It’s Just Too Hard to Learn, I Guess

"Those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet those who do study history are doomed to sit by helplessly as other people repeat it."

Cartoon by Tom Toro

I have the nicest, most analytic and open-minded set of online friends possible, but there is one topic on which I can always start an argument with someone. All I have to do is post something against demonizing groups of people.

The arguments are always the same.

  • “But group X is doing bad things.”
  • “I don’t mean everyone in group X.”
  • “I’m not talking to you. I’m talking about the other people in group X.”
  • “If you choose to be offended when I didn’t mean you, that’s your problem.”
  • “Group X is in power.”
  • “Group X is privileged, and now you’re saying we shouldn’t even complain about them!”
  • “Sure, ‘not all X’.”
  • “You should be mad at the people who claim to be group X and give it a bad name, not at those of us who point it out.”

I’m in education, and an issue I have to deal with every day is transferability. That is, will a student who learns a skill in my class, in one situation, be able to transfer it to another class with a different situation?

If there’s any skill we all should have learned by now, from one example after another, it’s to not demonize demographic groups. But instead of treating this as a general rule or transferrable skill, we too often act like beginning students – the kind who can triple a brownie recipe, but can’t see that tripling a batch of 30% saline involves the same principle.

So we learn that demonizing jews turned out badly.

And then we learn that demonizing African Americans turned out badly.

And then we learn that demonizing Native Americans turned out badly.

And then we learn that demonizing gays turned out badly.

And then we learn that demonizing poor people turns out badly.

And THEN we learn that demonizing muslims turns out badly…

I was bored with this about ten years ago. Am I the only person who sees a general principle? Am I the only person who WANTS to see a general principle, learn it, and get on with my life?

“But WHY? Why can’t I do it with just this one group that really, REALLY deserves it?”

BECAUSE IT FUCKING TURNS OUT BADLY!

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It Comes Down to Stovewood

pile of split stovewood

from Public Domain Pictures, used under a Creative Commons license

Young leftists. On the one hand they’re in the news too often as intolerant, illiberal, and not valuing free speech. Some of them get minimum-wage cafeteria workers discharged when their ethnic food comes from the wrong class, make jokes about burning political opponents alive, try to drown out the opposition rather than engaging its ideas, bully professors, and drive well-meaning people who merely suggest you should choose your own damn Hallowe’en costume out of the academy.

But on the other hand, they might just get some movement on gun control.

And strangely enough, that second point is the one I care more about right now.

This surprises the hell out of me. For years my position on campus SJWs and tumblr activists has been Get off my side, please! I felt they drove moderates into the right wing, and that their activities were immoral and cruel. I made all the invidious comparisons to characters out of George Orwell and Chinese communist practices. I still believe all those things.

But when a group from that generation targeted gun manufacturers, I discovered how  much pressure had been building up inside me under that veneer of surely we can treat each other like reasonable human beings?

It’s 43 years since I reached voting age, and for every one of those years I have wanted serious, effective gun control, and haven’t been able to get it. For how long have I told myself we can live with it, we can get alongthat’s just how it is, to cover the fact that I lived in a country run by the gun lobby, by people who would not allow change no matter how many children were killed? Too long, something inside me said when I saw the Parkland students, and that something inside me will not shut up again.  TOO LONG and TOO LATE, it shouts, when right-wing commenters make points about free speech and the twittermob. TOO LONG. TOO LATE.

One of my father’s favorite stories, a bit of gossip from my mother’s old neighborhood, was about these two farm girls who lived up the hill. They had an abusive father, abusive for years and years, until one night those girls got up while he was asleep, got sticks of stovewood, and beat the hell out of the old man.

For how many years had they told themselves we can live with it, we can get alongthat’s just how it is?

In the end, it came down to stovewood.

I’m going to have troubles with the activist youth in future, for sure. I’ll never be on board with speech police or no-platforming or class-blind identity politics. There will be another shirtgate and I’ll condemn them for cruelty and for driving people into the alt-right. Get off my side, please! I’ll say. But right now, they’ve picked up the stovewood and I’m rooting for them.

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Is Not Being Persuaded a Survival Strategy?

old photo of traveling salesman offering medicines

Snake oil salesman (modified from Wikimedia Commons)

I’m reading this book about how people change their minds, written by an activist and apparently for activists. I just finished the chapter outlining all the ways people refuse to change their behavior even though they *claim* to be swayed by evidence, or to be consistent, or to have altered their attitudes.

And I find myself completely on the side of the people.

This guy doesn’t give any evidence that he cares one bit about the people he’s asking to change. He sees them as walking wallets and potential foot soldiers. Anyone who changed their minds in response to his arguments would be a fool, because he does not have their best interests at heart. In fact, people who could be easily swayed by those kinds of arguments, from those kinds of people, have probably been strongly selected against (by which I mean, they died off in the service of some charlatan’s cause).

Now I’m wondering what lessons activists might draw from *that*. There are a lot more chapters left in the book and when I’m over my snit I will check them out.

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The Secret Life of Flies by Erica McAlister

Cover of The Secret Life of FliesBefore there were robotics nerds or computer nerds or science-fiction nerds there were natural history nerds, and this book is for them. It’s that modern rarity, a popular science book that might have been written in 1940; the most advanced technology described in it is the ‘pooter,’ an apparatus for catching flies based on your own power of inhalation. This places it squarely in the grand old tradition of British natural history books, of which I have read and enjoyed many, and I very happily read and enjoyed this one.

Like all genres, the British natural history book has its conventions and its challenges for the n00b. Readers who have not taken a course in systematics may boggle at the initial rundown of fly classification, and those who cannot keep track of characters in Russian novels will not be able to keep track of characters with names like Prochyliza and Ephydra either. Fear not; there is no reason for you to remember any of the names or who loves (or parasitizes) whom. This is a book of amusing anecdata, all people (or flies) and no plot, as another of my favorite books is subtitled.*

Not entirely accurate, because all these books have a sort of plot – or if not an actual plot, an agenda, which is to make you marvel at the wonders of nature and look at actual flies, when next they present themselves to you, with more appreciation. The next time a house fly lands on your plate, you may remember the maggotaurium before you swat, and resolve to google fly-based treatments for MRSA. Those lumps on the goldenrod stems will mean more to you. You will become an even more irritating nerd about Jurassic Park’s lapses in accuracy, and use ‘problematic’ in phrases like ‘The attractive but problematic medfly.’

Some of the most interesting snippets in this book involve the introduction of predatory flies to control introduced agricultural pests. These stories are presented as unalloyed successes, which always rouses my suspicion and makes me open a search engine… and, in this case, find that not only were there no adverse consequences reported but that some of these biological control methods have become standard, deployed even in such sensitive and carefully monitored regions as the Galapagos.** It was refreshing to be reminded that commercially significant scientific advances once, and still, could depend on people sitting on the ground watching the behavior of insects.

If you’re the kind of nerd who delights in knowing about the largest fly, the luminescent fly and its toxic web, zombees, and the reason to iron your line-dried clothes in East Africa, this book will give you great satisfaction. If, like me, you think something vital is being lost as biology becomes all about test tubes and sequencing, this book will reassure you – not only because of its mere existence, but because of the many studies dating from 2010 and onwards which it mentions, reminding those of us who need such reminders that taxonomy, animal behavior, and the sheer wonder that brought us into biology are still alive and well – at least in the UK, with its apparent horde of amateur dipterists, and in Erica McAlister’s section of the museum.

_______________________

Obligatory self-promotion: my own museum (and holiday) story, Kindling, is only 0.99 at Amazon. The Natural Magic Museum has no flies as of yet, but it does have a dragon in the sub-basement. If you want it in dead-tree form, buy the collection Want’s Master and Other Stories from Osyth  for just $5.99.

*That would be Tumbledown Dick by Howard Spring, which has nothing whatever to do with this review but which I will puff on any pretext.

** Though they ended up going with the beetle version of scale insect control, as the flies worked better in cool climates. (Hoddle, M. (n.d.) Biological Control of Icerya purchasi with Rodolia cardinalis in the Galapagos. UCRiverside, Applied Biological Control Research)

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Biology Leads the Way in Graduate School Transparency

I could not be prouder of my discipline than I am today, after reading about the movement for transparency in graduate school outcomes.

Anybody who cares enough to read my blog will know that I’ve gotten so desperate about the graduate school pyramid scheme that I actually welcomed republican efforts to defund it. And it has been truly disgusting to see universities’ la la I can’t hear you response to the issue over the past ten years or so. So I feel I ought to be just as loud about an effort to actually address it.

Not only are these institutions making a laudable effort to discover and share the truth about what happens to their students once they stop paying tuition or serving as cheap labor, but they’re starting with a believable baseline – that only 10% of life science PhDs get tenure-track jobs within 5 years of graduation. The only part of the article that veers into bullshit is at the end, when they say that of course there is no reason to reduce the number of PhD candidates, and the country cannot go wrong in creating more and more life science PhDs, apparently until every corner coffee shop has one behind the counter or … wait, that last bit wasn’t them, it was me. I sort of spin out of control on this topic.

Besides which, that last part doesn’t matter. Anybody educated enough to be considering a PhD knows how to compare the costs with the benefits, if only the data are out there. That’s one reason the data have not been put out there. So this is a tremendous step forward, both practically and morally, and I cannot applaud these ten institutions enough.

For those who want to send valentines, they are:

  • Johns Hopkins
  • The University of California at San Francisco
  • Cornell University
  • Duke University
  • the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
  • The Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • The University of Maryland, Baltimore County
  • The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor
  • The University of Pennsylvania
  • The University of Wisconsin at Madison.
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Why I am not Burned Out on Writing

via Max Pixel

Kristine Kathryn Rusch has had a few writing posts about burnout lately.  This one came at an odd time for me, because I have just had an ‘aha’ moment with the WIP which reminded me why I’m not burned out on writing.

If it depended on external success I would be totally done with the fiction writing project. I suffer from genre mismatch, which makes outside encouragement hard to come by. Basically, I write academic satire with a philosophical bent, but it’s marketed as fantasy. People who might actually like my stuff are reading Richard Russo instead of poking around obscure fantasy imprints, and people who pick up books with magicians on the cover don’t expect to find department meetings inside. I haven’t figured out how to market around this problem.

For a while, this was really frustrating me. My agent was also frustrated, and suggested I write an epic fantasy – which I did, and I rather like it, though the closest I could come to epic fantasy was a magic-school story full of folk tales from a bunch of made-up cultures. But it didn’t sell, and I will end up self-publishing it when I finish the sequel. Meanwhile I’ve sold many of the folk tales to anthologies and magazines, which keeps the ego fed.

The fact is, though, that I don’t feel at ease trying to write anything less than the most deeply-thought thing I can write. Creating a novel is a huge time investment, and I have an awful time sustaining interest in it if it isn’t dealing seriously with what really matters to me.

I write for readers who, like me, see huge problems in all their values and ideas; whose epiphanies come, seem important, and then prove to be crap, or too simplistic, or just leak out of the holes that the world pokes in our lives, and who like to see that process worked out in a realistic academic setting, with professors making sure every viewpoint is challenged. There apparently aren’t a huge crowd of such readers sniffing around fantasy, but in the end one is enough — as long as that one is me.

When I try to write what the market wants, I pretty much begin burnt out. But when I return to what actually interests me, I always find that it is still fresh, green, and growing. Because it is real. It is the project of life.

new growth after forest fire

Crowthorne forest, new growth after forest fire. by Timo Newton-Syms, via Flickr.

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Escaping from YA

The latest fairy tale I read was set in Russia, this vibrant and exciting!

The Atlantic has an article up today about why so many adults read YA literature. It has a whole big section fighting back against the idea that YA is escapist literature.

I can’t imagine how anybody would think YA is escapist literature. I’ve only read two YA novels in my life that didn’t leave me depressed and wishing I hadn’t (one of them was about star-crossed lesbian lovers, and the other was about how to be an anorexic).

However, I love kids’ books. The people in them go out in the woods, bring home wild hedgehogs, invent things, hide in hollow trees, try out pioneer skills, dream of flying among the stars or plunging through the sea, make believe … they have this big, wide world, and if the books are fantasy they have several big, wide worlds. But apparently as soon as readers become YA, they are supposed to stop caring about anything except social relations, budding romance, the disease of the week, the issue of the month, and how to navigate a dystopia. Even if a YA protagonist gets a talking horse or soul-bonds with a dragon, it will only lead to Issues.

I’m one of those kids who never made the switch. To me, YA novels say there is no escape from the constraints of human society, even if you have magical powers.  Fairy and folk tales, however, say that anybody who steps out into the woods has the opportunity to escape into a big, wide, wonderful world. They say that the escape is right there all the time, if we just turn towards it.

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In Which I Write Vaporware

I’ve had a rash of sales that haven’t come to fruition. I shouldn’t be too sad, because I already got paid handsomely for one of them: but I really look forward to seeing the stories in print.

I sold The Bloody Stone to the anthology “Ghosts on Drugs” and it was one of my best selling experiences, including a conversation with the editor that made the story so much better that I could probably sell it to other places as well – and they paid me the highest price I’ve ever received – but when is the anthology coming out? It’s still open ‘until filled,’ so submit stuff, people!

I sold a reprint of Kindling, one of my favorite stories, to Hic Sunt Dracones. Signed a contract and anything – but I have no idea when the anthology will come out. At least it is closed, which suggests they have all the stories they need.

Selling them is fun and seeing them come out is fun. I’m just a tad impatient.

 

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Pantser

Female figure emerging from stone

Mourning Victory by Daniel Chester French, modified from the Metropolitan Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons

I’m a total pantser when it comes to writing. If I know the story’s end, it will never get written; if I know who I’m writing it for and what its purpose is, it will be a dismal failure. I write to explore things, and only find out what I’m writing about well into the process. I only find out what I’ve said long after the story is done.

This can be really frustrating, and I’ve often envied people who outline their story and dictate whole chapters in the car while driving across Death Valley, or so forth. My method obviously isn’t going to lead to a big-ass career as a popular writer, and for a while that realization led me to try other methods. But they simply don’t work for me, and I’ve come to realize that I don’t write in order to have a successful writing career but to explore – and discover – my own stories. Thank goodness I have a day job that I love!

One kind of excitement that pantsers like myself get that doesn’t appear in the blogs of more disciplined professional writers is the moment when the story comes to life. Sometimes I only have to write ten words before it happens, and other times it takes ten or twenty chapters. It doesn’t mean the story will be any easier to finish, but it means that being in the story has become part of being in the world, rather than a project I need to complete. I’ve found its central image, the one that ties into my own life and that I would be exploring anyway even if I weren’t writing a story about it.

Sometimes I write that image long before I recognize that it’s central or that it
matters. That’s what happened in the current Osyth novel, which I wrote ten chapters of last summer and then set aside because it hadn’t yet come to life. Going back to it, I discovered that the central character, who I thought was dealing with one sort of thing, is actually dealing with a different sort of thing entirely, and one I’m excited to be working on.

2018 is going to be a good year.

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I Can’t See How the Republicans are Wrong Here…

modified from open clip art

And it worries me, of course.

But it seems to me that giving tax breaks on graduate students’ tuition waivers is, essentially, financial support for the graduate school industry.

Universities are obviously the great beneficiaries of the graduate school industry, and they are also the great employers of the PhDs produced — but they have almost stopped hiring those PhDs, except as poverty-level adjuncts.* So why should the government chip in to help them produce more?

Like all republican initiatives, this one is being done in a way that will inconvenience the ambitious poor more than it does the ambitious rich, unless universities do the right thing and cover the tax bills. I’m with people who say that is wrong. But the underlying premise is one I can get on board with. Why should anybody pay you to produce an oversupply of workers so you can exploit them?

None of this applies to undergraduate education, of course. There is a brisk demand for people with undergrad degrees, which still usually are a ticket into the middle class, and taxing the loans that allow students to get those *is* heinous class warfare. But that’s a very different thing from targeting the bloated pyramid scheme that graduate education has become.

*Obviously, I speak here of PhDs that are not aimed at other professional careers.

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