Sunday, October 31, 2010

Links for a Monday

--NPR's Laura Sullivan reports that the infamous Arizona Immigration law passed last spring has its origins in a scheme for providing inmates for a privately owned women and children's prison.
NPR spent the past several months analyzing hundreds of pages of campaign finance reports, lobbying documents and corporate records. What they show is a quiet, behind-the-scenes effort to help draft and pass Arizona Senate Bill 1070 by an industry that stands to benefit from it: the private prison industry.

The law could send hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants to prison in a way never done before. And it could mean hundreds of millions of dollars in profits to private prison companies responsible for housing them.


Instead of taking his idea to the Arizona statehouse floor, [Arizona state Senator Russell] Pearce first took it to a hotel conference room.

It was last December at the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C. Inside, there was a meeting of a secretive group called the American Legislative Exchange Council. Insiders call it ALEC.

It's a membership organization of state legislators and powerful corporations and associations, such as the tobacco company Reynolds American Inc., ExxonMobil and the National Rifle Association. Another member is the billion-dollar Corrections Corporation of America — the largest private prison company in the country...
You can read or listen to podcasts of Sullivan's reports here.

--Lately violence and death threats by right-wing extremists in the US seem to be proliferating at an alarming pace. I can't help but think that the right-wing demagogues ranting and raving against anyone who doesn't share their hatreds are provoking it. It seems pretty clear that the death theats made against the League of Women Voters in Illinois were directly incited by Glenn Beck's vitriol. Noting "that the League has been doing candiate forums and debates like the one Beck highlighted for decades," Mary Schaafsma, the issues and advocacy coordinator for the Illinois League, told ThinkProgress that "following the threats, the League locked the doors to its Chicago offices for several days and alerted the building management of the possible threat. 'I’ve been working in politics and nonprofits for a long long time and I never seen this level and pitch of vitriol,' she said."

--Over at the Feminist Philosophers blog, Jender quotes Jessica Nathanson on an everyday performance of gender:
I’ve assigned students the task of walking down the sidewalk and not getting out of men’s way and then reporting what happens. Several women have reported being bumped into. What was particularly interesting was hearing about this as learned gender behavior when one male student who was also trans talked about learning that he had to walk down the middle of the sidewalk, through crowded spaces such as clubs, etc., with his head up, eyes directly ahead, without saying excuse me or worrying about bumping into people. What my students and I learned from this exercise is that walking down the middle of the sidewalk is a male entitlement, as is expecting others to get out of one’s way in other crowded spaces. And – not only is it an entitlement, but it is also a way of performing maleness, so that NOT doing these things marks one as less than manly.

--On the occasion of the Nobel Prize in Medicine's being awarded for work on reproductive technologies, Julia Indichova 's IVF: The Heavy Cost of the Nobel Prize takes note of the lack of public knowledge of not only the consistently poor failure-rate of IVF but also of the long-term health consequences that are underplayed by the $5 billion industry that exploits women for the sake of profit. She cites in particular a 2009 New England Journal of Medicine article and suggests that the IVF industry is an example of technopoly, "a system wherein technology is always viewed as positive and of value, with little consideration of its consequences."

--Metta Spencer, in Why Did You Stay Communist So Long?, writes about Chandler Davis's It Walks in Beauty. Meanwhile, Dr. Robert Runte reports (with photos) on the Chandler Davis event in Toronto last week-- making me envious of those who got to attend.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Big Chandler Davis Event, Part II

The next speaker was Metta Spencer, who presents the text of her remarks here [ETA: Note Chan's response in Metta's comments]. To her question, "How were you a Communist for so long?" Chan gave a version of the story he'd told in Buffalo, concerning the Sartre article he'd seen in Les temps modernes that had enabled him to realize that he could admire and work with U.S. Communists on social justice in the U.S. while rejecting their illusions about the Soviet Union. He added that from 1953 to 1968, he felt that to attack the CP under those circumstances, having been a target, would be to say, "Oh, no sir! Not me: that other guy! I'm not guilty of the offense that the Communists are guilty of!" As to the interactions Metta mentioned between Communists and liberals and Leftists, he noted that there have been many occasions in his life when they've all sat down together and said, Okay, what can we learn from each other? Peter Rosenthal added that the CPUSA and the CPC did some wonderful things: they really did lead the fight against racism and the fight for women's equality.

An audience member asked a question that had also arisen in the Buffalo Q & A: Why don't we see the same mass progressive movements that we did a few years ago? Chan observed in response that over ten thousand people in Tel Aviv in 1982 had demonstrated against the invasion of Lebanon, whereas fewer than a thousand demonstrated in 2009 against what were perhaps greater atrocities. Also, in 2003, it was clear to anybody who read the papers that there was no connection between Iraq and 9/11 and no evidence that Iraq had nuclear weapons; nobody on the Security Council was fooled, the public wasn't fooled, millions protested around the word; but General Powell said, "You don't waste a mobilization" and the U.S. went to war. Bush got re-elected, albeit perhaps not in the most aboveboard fashion. Where did the demonstrators go? Judy Deutsch spoke of the powerful forces arrayed against any kind of activism in this era. Peter Rosenthal said, "But George Bush has proof that the weapons were hidden in Iraq: we didn't find them, did we? So they must have been hidden!" More seriously, he wondered whether the lack of a political movement with a unified vision might be a result of the factors Chan analyzed in "Shooting Rats in a Barrell: Did the Red-Hunt Win?"

Rosenthal had to leave then, being late for a meeting of lawyers representing the G20 protestors.

One of the three Israeli guys in the audience stood up to answer Chan's question: "I demonstrated in 1982 because at the time it seemed like there was a chance. At the moment, it seems hopeless. I've done what I could. Then I came here. I don't think of myself as an Israeli anymore, although I still have an accent." Chan observed that disavowing one's country to come to a country that was party to a much larger invasion is not much of an escape: "You can't run away from it: you're here." Judy Deutsch remarked that People often say, where's the hope? But what about people in hopeless situations who continue to act because they have no alternative? The eighty-six-year-old musician Ezra Schabas stood up and said, impassionedly, "First rule should be, Never give up hope. We're still here. We're still trying."

Emily Pohl-Weary said that reading about the Red Hunt feels like the post-9/11 world with its Culture of Fear. But maybe people are politically active in different ways . . . SF fan Merle von Thorn remarked that a lot of the activists have gone to the Internet and noted that we were raised in an affluent, comfortable time and we see everything as easy to get: her mother's parents had to scoop every microliter of the white out of an egg because they didn't know when they would eat another.

Aaron Davis said that for the Iraq War, the lies were obvious, but now there are a lot of latent activists who are confused by the changes in the world: part of the reason that people are not mobilized is that there is no central issue, and it's very hard to get good information. There's a lot of misinformation out there.

A historian in the audience remarked that in her parents' and grandparents' youth in the Caribbean, nobody had the belief that information was at their fingertips: getting a newspaper was a big deal. And she was teaching The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James a few years ago, and two young women came into her office saying that they didn't understand the class discussions. And they had some specific questions, and she answered them, but she still sensed that there was something not getting through. And finally they opened up and said, "Who is this Karl Marx guy anyway? James seems so attached to him." They'd never encountered the name before. Students now can't imagine anything different. How do you give that back and provide tools for their imagination?

Chan recalled that fifty-some years ago, people were enchanted with science fiction and socialism in the same breath. Judy Deutsch noted that the state of education in North America is sad, as is the state of the news media; but that's not true in the rest of the world: look at Haaretz and [some foreign event her metonym for which I did not recognize]. Natalie observed that the SF stories in It Walks in Beauty are not optimistic, but they reaise the image of a future in which things are different. Not necessarily better, but different. Historian Michael Wayne said, "Let's not forget how much has changed for the good," citing the advances in women's opportunities, in anti-racism, and most recently in gay liberation that we've seen in the past few decades. Historian Mohamad Tavakoli said that what has inspired him the most is seeing the undergraduates leading the faculty at the UT: they understand all of the details, all of the administrative ins and outs, of the current administration's attempts to shut down large parts of the University.

Judy Deutsch elaborated on her earlier point: "It's almost a privilege to require hope: people in desperate situations do what they have to do." Around this time, Peter Fitting decided to adjourn. I hadn't said much, being occupied with taking notes; and Emily Pohl-Weary hadn't said much, because she'd somehow ended up being the person who ran the microphone around to the questioners and commenters in the audience; but the talk had gone on for ninety minutes, and it was time for book-buying and book-signing. Not all of the people in the book-signing line asked for my signature as well as Chan's, but it was all good: I was so headachy and disoriented that I signed something like eight books with the date "21 Sept," thus creating Rare Collector's Items that had been inscribed a month before their owners even thought to buy them!

So the event was a big success. I hope in a subsequent post to offer reflections on it.

The Big Chandler Davis Event, Part I

At about 6:30 p.m. on Thursday 21 October, I accompanied Natalie Ann Zemon Davis and Horace Chandler Davis down a dim winding stairway that seemed to be modeled on scenes from a Cocteau movie and into the basement meeting room of the Toronto Public Library's College Street branch. Tables lined two walls of the brightly-lit conference room, containing hot and cold beverages, baked goods, and tuna sandwiches, for the catering of which Chan had paid. The far wall was decorated with plaques bearing images of Chan's stories: some showed the stories' initial pages and others the covers of the magazines they'd been published in. And one, as a tribute to Chan's activism, depicted a psychedelic peace symbol. Toward the front left side of the room, Chan and Natalie's son, the jazz pianist Aaron Davis, played loud "science fictiony music" on an electric keyboard.

The event took the form of a panel discussion, with seven participants: me, Chan, activist/sf scholar Peter Fitting, who introduced science fiction courses at the University of Toronto; mathematician/lawyer Peter Rosenthal; psychoanalyst/activist Judith Deutsch, who heads Science for Peace; author/nifty person Emily Pohl-Weary, who assembled a biography of her grandmother, Judith Merril; and sociologist/activist Metta Spencer, of Peace Magazine. The audience ultimately swelled to fifty-three people: the communities of scholars, of activists, and of SF fans were all well-represented.

Moderator Fitting recalled the action at which he had met Chan forty years ago and introduced the panel, with a couple of characteristic malapropisms (Judy Deutsch became "Judi Dench"). Chan was the first speaker, addressing the question, "What does science fiction have to do with these other things in our life?" Our attempts to talk about the things around us, he remarked, is always and necessarily a little bit off the subject, because next year the world will be different. And we can't see the future: we can only look behind us, as Walter Benjamin and Joni Mitchell have pointed out. So science fiction is an escape from that condition. Whereas so much of his political writing is about being appalled. And it didn't occur to him to put his science fiction and his essays together: it took Josh Lukin to see that they fit and could make a coherent volume.

I spoke next about the development of the book. As the book was being put together, I explained, after I had selected the selections and written the intro, my conversations with the good people of Aqueduct generated more content. Timmi Duchamp asked me to offer context for the letter Chan'd written about campus violence to the NYRB in 1970, and, never one to waste a word when I can waste five hundred, I'd assembled a mini-essay on that topic for the middle of the book. Then Kath Wilham had opined that the book ended too abruptly and had requested an Afterword.

So one of the themes that I covered, that I sought to cover, that I tried to effect a facsimile of covering, was, what if a reader doesn't value the arguments in some of the fiction, or what if s/he disagrees with the premises, or what if s/he finds the fiction dated or musty? I began the Afterword with an epigraph from Borges, "I do not transcribe these words so that the reader may revere them." And one of my ways of addressing that question is to point out that great SF doesn't only derive its value from considering how things could be different but just from considering that things could be different, which is very important in these times. I recalled Adrienne Rich's
Antifeminism was central to the right-wing "family" strategy, but so was the defamation of every past social justice movement. I recall in England Thatcher's dictum "There Is No Alternative." Here too, particularly given our history of anti-communism and anti-socialism, the possibility of an alternative has been rubbed out and discredited.
Hence intelligent speculation that takes as its premise the fact that things could be different is in itself pretty radical.

And in the case of Chandler Davis's fiction, the perspective from which that difference is imagined is also radical. I think of Davis stories with elements that might trouble today's progressives, such as "Letter to Ellen," with its protagonist's enthusiasm about advances in eugenics, or "Hexamnion," with its neutral depiction of human experimentation. But even in stories such as these, it's notable that Davis is what a great Canadian sociologist would call a stigmaphile: the perspective is that of the experimental (or the eugenic) subject, which is a big contrast from the superhero stories you see in Bester novels and many Heinlein novels–rather than the movers and shapers of society, the central figures are the less empowered. But for further discussion of that era's science fiction, I should turn to the expert in mid-century science fiction and hand the microphone to Emily.

Emily disavowed my characterization of her as an expert and began praising my accomplishments: "Upon looking at this book, I saw that the person who'd put it together brought a lot of love and respect. And [waving the book] this is how we rewrite history. This is how we recover dissident voices . . . But I don't agree that the stories feel dated at all. The topics of gender roles and war and corporate power and all of those issues are still with us today: we didn't solve them at the end of the Fifties." Then, addressing Chan directly, "You're a role model for many people who are involved in these battles."

Judy Deutsch, who spoke next, met Chan six years ago. They both still go every week to the vigil in front of the Israeli consulate. And she sees there, and she sees in his writing and speeches, the theme of talking together. She's going to read some of Chan's words directly because "It's just awfully good writing: he has a tone . . . that I think is very wonderful." And she's seen him have conversations around academic freedom, what intellectuals are for, our work around the corporatization of the university, our work on climate change; and she's continually impressed by how he talks with people.

Deutsch was struck by Chan's remarks on "the case for the amateur dissenter" in his essay " . . . From an Exile" and how they resembled Edward Said's remarks on the "amateur intellectual" in Representations of the Intellectual: she finds that both perspectives "kind of go against the truisms that often block our addressing reality." And she was especially moved by his remarks on "how much we have to not be bitter about": she noted the passage in "Trying to Say Something True" where he speaks of being able to understand all sides: "In any case, even in 1960, I already felt both the vantage of the allrightnik comfy in the arms of the establishment and that of the pariah." To further emphasize the moral imagination which allows Chandler to inhabit different positions in and perspectives, and the emotional honesty with which he addresses that tactic, she concluded by reading excerpts from Chan's poem "Now I Face You" (which appears in the interview at the end of It Walks in Beauty) and the entirety of "Guided" (in The Shape of Content).

Peter Rosenthal reminisced about having, on a drive through the Midwest in 1959 with the woman whom he would later marry, having heard a fascinating discussion on the radio, which kept him from leaving the car for some time after he'd reached his destination, notwithstanding his desire to go inside with his girlfriend. "This guy was a mathematician, and I was a mathematician; this guy was interested in Left politics and I was interested in Left politics. And the things he was saying . . . " He again heard Davis's name in 1962 when in grad school at the University of Michigan, generally for people who were explaining why they hadn't stood up for the guy. In the mid-Sixties, he finally met his hero; and in 1967, he joined the faculty of the University of Toronto and became a colleague. Like Emily and the other Peter, he made a big issue of my own accomplishment (I don't know what it is with these people): "This book putting it all together is really remarkable."

Sunday, October 24, 2010

WisCon's sense of feminism

The latest edition of WisCon's newsletter, eCube-- Vol.35 No.4-- is now out. It includes a "Draft Statement of Principles," which is
a work in progress It was written in four days by Victor Raymond, Mikki Kendall, and Debbie Notkin, with input from Karen Meisner and Jeanne Gomoll. We will refine it over time. We welcome input from the committee and from anyone receiving e-Cube who wishes to participate, but the final statement will be approved by the WisCon committee (which anyone can join by volunteering). Please send an email to if you want to help finish this work.

The statement defines WisCon's sense of feminism:

but one way to describe it is as a belief in the social, political, and economic equality of all. Feminism is part of a larger constellation of movements seeking social, political and economic equality for all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, creed, ability, status, or belief.

Since its inception, WisCon has worked to create a space for feminism and its consideration within the science fiction community. Feminism is vital to WisCon's identity. Feminism itself has grown and changed over the decades, and WisCon has reflected those changes, often imperfectly, just as those changes have been unevenly and imperfectly implemented in other feminist contexts.

At base, we recognize that a commitment to feminism means a commitment to social justice of all sorts-we might not be able to focus equally on every issue, but still we cannot pick and choose which people deserve justice and which issues we are more comfortable with. We are called to be true to our principles, even (and especially) when they are unpopular. WisCon's commitment to feminist science fiction is a commitment to ensuring that our future includes everyone, not just white, well-off, able-bodied, straight men.

WisCon's commitment to feminism is also reflected in our processes. Meetings, decision-making processes, program development, and guest of honor choice all reflect a commitment to feminist ideals of equality, respect for everyone's right to be heard, and the obligation to hold each other accountable for what we say. We do this to help each other and the convention serve as better advocates for feminism and social justice, recognizing that this builds our community. WisCon's commitment to feminist process means that we reject hierarchies of oppression, recognizing "the nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive." (paraphrased from Audre Lorde's speech, "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House, " on the web at
I'm glad to see this. It will, I think, be helpful for WisCon's process in the future.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Ursula Blogs at Book View Cafe

Inspired by the example of Jose Saramago, who wrote a series of blog posts recently collected in book form as The Notebook, Ursula K. Le Guin has begun blogging on Book View Cafe.

Her posts will appear as the spirit moves her. If her first post is any indication -- it made me think and it made me laugh out loud -- her essays will be "don't miss" reading for readers, writers, and thinkers of all stripes.

Friday, October 22, 2010


Two days ago in Toronto, I was informed by members of the SF community that Michael Swanwick is no longer slated to be the GoH at SFContario next month. He is now the co-GoH: the Guesthood of Honoredness will be shared by one Horace Chandler Davis, who I gather is some kind of elderly mathematician with an interest in alternate-history novels.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

In a private place

Today is Ursula Le Guin's 81st birthday--Happy birthday, Ursula!-- which means it's also the official release date of 80! Memories & Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin. Although the release date marks the end of Aqueduct's pre-release special, it's also the first day we are offering an e-book version, for $9.95.

(Speaking of e-book editions, you might be interested to know that Aqueduct is also now offering individual volumes of the Marq'ssan Cycle in e-book edition. Imagine, all those words, free of the physical dimensions and weight of the printed books. Almost makes me giddy to think of it.)

Rick Kleffel, at the Agony Column, discusses 80! Memories & Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin:

Ursula K. Le Guin is the sort of writer whose work you remember reading. You remember where you were, how you felt before and how the reading changed your feelings. This is not a part of the reading experience that is often acknowledged. It happens in a private place, after all.

That brings us to '80! Memories & Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin' (Aqueduct Press ; October 21, 2010 ; $19), edited by Karen Joy Fowler and Debbie Notkin, a collection in which writers explore and display the influence that Ursula K. Le Guin had upon their lives.

This is, from its conception, a very private book. We are told that Kim Stanley Robinson originally came up with the idea of a "Festschrift," that is, a privately published collection of appreciations for Le Guin from her fellow writers. From there, Karen Joy Fowler and Debbie Notkin, "who know a good idea when they hear one," according to the Acknowledgements at the back of the book, did the legwork and word work necessary to create '80!' It lives up its subject.

You'll find pretty much every kind of writing you can imagine in '80!', from fiction to criticism to poetry to memoir, to writing advice — you name it, you think it, and there's a version of it in this book. That variety makes the book itself easy to read, because you can pick it up, turn to just about any page, and if the style or content is not to your liking at the moment, then a quick flip will find a new style, and in some cases, a sort of writing that is truly unique.

Read the rest of what he has to say here.

Tonight in Toronto

A reminder:

Chan Davis and Josh Lukin will be at the Toronto Public Library, the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation, & Fantasy, tonight at 7:00, doing one of their fascinating discussion sessions and (perhaps) reading from It Walks in Beauty. 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Clockwork Fairies

I wanted to mention that has kicked off their Steampunk Fortnight with my story, "Clockwork Fairies."

Monday, October 18, 2010

What a little magnification can do for one's perception

Jupiter's been relatively close to Earth for the last few weeks. But it was only tonight that I went out after dark with my binoculars and saw Jupiter with Io, Europa, and Ganymede, amazingly sharp and clear. After marveling at how bright and big Jupiter now was, I turned my binoculars on the moon. I can't believe I never thought of looking at the moon through my binoculars before! It looks completely different! Without the binoculars, the moon looks smooth and sleek-- like a two-dimensional relief map that can only suggest depth. But magnified, it's all rough and bumpy and textured. I could hardly believe I was looking at the same object! I think that difference blew me away as much as seeing Jupiter so bright and round, and Io, Europa, and Ganymede actually visible.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Links for the Weekend

 --On October 4, SF3, WisCon's parent organization, passed two motions on the Elizabeth Moon situation.

--Inspired by 80! Memories & Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin, Michael Swanwick revists Poughskeepie (Part 1 here, Part 2 here). He writes:
Now, either you want this book (I did and now I have it) or you don't, and you already know which camp you dwell within, and no amount of descriptive analysis will budge you one way or the other.

So I'm not going to review the book. Why bother?

However, I was inspired by Lisa Tuttle's heartfelt contribution, "'From Elfland to Poughkeepsie' and Back Again, or, I Think We're in Poughkeepsie Now, Toto," on how important a single seminal Le Guin essay was to her, to go back and revisit said essay.
--Tansy Rayner Roberts reviews The WisCon Chronicles, Vol.4.

A snippet:
The highlight of the book for me was “We See What You Did There,” a group chat among various POC about their various experiences at the convention, and discussing their relationship with WisCon as a continuing event. This, combined with several standalone “My WisCon” con reports by different participants, definitely gives the impression that the book has achieved wide coverage as far as who and what WisCon is all about.
--Rex at Savage Minds writes about The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropoligcal Controversy by Paul Shankman, which examines Derek Freeman's attack on Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa (after Mead's death, of course). (Link thanks to the Mumpsimus.) It did my heart good to read
Impartial, but not noncommittal. Shankman describes the personal stakes and intimate social networks on both sides of the debate, and is frank in his assessment of how people’s personal commitments and backgrounds influenced their arguments. In addition, a major part of the book deals with the question of who is right about Samoa and this involves making judgments about the scholarly adequacy of Mead and Freeman’s work. As judicious as Shankman is, then, you still get a sense of where he stands.

And where he stands is overwhelmingly against Freeman. Freeman’s bizarre personal life — including his mental breakdown — is documented here in a scholarly monograph by a major press for (as far as I know) the first time. The stories that had been circulating about his atrocious behavior, such as contacting universities and demanding that they revoke the Ph.D.s of his opponents, finally get their full airing. Freeman’s arguments about Mead are shown not to hold very much water, and his own claims about Samoa don’t seem to stand close scholarly scrutiny either. At times one feels the book should be called The Trashing of Derek Freeman. But Shankman’s criticisms never seem vindictive and his discussion of Freeman’s psyche never degenerate into ad hominems — despite how easy it would be to do so. In reality, Freeman’s own worse enemy is himself — or at least himself and a scholar willing to rigorously document his actions.

Shankman is not uncritical of Mead and points out the ways in which Coming of Age reaches conclusions about American life that Mead quite liked but which were not really supported by the Samoan data. Still, it is clear from his book that Mead was basically a decent fieldworker and a careful scholar while Freeman was, frankly, a nutcake.
--And finally, I can't resist mentioning the recent research on great bowerbirds, which are apparently as common in Australia as black-capped chickadees are in my region of North America. When a report on this new piece of research was published in Current Biology on Sept 9, several magazines and newspapers leaped on it, including Science and Discover. Birds, of course, are wondrously various in their sexed division of labor (which variety should, really, be a lesson to to humans). In the case of great bowerbirds, the male spends a good chunk of the year building an elaborate nest for attracting females. Discover Magazine has a post about it on their blog that sums up some of the interesting bits. For instance,

Bowerbirds are relatives of crows and jays that live in Australian and New Guinea. To attract mates, males from each of the 20 or so species build an intricate structure called a bower, which he decorates with specially chosen objects. Some species favour blue trinkets; others collect a mishmash of flowers, fruits, insect shells and more. Surrounded by these knick-knacks, the artistic male performs an elaborate display; the female judges him on his skill as a performer, builder and decorator.

The great bowerbird’s taste for interior design seems quite Spartan compared to his relatives. He creates an avenue of sticks leading up to a courtyard, decorated with gray and white objects, such as shells, bones and pebbles. The male performs in the courtyard while the female watches from the lined avenue. Her point of view is fixed and narrow, and according to Endler*, the male knows how to exploit that.

He found that the males place the largest objects towards the rear of the courtyard and the smallest objects in the front near the avenue. This creates forced perspective. From the female’s point of view, the bigger objects that are further away look to be the same size the smaller objects that are close by. If bowerbird vision is anything like humans, the courtyard as a whole looks smaller to a watching female, the opposite effect to the one that Disney visitors experience.
Science, the biologists "mapped the positions of thousands of objects in front of 33 male bowerbirds' avenues. [...] When the researchers rearranged the designs, the males put them back in the original order. This behavior suggests that the birds are making deliberate choices, possibly implying some kind of cognitive talent."

National Geographic, by the way, has a wonderful gallery of photos of the nest males have built to woo females, here.
One of the authors of the research paper. The abstract of the paper can be found here, and here's a quote from it:
Males make courts with gray and white objects that increase in size with distance from the avenue entrance. This gradient creates forced visual perspective for the audience; court object visual angles subtended on the female viewer's eye are more uniform than if the objects were placed at random. Forced perspective can yield false perception of size and distance [12,15]. After experimental reversal of their size-distance gradient, males recovered their gradients within 3 days, and there was little difference from the original after 2 wks. Variation among males in their forced-perspective quality as seen by their female audience indicates that visual perspective is available for use in mate choice, perhaps as an indicator of cognitive ability. Regardless of function, the creation and maintenance of forced visual perspective is clearly important to great bowerbirds and suggests the possibility of a previously unknown dimension of bird cognition.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Birds and memory

I was amazed to learn the other day that some birds grow new brain cells in the autumn-- all in the aid of boosting their memories.

As I've mentioned before, over the summer, I really got into birding. One of the unexpected pleasures of that was discovering the joys of birding gossip. I can't begin to guess how many birders haunt Seattle's Union Bay Fill, which contains, among other things, the wetland reclamation area I've talked about in past posts, but there must be dozens, if not hundreds (easily identifiable by binoculars, or high-powered cameras or even telescopes, and sometimes even folding stools) regularly visiting the site. I've been reading birding books and have become more attentive and focused, and so I'm seeing a lot that I'm sure I previously missed. But even before I got serious about this new pursuit, I had already begun engaging in one of the pleasures intrinsic to birding: making narratives out of the "dramas" going on in the bird world that I've been visiting. Now that I, too, walk around with a pair of binoculars slung around my neck, other birders frequently ask me if I've seen anything interesting. That question is usually the prelude to a gossip fest about certain of the on-going or recent-past bird dramas. For instance, a couple of weeks ago when I mentioned the osprey that I've seen around the Cove since early September and remarked on its ineptness fishing-- diving down to the surface of the water only to ascend empty-beaked-- my interlocutor said yes, she was sure that osprey was a juvenile and that just the other day she saw it successfully catch a fish, which she was delighted to see-- only to have one of the resident bald eagles swoop past it and steal the fish right out of its beak. And then there's the gossip about the three young Cooper's hawks who seem unable to catch anything and will they starve to death if they don't soon figure things out?

And of course there was that pied-billed grebe who laid three eggs in August (see the photo)-- and sat on it for weeks, until finally it abandoned the nest when she figured out the eggs weren't viable, and the next day, the eggs [three of them, but I'm afraid you probably can't make them out in the small version of the photo to the right) were gone. And so on.

I've always been interested in the birds in my own yard, but since I grew up in the midwest, my ability to identify them (beyond crows, robins, sparrows, and starlings) was pathetic. I've always liked to listen to them in the early morning, but again mostly couldn't tell which birds I was hearing. But now I know, for instance, that black-capped chickadees and Steller's jays are habitues. I have actually frequently noticed a couple of Steller's jays hanging out here over the last couple of years. (They like to forage on the ground, which makes them easily visible.) I've only seen black-capped chickadees at the Fill-- but I hear them all the time in my yard. (Their song as well as their other sounds are highly distinctive.) But then it's difficult for me to see anything in the huge old cherry tree that a lot of birds like to perch in, because the leaf cover is thick.

The other day I decided to learn more about them than I could find in my birding books. And this is when I discovered that they are among the birds that discard some brain cells in their hippocampus in the spring and grow new ones-- causing their hippocampus to expand by about 30%-- in the fall. The reason for this? They cache food all over the place and need to be able to remember where they put it. Here's an excerpt from an abstract for a paper by David F. Sherry and Jennifer S. Hoshooley, Seasonal hippocampal plasticity in food-storing birds:
Both food-storing behaviour and the hippocampus change annually in food-storing birds. Food storing increases substantially in autumn and winter in chickadees and tits, jays and nutcrackers and nuthatches. The total size of the chickadee hippocampus increases in autumn and winter as does the rate of hippocampal neurogenesis. [...] The peak in recruitment of new neurons into the hippocampus occurs before birds have completed food storing and cache retrieval for the year and may therefore be associated with spacing caches, encoding the spatial locations of caches, or creating a neuronal architecture involved in the recollection of cache sites.[...] Available evidence suggests that changes in hippocampal size and neurogenesis may be a consequence of the behavioural and cognitive involvement of the hippocampus in storing and retrieving food.

Since the discovery in the 1990s that black-capped chickadees grow new brain cells every year, researchers are exploring the phenomena, some of them interested in finding appplications for humans who are inacapable of growing new neurons to replace the ones they are constantly losing. Kurt Pfitzer reports, for instance:
Songbirds are the first species of vertebrate in which brain growth during adulthood has been found to occur, Saldanha says. By studying neurogenesis in the black-capped chickadee, Saldanha hopes to learn how hormones help guide the brain’s development and reorganization. He is particularly interested in the role played by the hormone estrogen in the growth of the hippocampus. Songbirds (like most vertebrates) make estrogen in their ovaries; scientists have determined that their brains also express aromatase, the enzyme that makes estrogen. Perhaps not surprisingly, the area of the songbird brain with the highest estrogen-making capability is the hippocampus.

"We know hormones affect the reorganization of the brain in ovo, in utero and during the early physical development of most vertebrates," Saldanha says. "We are trying to figure out whether the ability to make estrogen in the hippocampus is helping the dramatic reorganization of the [adult] brain."

[Colin] Saldanha [assistant professor of biological sciences at Lehigh University] uses transmission electron microscopy (TEM) to examine neurons (nerve cells) and synapses (connections between nerve cells, where scientists think learning occurs) from the brain of the black-capped chickadee. His goal is to determine whether estrogen is being made in the cellular body or in the synapse, and whether the location of this estrogen-making ability changes seasonally.

"We’re looking at the ability of nerve cells and connections to make estrogen in the brain and asking if this ability is involved in brain reorganization," he says.

"We are the first lab, I think, to look at estrogen-synthesizing neurons in the songbird hippocampus at the electron-microscope level. We may, in fact, be the only lab using this technology to investigate songbird spatial memory."
This is fascinating research. But I have to say the chickadees can't be too thrilled by it themselves. For them, Saldanha must just be another predator-- only one they don't instinctively recognize.

ETA: Wouldn't you know it-- shortly after posting the above, I was out in the yard and saw two black-capped chickadees in flight. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

2010 Gulliver Travel Grant

PO Box 1693
Dubuque, IA 52004-1693

For Immediate Release: October 12, 2010


The Speculative Literature Foundation is delighted to announce that
its 2010 Gulliver Travel Research Grant has been awarded to author
Joel Arnold. The $800 grant will be used to help Arnold to travel to
Wyoming and Montana to research his Native American steampunk novel,
"Coyote Steam".

One of the judges said of his writing sample: "This story had
uncomfortable subject matter – racism, bodily mutilation, and painful
legacies. It took effort to get through it...I thought I knew where
Arnold was going...but then he went somewhere entirely different and
resolved the story in a way that was both powerful and poignant. Days
later, I was still thinking about it."

Arnold's stories have appeared in Pseudopod, Chizine, and Weird Tales,
among others, and he has published several short story collections and
three novels.

This year there were many excellent entries. Four Honourable Mentions
were given:

Rob Davies
Nalo Hopkinson
Kate Milford
Michael Swanwick

The Gulliver Travel Research Grant is awarded to assist a writer of
speculative fiction in his or her research. As in previous years, the
2010 grant of $800 is to be used to cover airfare, lodging, and/or
other expenses relating to the research for a project of speculative
fiction. The grant is awarded by a committee of Speculative Literature
Foundation members on the basis of interest and merit.

The grant is named after Gulliver, a character in the 1726 story
"Gulliver's Travels" written by Jonathan Swift. The story represents
one of the earliest examples of fantasy travel.

Applications for the 2011 Gulliver Travel Research Grant will open on
July 1, 2011.


PR Contact:

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Stuff of Interest

First, a couple of Aqueductista-related items:

-- Robert Wood offers Some Thoughts on the Chandler Davis Collection.  He concludes:

As a whole, this book links up with the recent feminist cultural studies work on the subculture provided by Helen Merrick's recent book also published by Aqueduct, as well as the more formally academic books written by Justine Larbalstier. [...] It's a genuinely interesting history, and the more material that I read about it, the more complex and interesting the topic becomes to me.
--Kimberly Todd Wade will be doing a book-signing on Saturday, October 9, at  Mystery and Imagination Bookshop 238 N. Brand Blvd, in Glendale, which is in the LA area. She will aslo be signing in Austin, Texas, on October 23 at Bookwoman, a feminist bookstore. Both signings will be promoting her new novel, Thrall.

Then a couple of items about women and British science fiction:

--Tricia Sullivan talks about the women and the Clarke Award, noting a shift away from work by women making it onto the ballot since 2006 (link courtesy of Torque Control).

--Niall Harrison reports on Sullivan's remarks on Torque Control-- and receives more than 100 comments in response.

One comment, by Farrah Mendelsohn, is pretty stark: "I think the UK is extremely hostile to women sf writers at the moment. Given the decision of Illustrious (Eastercon 2011) to choose the first all male line up in some years (the first since 2002 when they had three guests, not the current four), I cannot see why this should change."

But another comment, by Jonathan McCalmont, is even more so: "It’s the fact that things seem to be getting worse that’s most unsettling. The image of a genre publishing world retreating into whiteness and maleness that has emerged from these discussions really is quite distressing. This problem is then compounded when you consider how few genre books get translated into English. At this point, it seems not unreasonable to say that if genre publishing in the UK were consciously racist and misogynistic then it would not be doing anything different to what it is doing today."

And finally, a few items on feminism and feminists:

--Over at the F-Word Blog, Jess McCabe interviws Jonathan Dean about his book Rethinking Contemporary Feminist Politics, which analyzes contemporary feminism in the UK. The F-Word itself was among the organizations and groups Dean studied. One of McCabe's questions: "Do you think ‘new’ feminists’ views, activities or concerns differ much from previous generations of feminists?" His answer fascinated me:
Obviously the ‘new’ feminists are quite a diverse bunch, so it can be hard to generalise. That said, I think there is an increasing move towards emphasising continuity between the present and the ‘second wave’. There was a period in the 1990s and early 2000s when the ‘third wave’ was quite popular, and much of the feminism coming under the ‘third wave’ banner was quite keen to differentiate itself from the ‘second wave’. Interestingly, you don’t hear the ‘third wave’ being talked about so much now. Personally, I think that is for the best, and if you look at the current feminist scene, you see a lot of fairly clear continuities with the second wave: you’ve got Reclaim the Night marches, protests against the utterly abhorrent Miss University UK pageants, and organisations like Women’s Aid who are still providing services to survivors of domestic violence, just as they were 35 years ago.

There’s also recently been a lot of oral history research with participants in second wave feminism, so I think all of this can be seen as a willingness on the part of many younger feminists to acknowledge these continuities. That said, in some respects these continuities are quite depressing, as it is rather sad that there is still a need for the same kinds of activism. To be honest, though, there are other kinds of depressing continuities: my impression is that, after all these years, issues of race, class and cis privilege remain, within feminism, as delicate as ever.
There's much more in the interview that's interesting. Do go read the whole thing.

--Over at the Nation, Katha Pollitt weighs in, with Feminist Mothers, Flapper Daughters

--Also at the Nation, Rebecca Traister notes that while the Republican Party is making a big deal about it's "CEO candidates and "maverick Mama Grizzlies, many Democratic women still relate to Abigail Adams's 234-year-old wry (and slightly pissy) plea to her husband, John, and his nation-building buddies to "remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors." Some of us find ourselves wondering why our party still shuns a public celebration of its female power and why it still appears hesitant to boost its strong female candidates."  Traister pounds home the irony:
Left-leaning lady trouble is ironic, since by many measures women are  the Democratic Party—or at least 57 percent of it in the 2008 election. Moreover, the party has long been tagged as feminine: focused on purportedly soft concerns like healthcare, reproductive rights, social programs and the economy, as opposed to the more testicular national security obsessions of Republicans. [...]

The gender quotas, (usually) female-friendly policy priorities and slowly but steadily improving stats are all terrific. So why are we not hearing the party own its commitment to women's progress by lending full-throated support to its female candidates?

Monday, October 4, 2010

In the Name of Science, Part 2

Last Friday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius apologized on behalf of the US Government for experiments performed on Guatemalans in the late 1940s without their knowledge or consent. In yet another case of dubious "science" involving institutionalized medical patients and prison inmates, "medical researchers" co-sponsored by the U.S. Public Health Service, the NIH, the Pan-American Health Sanitary Bureau (now the Pan American Health Organization) and the Guatemalan government infected 696 human beings with syphilis and gonorrhea. Many of those infected were encouraged to pass the infection on to others as part of the study. A third of those deliberately infected never received "adequate treatment" (meaning, I suppose, that they were the control group and thus not allowed the benefit of penicillin). According to the article in the Guardian, the records of the experiments, which had been "hidden," were revealed by Susan Reverby, a professor of women's studies at Wellesley College, who then posted them on her website:
Reverby, who has written extensively about the Tuskegee experiments, found the evidence while conducting further research on the Alabama syphilis study.
Only a few years later Guatemalans attempted to shake off US corporate domination electing Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. The attempt was short-lived, for the CIA's coup d'etat put an end to Arbenz's presidency and replaced Arbenz with a military puppet. I have to wonder, given the Nazi "Doctors' Trial" held in 1947, whether the "medical researchers" ever had second thoughts about what they were doing. Or did they think the people they were experimenting on weren't really human? Most people think doctors are healers. Do most doctors think that, I wonder? Is there a conflict between being a healer and being a scientist? Can doctors, ethically, assume the role of scientist when the experiments they're conducting involve deliberately infecting healthy people? Though what kind of "scientific" protocol insists on not curing a disease it's inflicted when its investigators know perfectly well how to do so?

Questions, questions. That's all I have when it comes to this kind of thing.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Charter Schools and the Reason Foundation

by Kristin King

Charter schools are on the rise nationally, despite no evidence of success and evidence of real harm to students. Seattle has voted down charter schools time after time, but 2010 might be the year they establish a firm foothold in our most vulnerable neighborhoods. Charter school companies like KIPP and GreenDot are coming to town to give public and private lectures, probably in an effort to pass state legislation allowing charter schools. Meanwhile, the school superintendent seems to be pushing to close schools that have failed under No Child Left Behind.

What’s behind this huge push?

A previous blog post talked about the influence of billionaires Fordham, Gates, and Broad in the recent anti-union efforts of the organization NCTQ. These billionaires have charter school plans as well, which I’ll discuss in another post.

But another key player is the Reason Foundation, a major libertarian organization partly funded by billionaire David H. Koch. (The Koch brothers fund the Tea Party, and their father, Fred Koch, was a founding member of the John Birch society.) Through this foundation, Koch has been gaining greater and greater power over public policy. This power is leading to changes in our laws that the vast majority of Americans probably do not want.

The mission statement of the Reason Foundation says:
“We use journalism and public policy research to influence the frameworks and actions of policymakers, journalists and opinion leaders. Reason Foundation’s nonpartisan public policy research promotes choice, competition, and a dynamic market economy as the foundation for human dignity and progress.”

This agenda of “choice, competition, and a dynamic market economy” is especially dangerous for our public schools. But that’s the direction our nation’s schools are taking, and it’s because of the behind-the-scenes power of billionaires and organizations like the Reason Foundation and the Fordham Institute.

The Reason Foundation policy paper “Fix the City Schools: Moving All Schools to Charter-Like Autonomy” by Lisa Snell, proposes that schools perpetually compete with one another based on the results of standardized tests, and perpetually close when they fail to meet standards that have been imposed by the top.

Snell writes: “The bottom line is that the district seeks continuous improvement by assessing performance of all schools, closing the lowest performing schools and creating alternate opportunities for students in the least productive schools.” In other words, “the essence of this policy brief” is to “close failing schools, open new schools, replicate great schools, repeat.”

What makes this technique so damaging to students is that charter schools, on the whole, don’t provide a better education. One-third of charter schools do worse than public schools – while only one-sixth do better, and one-half do about the same. This means that approximately one third of students in these closed schools will move on to an even worse education. And every time a school closes, all the students face severe disruptions.

These are not just theoretical outcomes, but represent the actual, lived experience of millions of students in districts where charter schools have taken hold, as in cities like New Orleans, Chicago, and New York. (David H. Koch, by the way, is the richest and most powerful resident of New York City.) It has been devastating for the most marginalized children – poor children, children of color, special education children, and English language learners.

But the actual suffering of children does nothing to deter the Reason Foundation or school district leaders in cities targeted for charter schools. Snell interviewed Louisiana State Superintendent Paul Pastorek and described his vision for public schools:

“There was an article written the other day called ‘Try, Try Again,’ and I think it epitomizes our strategy. We’ll give it to a charter operator. We’ll let them work it. If they fail, we’ll bring in another charter operator and if they fail, we’ll bring in another charter operator until they get it right.”

Our struggling kids can’t wait while policymakers and state superintendents try out this charter experiment. They need real change now. They need an end to the punitive measures in No Child Left Behind.They need librarians, counselors, social services, and tutoring. They need equal access to excellent education, regardless of income, race, ability, or language. They need qualified, experienced teachers with union protections. They need small class sizes.

Because there are no quick fixes.

Because education isn’t about “high performing” or “productive” schools.
It’s about the kids.

x-posted from Kristin King's Blog

Friday, October 1, 2010

Talking About Islam During Banned Books Week

Over on the Book View Cafe Blog, we've been writing about censorship in support of Banned Books Week, an annual event sponsored by booksellers and librarians to counter the attacks mounted against some books. Aquedista Sue Lange waxed funny on banning badly written books, I wrote about porn and the Supreme Court, and others provided eloquent insights on Mein Kampf, gatekeeping, comic books, the history of censorship, and the like.

But given recent issues in the SF/F world about Islam, I think Aqueduct fans will particularly appreciate today's post from Judith Tarr, Banned Books: Devil of the Week. Judith, who has actually read the Qur'an and written alternate history that incorporates Islamic culture, writes movingly about the apparently societal need for a "bugbear" and the lies and wars that got us into this mess. She says:
Hate is hate. Bigotry is the same, whatever its target. People have to hide their racism and their sexism behind code words and cultural shorthand, but it’s fairly widely accepted that the word “Muslim” signifies something negative. Something that, even if you’re quite tolerant and rather well educated, you have to defend yourself for defending.
There's also a guest post on the blog by Bahram Nadimi on Islamic contributions to Western culture, with a link to the Common Ground blog, where he plans to continue exploring this topic.

Update 10/2/10: Sarah Zettel's post today on the Qu'ran and book burning also gives us some well-chosen words on how those who would burn books are trying to "erradicate ideas." She points out, "But, as with the people who would ban books, the people who would burn them seldom know what is actually IN the books."

Anyway, more antidotes for the hateful and poisonous words that seem to make up the bulk of this conversation.