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Spoilers are actually kind of nice

UCSD psych researchers Jonathan D. Leavitt and Nicholas J. S. Christenfeld have published a paper called Spoilers Don't Spoil Stories in Psychological Science, in which they systematically study the effect of spoilers on audiences' appreciation of stories. As the title suggests, they found that despite subjects' stated sensitivity to spoilers, having stories spoiled for them didn't undermine their enjoyment of stories -- in fact, it sometimes enhanced it. Ty Burr has more:

No matter how much we claim to love that uncertainty, Leavitt and Christenfeld’s study indicates that spoilers provide some psychological relief, a way of dipping our toes in the ocean of fiction before diving in. Not knowing where a compelling story is going creates anxiety, and it’s that anxiety, Leavitt believes, that fuels the secret itch to cheat. “There are emotions we don’t like feeling in real life,” he says. “We feel them watching a movie, but without the anxiety it’s not as difficult to cope with. We feel safer. I feel that’s even more the case if you know where the story’s going — there’s not the dread or the fear that could spill over a little bit into real life.”

If a work of fiction is particularly well crafted — like “The Godfather” or like one of Leavitt’s recent favorite reads, Richard Russo’s “Straight Man” — it’s possible to fool ourselves into a temporary not-knowing while revisiting it, to lose ourselves in the story all over again even as part of our brains breathes a sigh of relief at knowing where the guard rails are. From that perspective, an unspoiled story may be just a hurdle we have to surmount in order to appreciate it later in greater comfort, the way we have to get used to certain foods, like artichokes or oysters.

I don't mind spoilers at all, and I find extreme spoiler-aversion pretty tedious. Some people act like they have a deadly nut allergy to spoilers, one which will cause their throat to close and suffocate them should they happen on the faintest trace of spoil. It's all a bit precious and drama-y.

The secret allure of the spoiler

Crazy stuff they'll teach in Louisiana's publicly funded charter schools

Louisiana governor (and retired exorcist) Bobby Jindal has signed an aggressive charter school bill that will transfer millions in tax dollars to religious academies run by evolution-denying, homophobic, climate-change-denying Christian extremists. Mother Jones's Deanna Pan went for a dig through these schools' official texts and discovered that Louisiana's publicly funded education system will soon tell some of its luckiest students that the KKK "achieved a certain respectability" by fighting bootleggers; "the majority of slave holders treated their slaves well;" dragons might be real; "dinosaurs and humans were definitely on the earth at the same time," and many other fun facts.

3. "God used the Trail of Tears to bring many Indians to Christ."—America: Land That I Love, Teacher ed., A Beka Book, 1994...

7. The Great Depression wasn't as bad as the liberals made it sound: "Perhaps the best known work of propaganda to come from the Depression was John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath…Other forms of propaganda included rumors of mortgage foreclosures, mass evictions, and hunger riots and exaggerated statistics representing the number of unemployed and homeless people in America."—United States History: Heritage of Freedom, 2nd ed., A Beka Book, 1996...

10. Mark Twain and Emily Dickinson were a couple of hacks: "[Mark] Twain's outlook was both self-centered and ultimately hopeless…Twain's skepticism was clearly not the honest questioning of a seeker of truth but the deliberate defiance of a confessed rebel."—Elements of Literature for Christian Schools, Bob Jones University, 2001

"Several of [Emily Dickinson's] poems show a presumptuous attitude concerning her eternal destiny and a veiled disrespect for authority in general. Throughout her life she viewed salvation as a gamble, not a certainty. Although she did view the Bible as a source of poetic inspiration, she never accepted it as an inerrant guide to life."—Elements of Literature for Christian Schools, Bob Jones University, 2001...

12. Gay people "have no more claims to special rights than child molesters or rapists."—Teacher's Resource Guide to Current Events for Christian Schools, 1998-1999, Bob Jones University Press, 1998

One text also decries mathematical set theory as ungodly.

14 Wacky "Facts" Kids Will Learn in Louisiana's Voucher Schools

Ayn Rand's Lord of the Rings

“'Yes,' said Frodo. 'I shall keep the Ring from the foolish parasities who wish to destroy it. For shockingly, many wish to destroy the Ring! They wish to keep the Ring from the rightful ownership of the rugged individualist who made it as his own.'" [Oliver Miller at Slacktory. Previously.] Rob

An interview with China Miéville

Photo: Ceridwen (cc)

China Miéville is one of the most important writers working in Britain today. The author of ten novels of "weird fiction"—as well as short stories, comics, non-fiction, a roleplaying game, and academic writing on law and ideology—his 2011 science fiction novel Embassytown was acclaimed by Ursula K le Guin, among others, as "a fully achieved work of art" busy "bringing the craft of science fiction out of the backwaters".

We share the same British publisher, Pan Macmillan, and so—ahead of the publication on May 24 of his newest book, Railsea, a fantastical novel set in a world whose "seas" are an endless web of railway lines—I spent an hour with him discussing fiction, fantasy, giant moles, and the limits of contemporary geekdom.

Read the rest

Makers, the Master's thesis

Noah Brewer just successfully defended his MA English thesis Re-Makers: The Novel in Digital Collaborative Space at the University of Georgia. As the title implies, the piece is about my novel Makers. It's a smart piece of work, and I'm both tickled and honored. Cory

Chicago Writers Conference seeks funds

Bill Shunn sez,

The Chicago Writers Conference is Chicago's only homegrown mainstream literary conference focusing on practical business advice for fiction and non-fiction writers alike. The brainchild of Mare Swallow, it will feature such editors, agents, and authors as Chuck Sambuchino, Christine Sneed, Robert K. Elder, and Jennifer Mattson.

But it can only happen with support! The CWC is in the final eight days of its Kickstarter campaign and still needs to raise over $4000 for equipment rental, web development, speakers' travel expenses. There are lots of great incentives remaining for various donation levels, including art, signed books, and query letter or story manuscript critiques from Chuck Sambuchino and William Shunn. Please help, and support Chicago's long tradition of literary excellence!

Make the Chicago Writers Conference a Reality! (Thanks, Bill)

Great novels without the first line

Mary Robinette Kowal sez,

Imagine what would happen if the unthinkable occurred. What if the first line were accidentally omitted by the typesetter? Would Moby Dick have been the same if it started, 'Some years ago -- never mind how long precisely -- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.'

I put together a little quiz for you to try your hand at identifying these famous books by their second lines. Why?

Because when my novel, Glamour in Glass, comes out tomorrow, it will be missing the first line. We don't know how it happened yet, since the last time my editor and I looked at it, the sentence was there. Somehow, that sentence got omitted between here and the printer. The electronic version is being corrected and future editions will have that line, but for now, there are some collector's editions out there.

That's Mary: when life gives you SARS, make sarsaparilla!

New beginnings – or – What happened to my novel’s first sentence?

What was your first book crush?

What books do you cringe at having loved? Nadia Chaudhury collects the teen-age literary crushes of 30 popular writers.

The feelings are so strong and obsessive. The books seem smart, sophisticated, cool; the characters in them say and do such great things, they seem like guides sent to teach you how to be that way too. But then the crush goes, and the object of one's former affection becomes an embarrassment—or at least the memory of you quoting them so seriously does.

It's heartwarming to realize that no matter how cheesy Dragonlance/Forgotten Realms books are, they insulated me from Ayn Rand at a most vulnerable age.

Deepwater Horizon-related court filing in which an injured oil rig worker seeks justice through wit and metaphor


This motion, filed on Mardi Gras in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, is a "metaphorical request for a ride on the streetcar named remand." Its author, Lance Lubel of Lubel Voyles LLP (on behalf of Buddy Trahan, who was aboard the Deepwater Horizon at the time of its catastrophe), produced five pages of quirky, metaphor-laden pleadings related to his case against BP, seeking damages for the horrific injuries he suffered at the time. He cites Bob Dylan, Franz Kafka, Binx Bolling, and many other legal authorities. It really sounds like Trahan got a raw deal, and there's a lot of bravery and charm in this doc. I wish him the best of luck.

When queried by his Aunt how none of the values she had tried to impart meant anything to him, Binx Bolling replied: “My objections, though they are not exactly objections, cannot be expressed in the usual way. To tell the truth, I can’t express them at all.” Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (First Vintage International Edition, April 1998), at 224-25. Unlike Binx Bolling, Buddy Trahan can--and did--express his objections to the treatment he feared from the courts. What is more, he expressed those objections in the usual way to the Southern District of Texas, to the JPML, and to this Court. All that was for naught and Buddy Trahan fears that his time is running out. He therefore expresses his objections in what some might deem an unconventional manner. But as the Chief Justice has observed, “”[w]hen you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” Sprint Communications Co., L.P. v. APCC Services, Inc., 554 U.S. 269, 301 (2008) (Roberts, C.J., dissenting), quoting Bob Dylan, Like a Rolling Stone, on Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia Records 1965). Accordingly, Buddy Trahan respectfully requests that the Court (i) take this missive in the spirit in which it is intended, (ii) lift the moratorium on deciding motions to remand, (iii) give Buddy Trahan his much-needed and well-deserved ride on the metaphorical Streetcar Named Remand, and (iv) remand this case to Texas state court.

According to Lowering the Bar, the motion was denied.

Buddy Trahan Needs a Ride

(Image: Deepwater Horizon Offshore Drilling Platform on Fire, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from ideum's photostream)

Rude messages left by monks in the margins of medieval manuscripts


Colin Dickey introduces the current Lapham’s Quarterly collection of rude and complaining messages left by monks in the margins of medieval manuscripts, a subject covered in detail in Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art, Michael Camille's 2004 book.

Depictions of sexual consort are frequent, among men and women, among various species of animals, and enough other combinations to make even contemporary readers blush. Camille cautions against reading such images as violations of the sacred text; because the medieval world was so rigidly hierarchized and structured, “resisting, ridiculing, overturning and inventing was not only possible, it was limitless.” That these psalters and books of hours often contained sacrilegious sentiments right alongside their holy piety, it seems, was perhaps the point: “We should not see medieval culture exclusively in terms of binary oppositions—sacred/profane, for example, or spiritual/worldly,” Camille explains. “Travesty, profanation, and sacrilege are essential to the continuity of the sacred in society.”

Living in the Margins

Huxley's fan-letter to Orwell for Nineteen Eighty-Four

Alduous Huxley sent George Orwell a fan-letter in Oct 1949, after receiving a review copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four from Orwell's publisher. Huxley (who, according to Letters of Note, was once Orwell's French teacher) is effusive in his praise, and goes on to directly compare Orwell's masterpiece with his own Brave New World.

Partly because of the prevailing materialism and partly because of prevailing respectability, nineteenth-century philosophers and men of science were not willing to investigate the odder facts of psychology for practical men, such as politicians, soldiers and policemen, to apply in the field of government. Thanks to the voluntary ignorance of our fathers, the advent of the ultimate revolution was delayed for five or six generations. Another lucky accident was Freud's inability to hypnotize successfully and his consequent disparagement of hypnotism. This delayed the general application of hypnotism to psychiatry for at least forty years. But now psycho-analysis is being combined with hypnosis; and hypnosis has been made easy and indefinitely extensible through the use of barbiturates, which induce a hypnoid and suggestible state in even the most recalcitrant subjects.

Within the next generation I believe that the world's rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.

1984 v. Brave New World (Thanks, @brerphoenix!)

(Image: Lawrence Person's Futuramen)

Ralph Waldo Emerson's head made out of electrical outlets and switches


Noah sez, "I thought you might enjoy this piece I was recently commissioned to create for a play about an electrician who starts channeling the spirit of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Needless to say the people at the local used building material store were quite intrigued to know what I was going to do with the 100+ outlets & switches I as buying, when they found out it wasn't for a building."

Where's Ralph Waldo Emerson? (Thanks, Noah!)

Literary greats answer high-school student's survey on "symbolism," 1963


When science fiction writer Bruce McAllister was 16, in 1963, he decided that his English teacher's insistence on seeking out symbolism in literature was a tedious exercise. McAllister, who had just sold his first story, was skeptical of the whole idea of symbolism in literature, so he typed out an ungrammatical, mimeographed questionnaire about symbolism in literature and mailed it to 150 authors. 75 replied. Some were secretarial responses on the lines of "Go away, I'm busy," but substantive responses came in from Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Ayn Rand, Jack Kerouac, Judith Merril, John Updike, Fritz Leiber, and others.

Some were dismissive of Bruce’s project, or his methodology. MacKinlay Kantor chided, “Nonsense, young man, write your own research paper. Don’t expect others to do the work for you.” Others, like William Melvin Kelley, cite the work and characters of other authors rather than their own. Kelley names Faulkner, Robbins, Hemingway, Twain, and Salinger: “Holden Caulfield is a person, but enough of us felt that we were like him to make him a symbol. But if he’d been a symbol, Salinger would have been an unknown writer living in Vermont.” Henry Roth mentions Dante, Blake, Joyce, and perhaps Malamud as writers who intentionally incorporate symbolism (Updike names Joyce and Dante as well, along with Homer). Roth notes that the Greeks, Elizabethans, and Cervantes were “interested in a type of what existed rather than symbols of abstract ideas, forces, beliefs.” For himself? “My own feeling at the time I wrote CIS [Call It Sleep] was that the symbol was well-surrendered or abandoned for the greater verity or the more striking insight.”

Document: The Symbolism Survey (via MeFi)

Why I love Kate Beaton's "Hark! A Vagrant"

On April 6, 1909, Robert Peary claimed to be the first person to reach the North Pole. Of course, there were some issues with his claim. For one thing, Inuit had almost certainly been through the area before. For another, a guy named Frederick Cook said he'd reached the Pole in 1908. And, last but not least, the first person to the Pole out of Peary's own party wasn't even Peary—it was Matthew Henson, an African American explorer, sailor, and navigator who actually planted the U.S. flag at the Pole while Peary was stuck in a dogsled, too sick and/or frostbitten to walk.

This is why I love cartoonist Kate Beaton, whose second collection, Hark! A Vagrant, was published this week.

There are precious few artists who would (or could) turn the story of Peary and Henson into a hilarious comic strip. And even fewer who could do that with a style that combines careful realism and broad-stroke cartoonery. Would the strip be as funny if Beaton wasn't able to shift so effortlessly from serious Henson in the top right panel to the muppetish grin he wears in the lower right? I doubt it.

Really, the contrasting style of art Beaton uses kind of sums up Hark! A Vagrant as a whole. This is a comic strip that seamlessly blends the high-brow with the madcap. Sirens make MySpace ducklips at a horrified Odysseus. A tiny version of Gene Simmons sews glam shoes for a medieval cobbler. Jules Verne sends creepy fan mail to Edgar Allen Poe. Canadian politicians take their marching orders from the cheerful ghosts of dead terriers.

This is a comic about not taking anything too seriously—even the things we love to geek out about.

I you don't already read Hark! A Vagrant online, you should. If you've been reading for a while, buy this book.

Virtual monkeys recreate Shakespeare

Jesse Anderson set out to recreate every single work of Shakespeare at the same time by means of virtual monkeys that are simulated on Amazon's cloud computing platform. One million virtual monkeys create virtual text around the clock, and if any of that text matches any of Shakespeare, it is saved to the repository.

On September 23d, the monkeys recreated A Lover's Complaint.

For this project, I used Hadoop, Amazon EC2, and Ubuntu Linux. Since I don’t have real monkeys, I have to create fake Amazonian Map Monkeys. The Map Monkeys create random data in ASCII between a and z. It uses Sean Luke’s Mersenne Twister to make sure I have fast, random, well behaved monkeys. Once the monkey’s output is mapped, it is passed to the reducer which runs the characters through a Bloom Field membership test. If the monkey output passes the membership test, the Shakespearean works are checked using a string comparison. If that passes, a genius monkey has written 9 characters of Shakespeare. The source material is all of Shakespeare’s works as taken from Project Gutenberg.

(via /.)