Monthly Archives: February 2008

friday nights are so exciting!

gender and politics

My partner and I agree on one thing about the Democratic race: That sexism has played a major role in the treatment of Hillary Clinton. A friend of ours recently pointed out that if the genders were reversed — if Barack Obama were a woman, with little experience but inspiring rhetoric — Obama-as-woman would never have gotten as far as he has — the Democratic front-runner, or, at least, tied for front-runner.

What we’ve also noticed is that, although mainstream media commentators regularly bring up her gender, they have rarely if ever brought up the question of sexism. That virtual media silence has recently broken, precipitated, apparently, only by Hillary Clinton making the observations herself.

The NYT ran the numbers and showed that Clinton was indeed correct — that far more first questions in debates had been directed at her than at other candidates.

Then yesterday on WBUR, on On Point, Geraldine Ferraro was amazing. Sure, she ran roughshod over the host and some callers, but I loved it. Her co-guests were Ellen Goodman, Pat Schroeder, and Katha Pollitt! What a line-up. How many times have we had to listen to whole line-ups of men? Or line-ups of mostly men leavened with one woman? Such a rare pleasure to actually hear so many smart women talking together on air. It’s like real life, where I get to hear many smart women talking together all the time.

free power in NYC

laptop plugged into power strip plugged into patch cable plugged into NYC city street light pole
Free Power, NYC, Feb. 3, 2008.
Photo by L. Quilter.

In NYC earlier this month, I saw someone sitting on a sidewalk with a laptop and other accoutrements. I assumed it was just a convenient (if cold) place to pick up a free wireless signal, but when I got closer I realized that the person was also picking up free power.

They kindly allowed me to photograph the setup. Simply by popping open this NYC pole — just one of the standard crosswalk poles — patching a cable, and attaching a powerstrip, voilá! City power.

Now that’s supporting the arts and technology.


podcasts and papers

Pharyngula recently dropped an aside on one of my favorite topics, scientists communicating about science to the public:

You can also hear the author discussing the methodology and results in a podcast, which I think is a wonderful idea. (Maybe every paper should be accompanied by a 15 minute podcast in which the author explains the work to a general audience…).

Do you hear that, University PR departments? That is a wonderful idea. Set up podcasts for your PR in addition to your glossy magazines and newsletters and websites. It gives news reporters something to listen to and link to.

birth of and intellectual property

Intellectual property pops up in the strangest places.

Browsing The Baby Name Wizard by Laura Wattenberg, for instance, I found this discourse on “stealing” baby names:

Not long ago, I heard an expectant mother beside herself with outrage. She had just learned that another woman in her small town had “stolen” her baby name! No, she admitted, she had never met the woman. But for years now she had been planning to name a baby Keaton, a name she had personally invented, and now there was another little Keaton right across town. Someone must have told that other mother her own secret, special name. Thief!

Chances are this was not really a case of name larceny. That mom had just run into a startling fact of baby-name life: Our tastes, which feel so personal, are communal creations. Keaton? Well, it’s a surname ending in “n,” a style parents are flocking to for fresh ideas that sound like classic names. K in particular is a hot first letter. And don’t forget that almost every parent today grew up watching Alex Keaton on Family Ties. So just like that outraged mom, thousands of parents across the country have independently “invented” the name for their kids.

We live in a shared culture with communities and experiences that shape our likes and dislikes. That means overlapping tastes — and as a rule, the closer two people are, the greater the overlap. Many of us have had a long-cherished name “stolen” by friends who had long cherished it themselves. …

… [R]emember that communal taste is really a good thing. That shared perspective is exactly what gives names their style and nuance. It’s also the context that lets you define your own style, meaningfully. …

This is from The Baby Name Wizard, Laura Wattenberg, “Rules of Thumb for Choosing a Name” (2005), p.6 (babynamewizard.com), which is probably my favorite baby name book out there. In addition to the little “definitions” and heritage information about various names, it includes trend information, and a variety of essays (like the one above) that contextualize names and naming. The book was published in 2005, and has a hypnotic and fascinating associated website — the “name voyager” — which provides the most up-to-date trend information for names. Type in any name to see how names beginning with those letters or that name have been trending up or down in the US over the past 125 years.

The book is awesome, in part because the author analyzes the phonemes and meanings of individual names, the data on popularity of individual names, and does significant additional research into news and culture, to discern both causes and meta-trends. For instance, tracking how Aiden and Jaden and many other names have become popular, while Eunice and Beulah and many other formerly popular names have become less so, the author sees that Americans dislike the “yoo” sound in names, but, these days, love the “ehn” sound as an ending. Our common tastes manifest in individual names, but reflect a deeper common taste in phonemes, resonances, and meanings.

The same zeitgeist lies behind numerous simultaneous “inventions” of unique names, and “rediscoveries” of older names. My partner and I loved the name Emma, and thought surely this nice old-fashioned name that is an excellent homage to Emma Goldman would be distinctive. I’m sure that most people reading this know what we were surprised to learn: Not only did we love picking that name out of our collective past, so did practically every other person of our age group: It’s the number two name for our daughters ever since people of our generation started having children.

I quoted Wattenberg at length, because so much of what she was astutely observing about our tastes and creative processes is utterly applicable to everything I think and write about on a daily basis. We humans take our names, and our children’s names, fairly seriously, and spend a decent amount of time scouring for them. In fact, as Wattenberg points out, one of the current trends is to have a unique name — we all try to come up with unique names for our children, and we all do it by assembling the same sets of popular sounds and rhythms.

… Finally, as long as I’m on the topic, you may be amused by this disclaimer on our “hypno-birthing” preparation audiorecording:

Do not listen to this CD while in a moving vehicle.

update 2/26 6pm: Wattenberg had two fascinating posts on the evolution of naming patterns and national identity — L’Etat, c’est nous (Jan. 23) and Part 2: L’Estat, c’est nous (Feb. 13) — deep comment threads. For those of you who, like me, are not what you might call “anthroponymists”, this can be a fun diversion. I was struck most particularly by a short reference in the Feb. 13 column:

Starting in the 16th century most countries moved toward heritable surnames … Modern nation states required more from names, too. In Scandinavia, the patronymic naming system that had existed since the time of the Vikings (Niels Jensen’s son Peder is Peder Nielsen, his daughter Anna is Anna Nielsdatter) was eliminated to aid record-keeping. Taxing, educating and conscripting a mobile population required clear and traceable family names.

“Family names” being the presumptive father’s names, that is. L’Estat, c’est le patriarcat, apparently. But what really struck me was the influence that states and governments have had on this basic feature of identity, and the ways that identity has been created in part as a form of social control.

carl malamud, freeing the law

Go Carl Malamud, freeing the law! The same Carl Malamud that pushed SEC’s EDGAR database to be open has now published 1.8 million United States court opinions. The project was announced in November, and just three months later, it’s online.

The opinions are at Malamud’s main website, resource.org, and there is now a special website for the court opinions: http://bulk.resource.org/courts.gov/ .

More info:

death by religion, part # in-the-hundreds-of-millions

I haven’t heard any recent updates about Fawza Falih Muhammad Ali, the woman sentenced to death for witchcraft. A Saudi Arabian court issued the death penalty in 2005 for a woman who allegedly made a man impotent, through witchcraft, among other sins. According to Human Rights Watch, she was beaten until she signed (by placing her fingerprints) a confession to witchcraft — a confession she couldn’t even read, because she’s illiterate.

Now, there are some bass-ackwards-ass judges in every country, and you might think maybe she got a one-off nutter. Or, that the “modernizing” country of Saudi Arabia might let this go on at the lower levels of its “courts” but surely they step in and right this kind of wrong at the appellate level. Right? Of course, you’d be wrong, because although her case was heard by an appeal court, their decision was reversed by another court, which felt that her witchcraft was such a serious sin that her death would be in the public interest. Witchcraft that causes impotence — what could be more of a threat to the public safety than that?

It is truly astonishing to me that religion apologists tote up the supposed benefits of belief in their faith against this kind of obscenity. “I feel better because I fantasize about seeing my dead relatives when I die” versus “killing an innocent woman for a vicious, sexist delusion” (multiplied times millions, because let’s not forget the Inquisition, 9/11, the Troubles in Ireland, and all the other deaths attributable directly towards religious delusions) — yeah, that’s Creationist Math, all right.

Further reading:
* Human Rights Watch, Feb. 14, 2008
* HRW Letter to King Abdullah, Feb. 13, 2008
* Heba Saleh, BBC News, Feb. 14, 2008
* Lester Haines, The Register, Feb. 14, 2008

on the sexiness of testosterone and unquestioned assumptions

Last weekend I was listening to a program on “Testosterone” on “This American Life” (archive) and, predictably, my interest in the topic was equaled or surpassed by my exasperation and annoyance at its handling. “This American Life” is a one-hour show, that aims to do something rather cool: Shed some light on a topic by telling several different stories related to the topic. But at the end of this nuanced hour, all I wanted to do at the end of it is say, “Jesus, it’s more complicated than that.”

First of all, on some level, the mere existence of a show on this topic annoyed me. Testosterone is just so over-exposed. Testosterone is a sexy hormone, and by that, I don’t mean that it is a sex hormone or that it is responsible for the sex drive. I mean that people love talking about it, thinking about it, writing about it, and attributing all sorts of amazing qualities to it.

Continue reading

Recording industry in England

John Naughton had a nice column last week in The Observer (at the guardian) trashing the British Phonographic Industry. Triggered by their spokesperson’s statement that “For years, ISPs have built a business on other people’s music,” Naughton awarded it “Fatuous Statement of the Month” and went on to excoriate their arrogance and the legislation they’re pushing to mandate ISPs to deal with copyright infringement. And properly Naughton pointed out that “ISPs have indeed ‘built a business’. They’ve done it by providing an internet connection for upwards of a billion individuals and businesses across the planet.”

But what I thought was funny was the spectacle of the phonographic industry, which represents record companies, complaining about someone else “building a business on other people’s music”. The irony kills.

craft and copyright

Friend and colleague Wendy Seltzer has a new column in Craft Magazine about copyright. Copyright has been increasingly applied by crafters and craft-pattern companies to craft patterns, in “shrinkwrap” style licenses. I’m greatly pleased to see some attention to this issue! Thanks, Wendy!

Related reading:
* idahobeauty writing about the impact of copyright on quilting culture
* RePost – art & originality

of penumbral emanations and scholarly trends

Speaking of penumbra yet again (1, 2) , I had previously blogged about a Circuit split on laws banning sex toys — it was Valentine’s Day, and I was feeling a bit whimsical, so I wished for a “penumbra” that would strike down stupid laws.

LawPundit “ha[s] an opinion” on my wish for a penumbra that covers “no stupid laws”; I thought it was pretty amusing & worth checking out.

LawPundit also annotated my use of the word “penumbra” with a link to google:define:penumbra. Unfortunately, I don’t think that quite captures the legal nuance. Legal scholar/lawyer-types know the reference, of course, but for those non-lawyers, “penumbra” is famous in Constitutional law as a reference to Griswold v. Connecticut. In Griswold, the Supreme Court overturned a Connecticut statute that made it a crime to buy contraceptives. Justice William O. Douglas, looking at the Constitutional guarantees of individual liberties as a whole, wrote that the statute violated the individual right to privacy, which could be found looking at the “penumbras” and “emanations” of Constitutional protections. The language is a little funny, but standing alone, or with Eisenstadt (which extended to unmarried people the right to buy contraception), this case, and the words “penumbra” and “emanations”, would provide simply a pleasant diversion to while away the afternoons in contemplation of rarely-used words in legal opinions. The concept of “penumbras” of a set of enumerated rights is not that bizarre, especially in light of the Ninth Amendment (which notes that “the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people”) and the Tenth Amendment (which states clearly that powers not delegated to the US, nor prohibited to the States, “are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people”). These Amendments practically beg for penumbral analysis, and “privacy” (a concept theoretically defined and refined only in the last 125 years, but whose spirit animates much of the Constitutional protections) and “autonomy” (not considered one of the Constitutional “rights”, per se, but I keep wishing) are ripe concepts for that sort of analysis.

But conservatives have freaked out when the penumbras that protect privacy were extended to abortion in Roe v. Wade and to other matters of sexual privacy since then, and and now excoriate the very notion of penumbras. And emanations. (One could argue that the very essence of conservatism is a certain distaste for emanations.) So, “penumbras” the concept has acquired a certain air of disrepute in many legal circles, because even scholars who find it perfectly reasonable to examine the Constitution as a whole as well as in its discrete little parts, tend to back off a bit from Douglas’ sweeping penumbras and emanations, so successfully have right-wingers trashed those ideas. A damn shame, because the concept is perfectly reasonable, and it’s only the rabid dog opposition to abortion that has cast the shadow over Griswold and its penumbral emanations.

tonight only — utterly total eclipse of the absolutely full moon

Well, not only tonight, but only tonight for the last several and next few years. An amazing lunar eclipse will be highly visible in North America tonight (Wed., Feb. 20) — 10-11pm Eastern time, a total eclipse of the full moon. Sky and Telescope describes it as “America’s best lunar eclipse in years”. In addition to the colors of the eclipse — which are supposed to have beautiful colors tonight — Saturn will also be in good view. So if you have a telescope, you’ll be able to see the rings without much difficulty. The star Regulus will also be nearby.

If you miss this one, you won’t have the opportunity for a total eclipse until December, 2010 — and not even partial ones over the Americas until June 2010. So, get thee out-of-doors and witness the awesomeness of our universe.

More info in the Feb. 2008 issue of Sky & Telescope or, for the subscription-impaired, online at the S&T website. Also check out bad astronomy and orbiting frog for details.

solar systems in spaaaaace

God I love it when people discover more solar systems and planets. A new technique that permits detection of solar systems that include large outer planets, as opposed to large planets close to their suns, is proving fruitful. The solar system that was discovered includes large outer planets and may have small rocky planets, akin to our own. The sun is smaller than ours, and red (Darkover?).

One of the best things about this discovery is the role of amateurs.

Among those who provided crucial data and appeared as lead authors of the paper in Science were a pair of amateur astronomers from Auckland, New Zealand, Jennie McCormick and Grant Christie, both members of a group called the Microlensing Follow-Up Network, or MicroFUN. Ms. McCormick, who described herself as “an ordinary New Zealand mother,” said she had done her observing with a 10-inch Meade telescope from a shed in her back yard.

One of the other best things about this discovery (there are lots of best things about it) is that, since the technique itself can only work in a very specific set of circumstances, and it has already proven so fruitful (this solar system and a few other planets), we can infer that these kinds of solar systems — our kind of solar system — are abundant.

circuit split on sex toys

Well, the 5th Circuit (Texas) has just said that Texas’s anti-sex-toy-law (memorably mocked by Molly Ivins in this video, available at youtube via pandagon) is unconstitutional, relying heavily on Lawrence (or so I hear, via pharyngula); I haven’t read the case yet).

This looks like a pretty clear Circuit split with the 11th Circuit (Georgia, Alabama, etc.), which only a couple of years ago found a similar Alabama law to not violate the Constitution (PDF, Williams v. Atty General of Alabama, 11th Cir. (2004)); the Supreme Court denied cert on that one. (See Michael C. Dorf discussion at FindLaw for an overview that discusses this case with respect to the various standards in Constitutional Law.)

I really wish that we could have a penumbra of no stupid laws.

tentative toe blogging: Harvard approves open access

I’ll be watching Harvard’s A&S faculty vote today to see if they approve setting up a library-run faculty publications open access repository. (A proposal, I noted to my partner, that I first saw some 15 years ago in the library community.) The NYT covered the proposal.

For-profit scholarly publishers have of course been complaining vociferously about the trend toward scholars’ and faculty’s open access archives; scholarly societies less so. The for-profit scholarly publishers are in the same position as the recording industry: A set of middlemen that has profited from a technology that, for two centuries, made their business model profitable and even, in some cases, a virtual monopoly. Now that technology has moved on they feel insulted, as if they have a “god”-given right to their particular business model.

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update 10pm: Yaay! It passed. See Chronicle of Higher Ed which says it passed, and see Harvard Crimson for details about the proposal. More info at inside higher ed.