Riba Rambles:
Musings of a Mental Magpie

About the author: Elisabeth in early 2007, photo by Todd Belf
Elisabeth "Lis" Riba is an infovore with an MLS. This is her place to share whatever's on her mind, on topics both personal and political. [more]
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Friday, April 07, 2006
Literary landmarks
Posted by Lis Riba at 6:55 PM

BTW, although I know I've been remiss in updating my Books Read webpages this year, I am still tracking titles offline. So I just wanted to note that last night I finished my 600th book since summer 2000, when I started tracking books completed. [I didn't date the first several books I finished, so I don't know precisely how long it's taken me.]

Book #600 was Assassin by Patricia Finney, first in a series of children's/YA mysteries featuring a maid of honor in Queen Elizabeth's court. Somewhat reminiscent of Fiona Buckley's Ursula Blanchard series, but with a younger narrator and simpler storylines. I've already started Betrayal, the sequel, and will probably finish the third (Conspiracy) before the weekend is out.

For the record:

Before that, I finished another children's/YA that I picked up prepublication at PLA. Escape! : the story of the great Houdini is a nonfiction biography of the escape artist. The author, Sid Fleischman, has been a practicing magician (so, annoyingly enough, won't reveal any of the tricks). When the author was a boy, he knew and hung out with Mrs. Houdini, so the book includes several exclusive photos and secrets (I'd often heard that the Houdinis established a code in the event they could communicate from "the other side", but I'd never known it to be published).

Obviously, being geared towards kids, the book simplifies and explains a lot -- on the other hand, that's frequently a useful way to discover facts that adult writers assume is general knowledge. For example, I had always somewhat known that there was a fad for spiritualism in the early third of the twentieth century. But somehow, until Fleischman laid it out, I'd never put that together with the World War I death toll. It makes perfect sense when you think about it -- a huge percentage of the population suddenly had a recently-deceased loved one they wished to contact.

At any rate, the book does include an excellent bibliography of other works by and about Houdini, so if you want to pursue further reading on the subject, it still makes a useful source.

BTW, a recent issue of Slate reviewed two recent books which look interesting: Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love, and Death in Renaissance Italy, an attempt at a redemptive biography, and Elements of Murder: A History of Poison. Maybe my next library visit...

A Farber twofer
Posted by Lis Riba at 6:00 PM

Via Gary Farber, Malcolm Gladwell's latest column: a review of the book Why? : what happens when people give reasons... and why.

Quoting Gladwell:

Charles Tilly sets out to make sense of our reasons for giving reasons. In the tradition of the legendary sociologist Erving Goffman, Tilly seeks to decode the structure of everyday social interaction, and the result is a book that forces readers to reexamine everything from the way they talk to their children to the way they argue about politics.

In Tilly's view, we rely on four general categories of reasons. The first is what he calls conventions--conventionally accepted explanations. Tilly would call "Don't be a tattletale" a convention. The second is stories, and what distinguishes a story ("I was playing with my truck, and then Geoffrey came in . . .") is a very specific account of cause and effect. [... Stories] circumscribe time and space, limit the number of actors and actions, situate all causes "in the consciousness of the actors," and elevate the personal over the institutional.

Then there are codes, which are high-level conventions, formulas that invoke sometimes recondite procedural rules and categories. If a loan officer turns you down for a mortgage, the reason he gives has to do with your inability to conform to a prescribed standard of creditworthiness. Finally, there are technical accounts: stories informed by specialized knowledge and authority. [...]

Tilly argues that we make two common errors when it comes to understanding reasons. The first is to assume that some kinds of reasons are always better than others--that there is a hierarchy of reasons, with conventions (the least sophisticated) at the bottom and technical accounts at the top. That's wrong, Tilly says: each type of reason has its own role.

Tilly's second point flows from the first, and it's that the reasons people give aren't a function of their character--that is, there aren't people who always favor technical accounts and people who always favor stories. Rather, reasons arise out of situations and roles. [...] Effective reason-giving involves matching the kind of reason we give to the particular role that we happen to be playing at the time a reason is necessary.

That's the gist of the argument, but the whole article is worth reading. The latter third describes an experiment by a criminal-justice research group about "restorative-justice programs [that] have shown encouraging results in reducing recidivism rates among offenders and psychological trauma among victims."


Also from Gary Farber, MIT just pranked Caltech again! And from the Globe story, did you know there's a Caltech vs. MIT site which is keeping score? Also, this round of prankers created their own website with press release and photos.

PS: I'm amused by Scientific American's blog entry on the event, providing "East Coast and West Coast perspectives," history and context, and "the obligatory link to Real Genius, because you know you were thinking about it."

Missing links
Posted by Lis Riba at 5:50 PM

Some fascinating historical finds in the week's news.

 • First comes the discovery of Tiktaalik roseae, a fossil that straddles the line between fish and footed creatures. Science bloggers PZ Myers and Lancelet have all the details.

I am rather fond of this quote from the New York Times article:

Dr. Shubin's team played down the fossil's significance in the raging debate over Darwinian theory, which is opposed mainly by some conservative Christians in this country, but other scientists were not so reticent. They said this should undercut the argument that there is no evidence in the fossil record of one kind of creature becoming another kind.

Dr. Novacek [a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, who was not involved in the research] responded: "We've got Archaeopteryx, an early whale that lived on land, and now this animal showing the transition from fish to tetrapod. What more do we need from the fossil record to show that the creationists are flatly wrong?"

 • For a theological shakeup, NY Times also reports on the only known text of the Gospel of Judas.
National Geographic has more, and for anybody in the Washington DC area, seven pages from the actual codex, including four from the Gospel of Judas, will be on display at the National Geographic Museum at Explorers Hall, for a limited engagement.

 • Hilzoy found this New York Times story about evidence of dentistry from 9000 years ago. Really cool stuff. And Hilzoy's comment thread is fun, too, with discussion on "how and why did humans first..."

 • Finally, in case Ayesha hasn't heard, archaeologists also believe they've discovered the palace of the Homeric hero Ajax. The Times and BBC have some decent stories on the find.

Any other new discoveries in the worlds of science and/or history that I should know about?

Friday cat blogging
Posted by Lis Riba at 5:45 PM

Just an oldie-but-goodie -- need your monitor cleaned?

And from Salon's Video Dog, one of those local news shelter adoption segments gone horribly, hysterically wrong. Be sure to watch until the very end. I do hope Pinky (the cat) found a good home after this.

PS Added 7:05pm: Sleepy kitten making biscuits. Okay, that's really adorable.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006
The Seventy Second Seder
Posted by Lis Riba at 9:45 PM

Requires Flash (and has a soundtrack), but you simply must see this!

And I used to be impressed by someone singing "Who Knows Thirteen" in a single breath...

Furthermore, it would be a one-minute seder if they didn't take time for Echad Me Yodea and Chad Gadya...

[Via RedAxe]


Speaking of videos, fire up Windows Media Player and a fast connection and get a load of these actual commercials for Lord of the Rings on TBS.
 • Sam and Frodo, Secret Lovers?
 • The studs of Middle Earth?
As StrangeMuses put it, "Someone at TBS has clearly been smoking the good pipeweed."

With great powers...
Posted by Lis Riba at 5:54 PM

...comes some great reading material.

The new Carnival of the Feminists is up. This latest installment has a superhero theme, with lots of posts on the portrayal of women in comics.

Also, via my work-related reading, Michael Stephens writes about a website redesign for the Jones School of Law Library, which includes links to:

Cool stuff!

Desperate housewife?
Posted by Lis Riba at 5:45 PM

I hate to give credence to anything "reported" by Drudge, but allegedly (as seen on feministing):

First Lady Laura Bush believes Hillary Clinton did not keep good house during her time as first lady, a new book will charge.

Surely, I can't be the only one who recalls stories like this about the Clinton White House:

When the Clintons arrived in Washington, D.C., Mrs. Clinton felt that she had not only public responsibilities as First Lady, but also the important private responsibility to make the historic, and formal, White House a true home for her husband and their daughter Chelsea For example, because the private living quarters did not have an informal place to gather for meals, she decided to have the serving kitchen on the second floor converted into a family kitchen. There, the three of them could gather around the table just as they had in Arkansas.

There's more to keeping house than fashionable furnishings. I'm tempted to compare the reputations of their respective daughters to demonstrate whose appraoch is better, but that wouldn't be fair.

Of course, this isn't the first time the Bushes have accused Clinton of leaving the White House a wreck. They did that practically their first week in office. Those accusations were proven false, too.

Why do they persist in trying to tar the Clintons with a "trashy" label? Class issues, anyone?

Flakes, why'd it have to be flakes?
Posted by Lis Riba at 11:05 AM

Just looked out the window (as I went to the kitchenette for a cuppa tea).

It's snowing.

Big slow flakes that don't seem to be sticking, but they are coming down steadily...

Holding up well
Posted by Lis Riba at 7:30 AM

The 1980 movie 9 to 5 is newly out on DVD, and the stars are out on the press circuit.

Two blogs offer quotes from group interviews, and in both cases, Dolly Parton steals the show:

Over on Feministe

Mishearing a question about unwanted sexist encounters, Parton says, "I've only had sexual encounters that I've wanted. But not as many as I'd like," then laughs when the question is clarified.

Meanwhile, Broadsheet excerpts an interview in which Jane Fonda is "speaking out against plastic surgery."

Fonda persevered. "I just came back from Scandinavia and France," she said. "And they still have their faces there, you know what I mean? I just thought: Man, somebody's gotta give a face to old age!"

Solemn pause.

"Well, it ain't gonna be me!" shrieked Parton.

Fair enough!

Wikiquote has other great quotes attributed to Dolly Parton and her IMDB bio has several more.

I'm also rather fond of this 1980 Roger Ebert interview, where he seems totally charmed by her wit and good humor.

She certainly gives an impression that she's enjoying herself and her life...

Tuesday, April 04, 2006
Nothing you can name
Posted by Lis Riba at 10:05 PM

While looking something up at Roger Ebert's site, I came upon this item in his "Movie Glossary":

Nuns and Sailors Rule

Every single airport and train station waiting room in the movies contains both nuns and sailors.

TERESA GREGORY, Indianapolis, IN.

I'm suddenly picturing duelling choruses -- Sound of Music vs. South Pacific -- trying to drown each other out before erupting in a rumble ala West Side Story...

Maybe if ZAZ ever do another musical... Or perhaps for the next Mel Brooks Broadway extravaganza...

Progressive in Pink?
Posted by Lis Riba at 10:02 PM

Does anybody else besides me read the Princess Diaries series by Meg Cabot?

C'mon, fess up...

Anybody?

I just finished the latest book and I think I'm about to pick up the first book from the library for a reread. [I briefly wrote about the series last January, explaining its appeal.]

Lately, there's been a lot of back-and-forth about feminism in the blogosphere. I've been following the discussions, but haven't posted much on it here (yet... though I've started multiple entries).

At any rate, I was thinking about this series from a feminist perspective (thus the planned reread).

Has anyone done a feminist analysis of the Princess Diaries books?

I found one paper looking at the movie, but that's more focused on Garry (Pretty Woman) Marshall and Disney and makes no reference whatsoever to the books. And there are enough differences between books and film adaptations that it doesn't really count. [I haven't seen the movies (yet) but even from the trailers I can see how much they diverge. In one of the recent books, Mia even mocks the second movie for its implausible forced-marriage plot.]

At any rate, I'm not much of a theorist, but one of the main feminist impressions I get from the books is that the girls never feel there's anything they can't do by virtue of being female. They certainly experience a lot of insecurity about boys and dating, but not in terms of their career aspirations. [Well, Mia does, but then Mia's insecure about everything -- that's one of her character traits -- and again, it's not tied into sexism or glass ceilings.]

Mia's best friend Lilly already has one of the highest-rated shows on local public access TV, organizes protests and media actions and campaigns and is basically an unstoppable force of activist nature. Shameeka intends to be the first African American woman on the Supreme Court. It's set in a private school for the gifted and talented, so they all have great aspirations.

Anyway, those are my off-the-cuff remarks. Can anybody offer some more thoughtful insights?

BTW, Meg Cabot and Tamora Pierce are cofounders of Sheroes Central, a website about female heroes -- fictional and real -- geared towards teens. I may be reversing the usual route, but that was one of the reasons I decided to try the books.


PS: Speaking of books, Bellatrys has written A Feminist Critique of Stasheff's The Warlock In Spite Of Himself (1969). I haven't actually read that book, but she makes some persuasive arguments...

PPS: Found a 2004 Time Magazine article about the recent crop of movie princesses, looking at Princess Diaries, The Prince & Me, Ella Enchanted and Shrek. Not what I was looking for, but what do you think of this?

[B]rush off the fairy dust, and you find a new kind of Cinderella, one who would rather save Prince Charming, thank you, and who has learned the lessons of feminism--or at least learned to pay lip service to them. You can have the girly dream of glass slippers and true love, these films say, as well as the womanly ideal of self-determination and independence--and any contradictions between them are no match for the movies' magic.

...

Reinventing fairy tales has been a favorite project of feminist authors from Angela Carter (The Bloody Chamber) to Marlo Thomas (Free to Be?You and Me), who understood that wish-fulfillment stories are about teaching people what they should wish for. Among an earlier generation of women, the wish was to be able to do everything men could. For the modern Cinderellas' audience, which takes that freedom as a given, the wish is to also be able--unashamedly--to fall in love and go to the ball. Indeed, in Prince, Paige realizes that she needs to be "rescued" from her disciplined but single-minded careerism as much as she needs to assert her independence. Girls asserting their right to choose the fairy-tale ending is not a bad thing, says Thomas, since now the movies are balanced by varied depictions of young women in films from Whale Rider to Blue Crush. "What women have tried to achieve for other women," she says, "is choice in every step of their lives."

But to succeed on both the feminist and the fantasy level, the new Cinderella has developed rules and conventions as strict as a Joseph Campbell template. She should be pretty, but in a class-president way, not a head-cheerleader way. She should be able to stand up for herself (recall the Crouching Tiger moves of Shrek's Princess Fiona). She must be socially conscious--a result, says Meg Cabot, author of the Princess Diaries books, of Princess Diana's charitable work. And she should above all not want to be a princess--at least until she changes her mind. In Diaries, Prince and Ella, it's not the girl who must prove herself worthy of princesshood; princesshood must prove itself worthy of the girl.

Gd bless us, every one
Posted by Lis Riba at 7:40 PM

If I subscribed to any print newspaper, it would probably be the Christian Science Monitor

Not only do they provide excellent commentary on the issues, but they demonstrate good corporate citizenship.

A letter to Romensko points to the latest example, reported in E&P:

[Jill] Carroll, who had worked for months in Iraq as a Monitor freelancer, had been made a staff employee of the paper shortly after her abduction. About a week after she was kidnapped, [managing editor Marshall] Ingwerson said, Monitor editors discussed with her parents the change. "We did it in consultation with her family because they had power of attorney while she was in captivity," Ingwerson said. "We did that so that she would have whatever benefits she needed and so she got paid while she was in captivity." Ingwerson said such a change in Carroll's status also made her eligible for any worker's compensation needs resulting from her abduction, but had no information on whether any were expected.

That's above and beyond an employer's duty.

The paper's mandate has been "to injure no man, but to bless all mankind" and they seem to be doing their part to make the world a better place.


PS: Is it crass of me to say that I think Jill Carroll is cute?

House calls
Posted by Lis Riba at 7:35 PM

Fox's official House site is running a poll:

Who would you rather have as a roommate?

  • House
  • Wilson
  • Both, of course

I chose Wilson -- the guy who can cook and believes in cleanliness enough to pay a housekeeper.

Imagine my surprise to discover that's earned the fewest votes.

Out of 22565 votes, 38% chose House, 39% chose both, and only 20% chose Wilson.

I don't get it.


BTW, although the post itself is skippable (unless you like gawking at other people's wank) but I was amused by a comment at fandom_wank that "All wank in the House fandom boils down to pairings. Me, I think House/House's right hand is the only way to ship." Probably the only canonical longterm relationship among the regulars, at least...

Idle thoughts...
Posted by Lis Riba at 5:45 PM

Ever since GM released the Looney Tunes-themed minivan, I've always thought Disney and Ford are ignoring a brilliant opportunity:

A Winnie the Pooh SUV seems so obvious: the Ford Expotition!

Bibs Are Onboard!
Posted by Lis Riba at 5:40 PM
My First Four Questions bib

Barely ten days until the first seder but CafePress has bibs in stock again.

As I've previously explained, part of the Passover ritual involves the youngest person at the seder asking Four Questions, which is supposed to instigate the retelling of the Passover story. [For more information on this, see JewFaq.]

In many families, the youngest participant is too young to actually recite the Questions. Usually, in these situations, the onus falls upon the youngest child actually articulate, but what if there were another way?

With this in mind, I've created a bib with the Four Questions written upon it. When it's the baby's turn in the spotlight, somebody can just hold the kid up for everybody to read!

Or, if you prefer, I'm also selling one-pieces or infant/toddler t-shirts with the same design.

So if you know anybody expecting a small child at the seder, spread the word around. The bibs are back in town!

Never enough time to read?
Posted by Lis Riba at 5:35 PM

How does the old quote go?

Reading the net is like drinking from a firehose.
Posting to the net is like yelling at people as they go by on a rollercoaster.
Archiving the net is like washing toilet paper.

[As seen on Bitch|Lab]     

I hate Windows
Posted by Lis Riba at 7:32 AM

Did you know that Windows XP doesn't support copying files to a DVD+R drive the way you can copy them onto a CD drive?

You can only write to a DVD drive using a third-party program [and my copy of Dantz Retrospect still hasn't turned up since last year's housefire. Ian's been cleaning the front room, and I'm hoping that he turns it up.]

Of course, I only discovered this after copying a DVD's worth of files to the CD Burning service to make a backup.

Grumble.

Yawn.
Monday, April 03, 2006
Rambles Reviews: The Secret of the Rose
Posted by Lis Riba at 6:25 PM

The Secret of the Rose by Sarah L. Thomson
Publication date: June 2006

I've read a lot of modern Marlowe fiction, but astonishingly enough, this is the first geared towards a YA audience. [As far as I can tell, the only other YA book on Marlowe published in my lifetime was Antonia Forest's The Player's boy in 1970. I'd be delighted to find others.]

Read enough books on any subject, and they eventually start to blend together. But I found Secret of the Rose surprisingly refreshing.

Cover to 'The Secret of the Rose'

Marlowe is not the main character in this story. The point-of-view narrator is Rosalind Archer, a fourteen-year-old girl who finds work as Marlowe's servant and scribe. Unfortunately for them both, the story begins in August 1592. And as most of my readers should know, Marlowe was murdered the end of May 1593.

Marlowe's portrayal is best summed up by this passage, where Rosalind first meets Marlowe's landlady:

"Have you known Master Marlowe long, mistress?"

"I know him not," she said sternly. "He pays his rent each week, and I ask no more." She looked at me, I thought, in disapproval. "What possessed him to take thee into service, I cannot imagine. But do not count on his good humor too far, He's changeable as March wind."

That unpredictability is Marlowe's predominant characteristic, and his whiplashing moods are a frequent trial for poor Rosalind.

Given the YA audience, there's no mention of Marlowe's sexuality. He remains a controversial figure and the boy apprentices at the Rose imbue whispered rumors of his purported atheism with just as scandalous an air.

Marlowe very carefully keeps enough of his business from Rosalind, so she has only a limited perspective into the events leading up to his death. In this manner, Thomson neatly avoided the checklist quality I often notice in such stories as they wind down to the inevitable conclusion.

Speaking of that conclusion, I found the imputed motives both satisfying and plausible. [While I understand the fluidity of Elizabethan spellings, I am curious why the author chose to call the man commonly known as Robert Poley, "Pooley" -- again, not something a non-Marlovian would probably notice.]

The story is followed by two separate addendums: "A Note About History" and "A Note About Language." The latter focuses on the you/thou difference, although I think the distinction is handled quite well within the text, such as this early scene:

"What needst thou, lass?" someone asked kindly.

But the kindness didn't stop me from turning with a rebuke sharp on my tongue. The woman who'd spoken was clearly a servant, in a plain, patched gown, fish tails poking out of the basket over her arm. How dared she use the familiar "thou" to me, as if she were my equal?

Then I bit back the words on their way out of my mouth and saw myself as I must look to her: unwashed and footsore, dusty from the road, curls of brown hair straggling down beneath my coif, lost in a strange town without a man or maid to attend me. In truth, I did not appear to be someone that even a servant should address with a respectful "you."

While there were more nuances to Elizabethan grammar, isn't that both succinct and sufficiently clear? Other issues, like the Catholic-Protestant divide, are similarly explained to the target audience without giving me any sense of being talked down to.

I would gladly recommend this book without reservation.



Since I currently have an "uncorrected proof," I wish to bring three minor errors to the publisher's attention:

(1) Page 48:

Inside the playhouse I found myself in a broad, bare yard. Nutshells, left from the last performance, crunched under my feet.

When hazelnut shells were first discovered at the Rose archeological dig, some wag dubbed it Elizabethan popcorn and blamed sloppy eaters. But later research suggests it was more likely just a component of the floor covering, possibly something like mulch which would've been easier on the groundlings' feet.

(2) Page 55:

A lone sheet of paper drifted about in a slight breeze. It came to rest by my shoe, and I bent down to pick it up, smoothing it carefully. It seemed a player's part...

As I understand it, players' parts were not stacks of individual pages, but instead long scroll-like rolls (from which we derive the acting term "role"). They wouldn't've been loose sheets like Rosalind encounters.

(3) Typo: In the first paragraph of page 165 (Chapter 10, beginning "I made my way slowly..."), "Marlowe" is misspelled.

I also noticed a rather more major historical error, one that's too intertwined in the story to correct: we have documentary evidence that Christopher Marlowe was in Canterbury between September 26 and October 9 of 1592, at times when the novel places him in London. Oops!

Considering that I didn't actually spot that flaw my first pass through the book, you can probably let it slide without consequence. I doubt anybody else will even notice. [Though this further cements my desire to obtain my own copy of Lisa Hopkins' Christopher Marlowe chronology as reference.]

MicroSchadenfraude?
Posted by Lis Riba at 6:00 PM

The latest I, Cringely column is an interesting one. Prisoner of Redmond focuses on the past rather than future, looking at Paul Allen's history and how he's broken with Microsoft. It concludes with this provocative statement:

What do you do when your wealth is immense but completely tied to people whom you inherently do not trust? If you are Paul Allen you watch your tongue and spend eight years getting out from under that burden.

My reason for bringing up this topic at this time is because it will all shortly be back in the news as Microsoft goes to court later this year in what might well be its last-ever anti-trust trial. Remember those 19 states and the District of Columbia that settled over time for software vouchers and promises from Microsoft to no longer do evil? Well only Iowa remains, represented by a lady lawyer from Des Moines named Roxanne Conlin whom I have met. Roxanne is not in any way impressed with Microsoft vouchers, no matter how many there are. Looking for real money for the people of Iowa, Ms. Conlin is about to dredge-up all this old news and put a new spin on it.

Based purely on character (or lack of it), I confidently predict that Microsoft is going down. It should be interesting.

I've seen (and made) too many predictions of Microsoft's imminent demise due to their unethical business practices to hold out much hope when a fresh one arises. [Remember, I used to work for Lotus: and as much as we Loti loved to gripe about WordPro, every time I use MS Word, I miss it!]

Still, Cringely knows the industry and players better than many.

PS: Thanks to Avenue Q for teaching me how to reliably spell "schadenfreude" correctly.

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