Smart critical essays on the women of Terry Pratchett


This long-running series of essays by Australian fantasy author Tansy Rayner Roberts combine real affection for Pratchett's marvellous Discworld books with sharp critical insights on the portrayal of women in fantasy; historically, one of the more problematic genres for the portrayal of women.

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How games' lazy storytelling uses rape and violence against women as wallpaper

Anna Sarkeesian's brilliant, crowdfunded Tropes vs Women in Video Games web-series (previously) has a new episode, Women as Background Decoration: Part 2 [TW: rape, sexual violence, violence], which expertly dissects the use of violence against women, especially sexual violence as a lazy means of establishing skimpy motivations for player characters to hunt down the baddies.

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Visual gags in comedies: US vs UK

Tony Zhou created this fantastic, 7-minute critique of the visual style of comedy in US films, as compared with UK films (especially the films of Edgar "Shaun of the Dead" Wright). Zhou makes a compelling case for the superiority of British sight-gags and visual comedy -- and the fundamental laziness of US directors in their use of visuals to get a laugh.

For further reading, Zhou recommends David Bordwell's Funny Framings as well as the hilarious Ryan Gosling Won't Eat His Cereal video.

(via Kottke)

Jo Walton's What Makes This Book So Great


Jo Walton is one of my favorite novelists; books like Among Others (which justly swept the field's awards in 2011) and the Farthing/Ha'penny/Half a Crown novels show incredible insight into people, a deft hand at explaining the struggle to do good in bad situations, and the ability to spin out moving, heart-rending conundra that make you ache for all concerned. (Not only that, but she's got a book due in May that is radioactively good, a book that kept me up all night weeping and laughing by turns, and that has sunk a barb in my heart ever since).

But she's also a spectacular literary critic. Her regular column on Tor.com, through which she re-reads her favorite books and explains what makes them work, is required reading for anyone seeking to understand how books do their magic trick. And now those columns have been collected into a single volume, called What Makes This Book So Great.

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Mark Dery on Bobby Darin

Over at Thought Catalog, Mark Dery ponders the darker side of Darin's "Beautiful Things." Touchpoints in the riff include Cupid and Psyche, Roland Barthes’s concept of the “punctum,” and Yeats. From Dery's essay:
Isn’t there something unsettling, a sly wink of Dean Martin existentialism, in Bobby Darin’s finger-poppin’ Vegas-hipster version of “Beautiful Things” (from the 1967 movie musical Doctor Dolittle)? A hint of nonchalant menace to that walking bassline as it slinks down a minor scale in the song’s opening bars? Subliminal whispers of memento mori amid the brassy blare of Roger Kellaway’s orchestral setting, which nails that sweet spot between suave and schmaltzy? Intimations of mortality between the lines of Leslie Bricusse’s lyrics about “beautiful days of sun-kissed showers” and “beautiful nights of moon-kissed hours,” right there in Darin’s breezy delivery of the lines, “Our lives tick by like pendulum swings/ Delicate things, butterfly wings?”

"Why The Nightingale Sings: On Bobby Darin’s 'Beautiful Things'"

Critical history of the war on sympathetic magic

"Very Superstitious," Colin Dickey's essay for Lapham's Quarterly, presents a critical take on The Golden Bough, James G. Frazer's 1890 classic text on superstition. Dickey frames contempt for sympathetic magic and its practitioners in the context of the decline of the British empire, and connects it with earlier critiques stretching all the way back to Plato. The essay ends with a section on witchhunting and the persecution of both midwives and promoters of the germ theory of disease, who were accused of practicing their own form of sympathetic magic.

The conviction that witches were behind dangerous storms and other unexpected perils highlights a curious reversal that had taken place with regard to sympathetic magic. If it had once been used as a ward against uncertainties, against the caprices of nature and sudden death, now many saw it primarily as a cause of these dangers. (The Malleus Maleficarum warns that witches “can also, before the eyes of their parents, and when no one is in sight, throw into the water children walking by the waterside; they make horses go mad under their riders.”) These primal anxieties, of course, hadn’t gone away, and James, afraid of drowning at sea, certainly hadn’t yet learned the Christian art of dying well.

Such subtleties were no doubt lost as the crush and waste of humanity that was the European witch panic took on a logic and inertia of its own. After all, it was good business. Agnes Sampson’s torture and execution, like most witch trials, wasn’t cheap, employing judges, scribes, bailiffs, jailers, and executioners—each of whom had a financial stake in further trials. The trial record of Suzanne Gaudry, executed in 1652 in Ronchain, France, notes that each member of the court was to be paid 4 livres, 16 sous, while the soldier who accompanied her to Roux for the trial was to be paid 30 livres. Around 1593 in Trier, the scholar Cornelius Loos quipped that witch persecutions were a new kind of alchemy, whereby “gold and silver [were] coined from human blood”—before all his books were burned and he was forced to publicly recant ever having said such a thing.

As the world was becoming more ordered and codified via patriarchal religion and a burgeoning system of capitalism, magic was seen as a threat because it circumvented these structures: it offered a life outside the authority of the Church and the hierarchies it had carefully cultivated. Little had changed; people still felt powerless in the face of nature, but now instead of turning to magicians, they blamed them. The Church, after all, rarely attacked sympathetic magic on the grounds that it was empirically fallacious or ineffective—rather, it was a rival source of power. Among the many scandalous aspects of witches’ sabbaths as they were popularly depicted was the commingling of social classes: women—and increasingly men—of all walks of life, from peasants to the aristocracy, all were equal at the Midnight Mass. This vision of a dark Utopia was as threatening—if not more so—than any of the black rites practiced therein.

Very Superstitious (via Kottke)

Great moments in pedantry: Scientists point out flaws in the science of Prometheus

I've not yet seen Prometheus, but as a genre, I honestly enjoy articles that are all about applying a (perhaps overly) critical lens to the way science is portrayed in science fiction. I think there's a lot to learn from this sort of story—both about how science really works, and how to write more believable stories. In this piece on Forbes, an archaeologist, a geologist, an animal biologist, and two physicists critique the methodology and professional practice of the fiction scientists aboard the Prometheus. (Via Miriam Goldstein)

Contemplating the urban design of Lego City


Alexandra Lange sends us her "Living in Lego City," from Print Magazine: "An essay that asks and answers the question: If you built all the Lego City sets, what kind of city would you get? The city you get is one founded on the stereotype of boy busyness, a place that makes 3-D the transportation, safety, and sports obsessions we assign to boys. There's no zoo but a Dino Defense HQ, no supermarket unless you go down an age group to Duplo, no cafe unless you enter the pink and purple world of Lego Friends. It isn't just the minifigs that gender the Lego world."

Flying into Lego City on a Passenger Plane, you can see the city laid out below you in a grid: squares of green, wide roads of gray, and a tidy coastline of blue squares. It’s early, but already the Tipper Truck is out fixing the potholes and the Garbage Truck is collecting trash and recycling. At the Harbor, the crane is unloading goods onto a truck on the dock, while next door at the Marina the lifeguard is ready to go on duty. A high-speed Passenger Train is just pulling into the Train Station. And over at the Space Center, John Glenn will be happy to see that there’s a Space Shuttle awaiting its next trip to the International Space Station.

Safety is a watchword in Lego City. The Mobile Police Unit is ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice, should the Police Helicopter spot any illegal activities. It is hard to believe that any thieves could cross into Lego City, knowing the Forest Police Station is fully operational. And if the police, with their own helicopter and Jeep and a built-in holding cell, don’t catch the criminals, the bear (included) will.

But where do Lego City’s residents sleep? Eat? Shop? The green blocks are strangely empty. On the edge of town, kids are carving up the hills with their dirt bikes, thanks to the Dirt Bike Transporter, but what happens if they get thirsty? The only houses nearby (available as part of the Architecture series) are for the 1 percent: the Farnsworth House (that blue square looks awfully close) and Fallingwater.

Downtown, on the gray squares, the skyscrapers crowd closely together: the Burj Khalifa, the Empire State Building, the Willis Tower (renamed, even here). There should be a place to sit and watch the crowds at Rockefeller Center, but the scale is too small for benches or the skating rink. Down at the Marina, at least, you can relax at the Paradise Café and admire the brand-new Sydney Opera House. Now that Lego City has an opera house and a museum (the Solomon R. Guggenheim), it qualifies as a world-class city—right?

Living in Lego City (Thanks, Alexandra!)

Howard Rheingold's Net Smart: living mindfully in cyberculture

Howard Rheingold sez, "Technology criticism is important and I believe we all should critically examine the costs and consequences of our use of any technology. With regard to our use of social media, dangers of distraction, click-trance, social isolation, toxic credulity are real. But criticism, while necessary, isn't sufficient -- knowing that something is broken or costly isn't the same as knowing what to do about it. So I've written a book (Net Smart: How to Thrive Online) about what individuals need to know to use social media mindfully. Specifically, I provide evidence, advice, and suggested practices for mastering today's digital literacies of attention, participation, collaboration, crap-detection, and network know-how. The Table of Contents and introductory chapter are downloadable as free PDFs. Here are the opening paragraphs:"

Net Smart: How to Thrive Online The future of digital culture -- yours, mine, and ours -- depends on how well we learn to use the media that have infiltrated, amplified, distracted, enriched, and complicated our lives. How you employ a search engine, stream video from your phonecam, or update your Facebook status matters to you and to everyone because the ways people use new media in the first years of an emerging communication regime can influence the way those media end up being used and misused for decades to come. Instead of confining my attention to whether or not Google is making us stupid, Facebook is commoditizing our privacy, or Twitter is chopping our attention into microslices (all good questions), I've been asking myself and others how to use social media intelligently, humanely, and above all, mindfully. This book is about what I've learned.

I believe that learning to live mindfully in cyberculture is as important to all of us as a civilization as it is vital to you and me as individuals. The multifold extension of human minds by chips and nets in the first decade of the 21st century has granted power to billions, but in these still-early years of multimedia production studios in your pocket and global information networks in the air, it is clear to even technology enthusiasts like me that our enhanced abilities to create and consume digital media will certainly mislead those who haven't learned how to exert mental control over our use of always-on communication channels.

Net Smart

Thought-provoking essay on cause and correlation in modern science

Science is the best method we have for understanding the world. That doesn't mean that everything scientists ever think they've figured out is correct. And it doesn't mean that we're doing science in the best way possible right now.

For a great illustration of this, I recommend reading Jonah Lehrer's new piece in WIRED, about the problems we run into as we learn more about individual parts of complex systems and then assume that we understand the big picture of how those parts work together. A lot of scientific research, particularly in medicine, operates off assumptions like this and it can lead to big mistakes. Case in point: Back pain. In this excerpt, Lehrer explains how MRI technology that allowed doctors to get a better look at the spines of people with back pain led them to make inaccurate conclusions about what was causing the back pain.

The lower back is an exquisitely complicated area of the body, full of small bones, ligaments, spinal discs, and minor muscles. Then there’s the spinal cord itself, a thick cable of nerves that can be easily disturbed. There are so many moving parts in the back that doctors had difficulty figuring out what, exactly, was causing a person’s pain. As a result, patients were typically sent home with a prescription for bed rest.

This treatment plan, though simple, was still extremely effective. Even when nothing was done to the lower back, about 90 percent of people with back pain got better within six weeks. The body healed itself, the inflammation subsided, the nerve relaxed.

Over the next few decades, this hands-off approach to back pain remained the standard medical treatment. That all changed, however, with the introduction of magnetic resonance imaging in the late 1970s. These diagnostic machines use powerful magnets to generate stunningly detailed images of the body’s interior. Within a few years, the MRI machine became a crucial diagnostic tool.

The view afforded by MRI led to a new causal story: Back pain was the result of abnormalities in the spinal discs, those supple buffers between the vertebrae. The MRIs certainly supplied bleak evidence: Back pain was strongly correlated with seriously degenerated discs, which were in turn thought to cause inflammation of the local nerves. Consequently, doctors began administering epidurals to quiet the pain, and if it persisted they would surgically remove the damaged disc tissue.

But the vivid images were misleading. It turns out that disc abnormalities are typically not the cause of chronic back pain. The presence of such abnormalities is just as likely to be correlated with the absence of back problems, as a 1994 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine showed. The researchers imaged the spinal regions of 98 people with no back pain. The results were shocking: Two-thirds of normal patients exhibited “serious problems” like bulging or protruding tissue. In 38 percent of these patients, the MRI revealed multiple damaged discs. Nevertheless, none of these people were in pain. The study concluded that, in most cases, “the discovery of a bulge or protrusion on an MRI scan in a patient with low back pain may frequently be coincidental.”

This is a complicated problem without a clear solution right now. But we definitely need to have discussions like this so that we can work toward making science and medicine better.

Via Espen in Submitterator