Theory Towers

view down a street to two tall stone towers

Towers of Bologna

Over the years I’ve developed a love-hate relationship with theory.


  • theory is powerful, for explanation and prediction and actually doing stuff
  • theory is distancing, both requiring and allowing you to set your emotions aside for a while
  • theory puts things in perspective, demanding that you look at more than your own individual feelings or experiences
  • theory is rigorous, highlighting inconsistencies


  • theory is inadequate, never catching all the details
  • theory is manipulable; there are enough data out there for anybody to build a theory supporting any conclusion
  • theory is rigid, not welcoming alternative explanations
  • theory is reductive, ignoring individuals in favor of categories
  • theory usually leads to nonsense, if carried far enough
  • theory is often a substitute for original thought

I guess the best simile I know for theory is the tower. One builds up and up and gets a wider view, but what will one do with that view? Paint landscapes, see people in need and go down to help them, or plan conquests? Will one live up in the tower, happily removed from the mess below? Will one get the god’s eye view so horrifically described in my least favorite pop song: From a distance, we all look like friends? Or will one identify a landscape full of deplorables?

Or, as time goes on, will one be more and more busy defending that tower, both against outsiders who want to get in and against folks who want to take its bricks and build something of their own with it? I hang out in a conservative christian space online, and get to see people hunkered over their one or two remaining bricks, snarling at the world.

What really has me thinking about theory is that our school has become a Hispanic-Serving Institution, so we start the year with discussions of what demographic categories our students fall into. But for me, one advantage of being an HSI is that we have enough latina students that they display variety and I can get beyond viewing them as examples of a category. Theory demands that its authors have categories and generalizations, but my job is to get past those and meet my students as individuals. Isn’t that the goal for almost all of us?

I was raised to think that categorizing people by race or ethnicity was wrong. I have the same reaction to it that some people have to discussions of humans as animals, probably for many of the same reasons. But just as physiologists must view humans as animals to construct our theories, social scientists probably must categorize them by race and ethnicity to build theirs. A lot of the world’s work must be done up in those towers.

Thing is, is that work fit for public consumption? Or are we folks up in the towers corroding ourselves with concepts and actions and theories that should not be inflicted on the body politic? Scientists have always done things you shouldn’t try at home, and often enough they have been poisoned by those activities – poisoned physically or morally. Someone who has spilled sulfuric acid on themselves or performed a vivisection has been changed in ways we don’t want the general populace to be changed.

Does this apply to social science theorizing, as well? Is thinking about people as categories necessary but corrosive?

Dissection table, University of Bologna

When I was in Italy, I spent a day in Bologna visiting their old dissection room, where the public might be invited to watch disassembly of cadavers. We no longer see that as good clean fun. One day, we may feel the same about 90% of the current theoretical dissection of humanity.

Bologna also contains a bunch of tall, tall towers, built by individual families for nobody knows what.  There used to be more; they were built during a time of war, and most have been torn down and abandoned.  We can only hope.

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Ghost Drum by Susan Price

I would say it’s rare for me to read the first in a series and then go immediately and buy the rest of the series, but it’s not. However, that won’t keep me from saying good things about Ghost Drum! Shout-out to James Nicoll, whose series of posts about 1970s women SFF writers clued me in to this series.

I’m a fan of the fairy-tale voice in fantasy. That is, I like a fantasy that stands its ground, that doesn’t explain its characters and their motivations in the current vernacular, that requires me to step into its world rather than shoe-horning itself into mine. Else what’s the point of fantasy? So this book, with its story told by a talking cat, was just to my taste from the very first sentence. A cat, after all, has a rather remote view of people and their inner lives.

While this is a straight-out fairy tale, full of shamans with walking huts, ghosts, ice-apples, shape-changing and magic of all sorts, it’s also full of cold winter nights and even colder hearts. People are killed and mistreated a lot in this story, and folks attracted by the smooth, clear prose and the fairy-tale feel may be shocked by that. I was! The cat telling the story doesn’t care about such things, though. Its voice is the voice of reportage, which keeps a distance between us and the suffering.

Coincidentally, my book club read and greatly enjoyed another fantasy set in Russia this past year – The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. What struck me most about that book was the conflict between christianity and the villagers’ folk religion, and the main character’s fascinating relationship with the nature around her. None of that shows up in Ghost Drum, though they share many details of setting.  Ghost Drum drew a great deal more on Sami (then called Lapp) culture for the magic of its shamans, but there was not a touch of folk religion in it — no arcane creatures or woodland spirits, though the main character had one very interesting interaction with the animals of the woods.  Its story of czars and czarinas, palaces and chicken-legged huts, felt more like a chapter from the Arabian Nights.

The biggest difference, however, is that Ghost Drum is not a coming-of-age-story. Children grow up in their sleep in Ghost Drum. The book is not at all interested in how they decide what they are going to be; in fact, nobody in this culture gets to decide that. Babies’ fates are chosen for them before they are old enough to squeak. Nobody in Ghost Drum, except the mother in the first chapter, has any chance to question or rebel. Ironically, that makes society’s strictures a smaller plot point in Ghost Drum than they are in The Bear and the Nightingale. 

Is that unrealistic? Certainly, though perhaps not as much as I would wish. But the cat narrator of Ghost Drum does not care. All that maturing and thinking and feeling and judging and trying to decide where one fits into one’s culture would get in the way of the story, the cat seems to think, and I can’t argue. The story itself rips along, a seamless carpet of wonders carrying us through a new but familiar-feeling magical world, and — as I am wont to do — I’ve already purchased all the sequels.


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Night Calls by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel

Night Calls coverBecause I missed the sale, Cat Kimbriel was kind enough to send me a free copy of Night Calls with no strings attached – but since I devoured it in a day and enjoyed every minute, it deserves a review!

I love stories about hill folk and folk magic, as well as wild food and pioneer crafts, so I was primed to enjoy the story of this frontier girl coming into her magic and dealing with a variety of the supernatural dangers that followed immigrants into the country. It was just the right mix of homely, cozy and horror.  The horror was well enough done to make me wonder at one point (late at night) how people who believed in such things managed to sleep through the night in their isolated cottages, which means it brought me into the characters’ mindset. That’s what I value most in fiction, so I was extremely pleased!

I was anxious to pick the book up again first thing this morning and read to the satisfying conclusion, and as soon as I closed the file I purchased the two sequels. Thanks, Cat, for the book and for the fun I anticipate in reading the sequels, and thanks Deborah Ross and Book View Cafe for the review that pointed me toward it!

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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?”


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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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