) by first time director/writer/actor/editor/composer Shane Carruth. What they have in common is a devotion to realism that you don't often see in film.

Show Me Love is about two Swedish high school girls who fall in love with one another. Jesus, that makes it sound like porno. It's not porno. Despite the title there's no fucking in the movie. Well, there is fucking, but it's off-camera, and it's heterosexual fucking, so who cares? Elin's a popular girl who hates living in a small town and has gotten bored with life. Agnes is a smart girl who's deeply unpopular and has a crush on Elin. Elin finds out about Agnes's feelings when she plays a prank on her, then feels bad about it and apologizes.

What's intriguing about the movie is its authenticity. You watch it and you don't feel as though you're watching people reading lines from a script. The dialogue isn't clever, but it's realistic. People do things that don't make sense, just as they do in real life. The director includes scenes that don't move the plot forward, but do give you a deeper sense of the characters. The plot doesn't drive this movie. There's barely any plot at all, for that matter. Just the girls and their conflicted emotions.

The movie ends when they decide to get together, and it works. We know their relationship won't last. They're young, they don't know what they're doing, and Elin's clearly just experimenting. But that's not the point. The point isn't to tell the story of an eternal romance to last through the ages. The point is to show us raw young love, in the first stages of a romance. The movie gets to precisely the point when love is at its most brilliant, when they've decided to commit to one another, before they become a couple and their love becomes ordinary and institutionalized in a relationship. And then it ends.

Primer is also dedicated to realism, which is an odd thing to say about a science fiction film. For starters, it's a science fiction film that is very heavy on science. Science Fiction tends to get divided into Hard SF and Soft SF (or, if you're Harlan Ellison and want to excise the Science from your SF entirely, Speculative Fiction). SF in general tends to be about how people deal with and react to new technologies and environments, but Hard SF gets very hung up on the technical details of how the new technology works, of justifying the fictional leaps that create the backdrop for the story by explaining that, yes, this could plausibly happen. Primer is pretty hard SF. In a sense, it reminds me of Neal Stephenson's justification for calling his Baroque Trilogy Science Fiction, despite being set in the 17th Century and featuring no new technologies or alien worlds. He argued that it was science fiction, not because it had the trappings of the genre, but because it was fiction about science and scientists. That's what Primer is: fiction about science. Of course, it's also pretty heavily science fiction in the classic sense.

There's another sense in which Primer is dedicated to realism, this time in its dialogue. One of the aspects of film that you don't notice unless it's done poorly is exposition. This is where the film tells you what's going on, what's happened, etc. It can be handled ham-handedly ("Remember that time the institute gave us money to travel down the amazon and capture that creature, and that's why we're here now?") or it can be handled subtley. Or, in the case of Primer, it can be avoided entirely. This is realistic, insofar as it's seldom that you stop and recap the events of your life for the benefit of an invisible audience. It can also be very frustrating. The movie concerns a device built by some engineers in their garage. It does something very peculiar. We see them learning what it does, but they never say, "Hey! This thing does *Blank!*" Instead, we see what happens after they use the machine to do *Blank!* only we don't know what it's done. We know the machine does something, we know they know what the machine does, we know they're doing it, but we have no idea what it is. By the time we figure it out the plot's moved a mile ahead, at each step only hinting and insinuating at what's happening, and we've lost all chance of figuring out what's happening. In a sense, that's the point. The characters know more than we do about what's happening, but not much more.

So it's frustrating, but it's also compelling. You want to know what the hell's going on. You want to watch it over and over. Once you know what it is that the machine does, you can watch it again knowing that from the start and piece together a few more of the things that don't make sense. I imagine you can, with a dozen viewings, figure out what it typically takes a movie only one viewing to tell you. It helps that the cinematography is handled so well. I watched this movie with no idea of how much it cost, and was stunned to find out it was made on $7,000. It looks really good.

Overall, I liked Show Me Love a bit better than Primer, but I went in expecting more of Show Me Love. I'm a big Lukas Moodysson fan, and I'd recommend any of his works (Though I like Tilsammans (Together) the best, and Lilja-4-Ever should only be viewed if you're looking for the most depressing film you can conceive of and do not, personally, have a problem with never again being able to experience joy in your life). Still, though, both are recommended.

A random thought upon a familiar subject


Should a female masturbator be called a masturbatrix?

UPDATE: I just looked up Masturbatrix on Google and got 31,900 hits. I'm not as clever as I thought.

UPDATE 2: Actually, looking at some of the links, they don't seem to be quite what I had in mind. That is, they seem to be combining Masturbation on the part of a third party with a dominatrix who is in control of that masturbation. This is in keeping with the previously observed phenomenon of attaching dominance connotations to the suffix "-trix," when the only meaning that should be attached is "person who is female."

New Album

I just posted a new album. This one's a bunch of shots I took today around Columbia University and Morningside Heights. I'm planning to expand this one as I take more pictures around the neighborhood, so check back periodically if you're interested. Not, like, every day, but occasionally. I'm too tired right now to give these pictures titles and captions, so for now you'll have to be content with the systematic name my digital camera gave them. But titles and captions are forthcoming, right after my nap.

Two unrelated food things


Tonight I created a new kind of food! Soon it will bring doom to all.

We're all familiar with the experience of buying more vegetables than you can use before they start to go bad. I bought a big load last time and actually did pretty well. But the other night I noticed my remaining vegetables were starting to get rotten patches, and decided I needed to do something. So tonight, in honor of the arrival of fresh vegetables, I combined all my remaining vegetables into one super-dish.

Except I was tired and low on creativity, so I just sort of threw them all in the Cuisinart and pureed them, then added some oil and spices and cooked them. Not bad in and of itself, but the vegetable content of the resulting substance was roughly one part mushrooms and three parts spicy peppers. Of those peppers, there were a couple of what Fresh Direct calls "Long Hot Peppers," half-way between Jalapenos and Habaneros in terms of spiciness. There were also about 20 jalapenos and a dozen Habaneros. And bear in mind that I did not core, seed, or otherwise diminish the spice capacity of any of them. So the dish is sort of a greenish-brown mud that is more spicy than a flock of flamenco dancers.

It's not altogether untasty, though. It's now in tupperware in the fridge and I'm debating what, exactly, it is. Right now I'm between "pasta sauce" and "dip." I have people coming over tomorrow to play board games. I might test it out on them.

In related news:

I have a new God, and it is Fresh Direct's sour kosher pickles. Their regular kosher pickles leave much to be desired, but the sour ones, oh man. A big mass of vinegary deliciousness in every bite. The brine just drips out of them as you eat. They mess up your shirt and you don't even care.

Now, some might say that my new-found God has its disadvantages. What do the pickles have to say about how we ought to behave? What are our origins? Where are we going to? On these questions the pickles are silent. On the other hand, unlike some other gods I could name, my God is close at hand. I know where to go to find them and speak to them at any time, they comfort me in my times of need, and they always answer my prayers (provided those prayers are of a vinegary character). And whenever I feel lost and lonely in the absence of Their briney presence, I know that my God is only a credit card charge and a delivery away.

Apple Review: Macoun


The big fall apple harvest came in for Fresh Direct, and to celebrate I bought $45 ($45!) of apples. I got Macouns, Empires, Northern Spies, Cortlands, Jonagolds, Staymans, Macintoshes, and Ida Reds. 8 of each, so 64 apples in total. With the exception of the Macintosh, I've never tried any of them before. I'm going to use this opportunity to explore the world of less supermarket-friendly apples. With luck, I'll fall in love with an obscure seasonal available only in Maine 2 weeks of the year, and can use that to flaunt my hard-core apple fandom over the ignorant neophytes, with their Red Deliciouses and Granny Smiths.

I'm starting with the Macoun, which I've heard raves about. It's pretty interesting. The first thing I noticed, biting into it, was how amazingly light and crisp it is. Crisp like a Granny Smith, but without the density. In fact, as I was trying to come up with ways to describe this apple, almost every phrase that came to mind was of the form "____ like a Granny Smith, but without ____." It's sort of Granny Smith Light, which suits me fine because I've always found Granny Smiths (Grannies Smith?) a bit too harsh for my taste. It's smaller than a Granny Smith, and a mottled red. The interior is a bright white, like the models teeth on those teeth whitening ads. The flavor is tart, like a Granny Smith, but not as tart as a Granny Smith. Almost the same flavor, but much less strong. The texture is crisp and light, where a Granny Smith is crisp but hard and dense.

I like it. I'm not a huge Granny Smith fan, but I can get behind Macouns. They're much more subtle then the Granny Smith, and the texture works better. I'm tempted to try baking a pie with a few of these and see how it turns out. The flavor seems right, but the lighter texture might not work as well for baking. I would say that if you like Granny Smiths, you'll probably enjoy Macouns a lot (though, depending on how married you are to the strength of the Granny Smith, you may find them a bit weak for your tastes). If you're not a Granny Smith fan, the Macoun might be a good gateway apple, or even an alternative to the Granny Smith. For myself, I see no reason to buy Granny Smiths anymore if Macouns are available; every dimension on which they differ from Granny Smiths is, to my way of thinking, an improvement. The Macoun isn't, I would say, a contender for favorite apple, but it's earned a place as a regular in my apple rotation.

Hello, Something Positive readers!

Man, I'm getting a hell of a lot of google hits from people searching for Something Positive Nancy. Which just goes to show that I'm not the only one who was confused by Milholland's pulling an obscure background character out of his hat. In any case, sit and stay for a while! This isn't a Something Positive blog, or even primarily a webcomics blog, but maybe you'll find something interesting. Feel free to comment.

Also, Nancy is one of Aubrey's girls from Nerdrotica. She first showed up in the Class of Ninety-Bore storyline, when she was one of the girls Jason brought down to help Davan show up his classmates. You'll note that in that storyline they hit it off, but it didn't go anywhere until now. Since then there have been a few mentions of her, for instance in the series around when Episode 3 came out Aubrey mentions her being the first one to get her alien request form in. Further, if you look at the post-its on Davan's desk from when he was working at the insurance company, they all say "Nancy Called," indicating that Nancy's been trying to contact him a lot and, until now, he hasn't reciprocated. Hope this helps!

BART Shout-out

Today I found myself on the fourth floor of William and June Warren Hall for a New York Attorney General's Office recruiting session. William and June Warren is shared by the Law School and the Business School. As I was walking out, the word "Berkeley" caught my attention out of the corner of my eye. I backed up to investigate. Ah-ha. It's a pamphlet for the Berkeley-Columbia Executive MBA program, with which all regular BART riders should be familiar. They don't advertise as much on this end. Either Columbia doesn't care to promote it as much, or subway ads in New York are pitched to a different clientele.

Subway ads work differently in New York than they do in the Bay Area. For one, they're a lot more prevalent in the cars and less so in stations. Station ads are pretty rare, but the ads in the cars line both walls and the ceiling in every available space. The ads also tend to be for TV shows or colleges/ESL training programs.

The other interesting thing is the way ad buys seem to work. It's rare to see a single ad for something on a subway; companies buy entire sides. So you'll walk in and, on the right, the entire wall is ads for Curb Your Enthusiasm DVDs. On the left, it's all Manhattan Borough College's business training program. But occasionally you walk in and see a wall that's a hodge-podge, so it's not neccessarily that it's a mandatory selling policy by the MTA. I guess the advertising people have decided that ads are most effective when you buy out a whole wall, like those iPod ads in the Market Street BART stops.

Along similar lines, it's interesting riding the 4-5-6 line uptown. The 4-5-6 starts in Brooklyn and ends up in the Bronx, passing through the East side of Manhattan in between. In the course of doing that, it passes through the Upper West Side, Manhattan's richest neighborhood, and East Harlem and Spanish Harlem (El Barrio), two of Manhattan's poorest neighborhoods. Moreover, it's a very sudden switch. You get to 96th Street and there are, literally, multi-million dollar townhouses on the South side of the street facing projects on the North side of the street. There's also a massive change in the subway stations. South of 96th Street, catering to the millionaire set, stations are bright and clean and well-manicured. North of 96th Street they haven't been cleaned in years, the tiles on the wall are cracked and broken and it's not uncommon to find big portions of the floor flooded and disgusting.

The trains on the 4-5-6 are somewhat surreal. Elsewhere in Manhattan you get used to the scuzzy old trains which are the MTA's backbone. They're dirty and loud and have bad speaker systems so you have no idea what the conductor's saying. I thought these were the only kinds of train New York had. Then I rode on the 4-5-6. The lighting is bright, the seats are shiny, the interior is immaculate. There's a clear and well-enunciated electronic voice (The kind that's pre-recorded by a real person, unlike the weird Stephen Hawking/Female Stephen Hawking at BART stations) announcing the stop, announcing the next stop, and telling you, in a slightly frightening sing-song, to "Stand clear of the closing doors, please." They have electronic signs announcing the line and the next stop, as well as little maps with lights to show you where along the route you are.

Obviously the 4-5-6 trains are there to please the Upper-West Side set, rather than to meet the minimum standards for the Harlem crowd. I feel like, if they could save a few pennies on it, the MTA would happily switch out trains at 96th street so that the nice uptown trains could be replaced with dingy ones, then turned around and sent on their merry way back downtown through the Upper West Side.



In a decision I read the other day, it was claimed that OPEC stood for "Oil Producing Export Countries." Huh. I always thought that OPEC stood for "Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries," which I feel flows better. Here are some other things OPEC could stand for, which I came up with while unbelievably bored in Contracts today:

Ocelot Parmesan Elephant Candy
Omelet Pepperoni Escalator Clause
Oblong Pettycoat Embolism Cheese
Ostrich Pill Eggshell Camel
Otter Pinch Elegy Candle
Ontological Pants Existence Crisis



One hand giveth and the other taketh away.

I woke up this morning and stumbled into the bathroom (this time double-checking to make sure my door was unlocked and, just to be safe, not closing it behind me). Huh, what's that smell? I thought. Is there a skunk in here? How would it get up to my apartment? Do they even have a lot of skunks in New York City? Rats, sure, squirrels, but...

And then I remembered that marijuana smells like skunk, to my nose. Ah. So now the scent of roasted vegetables which I used to displace the scent of cheap booze has, in its turn, been replaced with the smell of burning pot. Thanks, roommate!

Food, Glorious Food!


Dscf1831_1I'll give you three guesses who made roasted carrots, turnips, parsnips, and garlic for dinner. Here's a hint: It's me.

UPDATE: Corrected mistake. Also: A practical upshot of Operation Roasted Root Vegetables is that now the cheap booze smell in the apartment has been replaced with the aroma of roasted carrots and parsnips. Hooray!

My life is a bad sitcom


This morning I locked myself, naked, outside of my apartment.

Let me start by saying that the door to my room is terrible. Generally, you have to apply your shoulder to get it to close all the way. It has a lock of the variety that arrests the doorknob, preventing it from turning. This has no effect unless the door is sufficiently closed that the bolt has caught in the recess in the door, which generally requires a conscious effort. I tend to lock my door at nights, just in case. Last night I locked it, but the door was not sufficiently closed for the lock to be effective.

So this morning I woke up and opened the door, having forgotten that the door was locked. I closed the door behind me. It is worth pointing out, here, that the bathroom is immediately across the hall from the door to my room. I tend to wake up and stumble across the hall to the bathroom without bothering to gather up clothes, then dart back to my room when done showering in order to change. So I went into the bathroom, naked, and took a shower, shaved, combed hair, brushed teeth, etc. I had about 15 minutes until class started, and was on schedule to get to class and get a good seat.

I left the bathroom and grabbed my doorknob. *snickt!* The knob wouldn't turn. "Huh?" I thought, followed shortly by "Oh no." I tried wiggling the knob. No dice. I tried forcing the door open. This was very silly. I lack anywhere close to the strength required to force a door open by brute force. After about ten minutes of this I started getting desperate. My room contained my laptop, my books, my keys, my wallet and, most significantly, my clothes. It also contained the only phone in the apartment, preventing me calling maintenance for help. I contemplated going into my roommate's room and crawling out of his window and into mine. Nope, his door's locked.

When you're locked out of your room and naked, with no prospect of getting into your room to be found within your apartment, a lot of thoughts go through your mind. Most of them are "Shit!" or some variant on that theme. Others are "Why the hell did I lock the door?" and "If only I hadn't closed the door behind me this morning." Eventually I calmed down and tried to figure out what to do. I came up blank. I slammed my shoulder into the door a few more times, still to no avail. I decided I probably had to go outside. I slammed my shoulder into the door again. After about ten minutes, I worked up the courage to wrap myself in a towel and creep out of the apartment. Fortunately the apartment's exterior door has a switch that allows you to close the door without it locking. I hit this, then put a doorstop in just in case. I sneaked downstairs. Nothing in the lobby to help me, just a maintenance request form that gets you a reply in a few days. I stared into the vestibule. There's the intercom. I could go out and try finding a button to call maintenance for an emergency, but I couldn't reach the intercom and hold the door open without stretching my leg out far enough to render it rather unlikely that my towel would remain in its proper place about my waist. Further, if the door did close, which seemed likely, I'd be locked naked outside of my whole building. Not a pleasant thought. I couldn't even see what I would press on the intercom to call maintanence, just the individual tenant buttons. I decided to return to my apartment to regroup.

I started to get desperate. I was pacing. Class had started 15 minutes ago. I would be stuck here all day in my towel if I didn't figure something out. I wound up in the living room. There I found my salvation: Last night, as soon as I came home, I set up my Nintendo Entertainment System in the living room, in order to play Castlevania 3 on the big screen, in honor of Halloween. Normally when I come home I immediately empty my pockets onto the bookshelf by the door to my room. Last night I didn't do that; I had immediately set about moving the Nintendo. I didn't think to empty my pockets until I started playing. I had emptied them on the coffee table, then forgotten left them derelict during the night. The upshot: There, on the coffee table, were my keys. I grabbed them, unlocked the door, and giddily got dressed for the day.

Some lessons: 1. Don't lock your room door unless it's really neccessary. 2. Don't close the door behind you in the morning. 3. If you do wind up locked out, your experience will be much more pleasant if you bring some clothes to the bathroom with you. At least some boxer shorts. All of these lessons fall under the umbrella of the overarching lesson: Don't be an idiot.

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