On Lent and Giving Up

Each year, I give up several things for Lent. Always alcohol and sweet things. In the last couple of years, caffeine as well (the headache only lasts for the first 72 hours).

But "giving up" has many senses, and is one of those confusing multiple meaning phrases. To give up, to relinquish, to surrender something (to someone or something else), is one meaning. We may "give up" cigarettes. Or be exhorted to "give it up" for the headline act, applauding and cheering in a stadium.

Or we may just "give up" in the sense of admitting defeat. In the last few weeks I've seen a few people say they are giving up looking for an academic job. This is not a temporary forbearance, like my giving up alcohol. They have made a decision to draw a line under it and move on. In the humanities, I've seen a number of people make that decision over the years. But in so many cases it was not a decision they made, so much as one the market made for them. They were perhaps not the giver-up, but the sacrifice that was given up by greater forces.

Each Lent when I refuse a glass of wine or a cocktail, someone will try to force one on me - often with some comment like "God won't mind" or "you can cheat a bit". I'm always puzzled (and sometimes annoyed) - nobody is forcing me to do this. I want, for myself, to give things up. Nobody else is policing it. So I don't understand why people think I'd be looking for loopholes on my own goals.

Small-scale history?

Recently I’ve been researching an article on miniature villages and public history. They are a 20th century phenomenon, and often remembered as somewhat kitschy tourist destinations. But I have discovered that few historians have paid much attention to them, even though the sites themselves often claim to be presenting “history”, in representing a town as it once was.

I’ve visited two such places recently, and in a few weeks will be visiting Taman Mini in Indonesia.

I’m hoping to link the phenomenon of miniature villages with other 20th century miniature phenomena, like the crime scene dollhouses, which I saw when they were on display in Washington last year.

Murder is Her Hobby at the Renwick Gallery showed the crime scene dioramas built by Frances Glessner Lee from the 1940s as forensic teaching tools. The tiny clues are visible, and students used them to learn about how to approach a real crime scene.

The little figures are often quite grisly, showing the signs of violence suffered by their real-world countrparts. it seems discordant to see dolls presented in this way. We think of dollhouses as cute and domestic, not traumatic. So the uncanny disjunction makes these scenes fascinating.

The models now belong to the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. The display was engaging, with magnifying glasses available and visitors encouraged to try to spot all the clues. Apparently each one is based on a real crime, but the exhibit organizers were tight-lipped about them! (Online, there are some speculations about the real crimes behind them). So there was no way to know whether we got it right….

Miniature villages present the opposite of crime and danger (usually), offering an idealised image of the past in tiny form. They often began as someone’s hobby, rather than as a purpose built tourist attraction. There’s clearly a link between this kind of model building and the popularity of model railways, which peaked around the same time. Again the builder can create an imaginative world, often in idealised ways.

The discordance of violence with these miniature worlds reminded me of a sketch in the tv show Fonejacker, which is based on prank telephone calls. In this case the caller asks a model railway shop owner if he has various figurines, including various elements of social disruption and carnage. Watch on youtube.

Sugar, Spice, and All Things Nice

As some of you know, I'm co-editor of the new Pacific Studies series from the University of Nebraska Press. So I'm rather excited that our first book is now available:

Hawaiian by Birth: Missionary Children, Bicultural Identity, and U.S. Colonialism in the Pacific by Joy Schulz

Lately I've been applying (and interviewing) for a new position in academic administration. It has been very interesting to assess where I want to be in the next few years and how I can best deploy my talents.

In the meantime, I've also been doing a lot more freelance writing. The process of pitching is something I've improved on over the years, but the most important lesson I learned came from Dan Kois, an editor I worked with at Slate. In an interview about the gender disparity of writers published in magazines, he said he receives (and rejects) pitches from men and women - but while a man whose pitch is rejected will come straight back with another, more often women will never try again.

When I heard that, it was like a lightbulb going on above my head. I had behaved in exactly that way. Submitting my (self-effacing, humble) pitch, and slinking off when it was rejected. Since then, I have persisted, and it has landed me more commissions. Of course, pitching brings its own anxieties: if they don't reply, should I follow up? As Gretchen Rubin has observed, "Yes comes right away, no never comes"

It often seems to be that way. Anyone who likes my idea, likes it immediately. Those who don't aren't likely to change their mind on repeated pestering. But it's also true that busy editors can overlook something, and a follow-up works. Or annoys them. One or the other. I also suspect there is a gendered aspect in play when it comes to editors too. The editors who leave me hanging with no reply at all are more often (although not always) women. Perhaps this is feminine conflict-avoidance at work. After all, it is far easier to ghost than engage. Sending a rejection risks getting drawn into an argument with the rejected writer (something I've experienced from the other side, as an editor). I also suspect women editors are more likely to get pushback from writers they reject, so it's a vicious cycle all round. Among the editors I regularly pitch, those who reply with instant rejections are all men. In fact, there is an editor at a major magazine who replies so fast with "no thanks" that I could just write to him anytime I need to check my email is working.

And sometimes these angles just treat me like a potato.


But not always. My group review of Erika Rappaport, Lizzie Collingham and James Walvin was the lead review in this week's Spectator.

In Space, Noone can hear you say "huh?"

Like a lot of people, I went to see Alien: Covenant at the weekend. Since this is my blog, I'll tell you what I thought of it. (spoilers)

The film suffers from some of the same problems as its predecessor, Prometheus. Inconsistencies about the origin and reproduction of the alien species, the behaviour and motivation of the characters - the sort of thing that leaves a viewer like me saying "Hang on a minute....".

But where Prometheus got lost in the weeds of its plot contortions, Ridley Scott steers Alien: Covenant back on to the track of the more familiar "aliens on the ship" model. This is overall a much tauter film.

This time, the poor bastards who will be picked off one by one main characters are the crew of a colony ship, the Covenant, destined to settle a new planet.

Needless to say, things do not go to plan. Woken early from their sleep-suspension when the ship is damaged, the crew (and their synthetic, Walter - played by Michael Fassbender), have to assess their options.

While the theme of Prometheus was obviously that of creation, this film focuses on reproduction. Reproduction, meaning breeding, but also doubling. Could earth's double exist out there in space, a new place for humans to call home? Could we reproduce human society there? Can an android be a human's double: and could they really reproduce human feelings?

I mentioned Michael Fassbender - if you saw Prometheus, you'll know where this is going. Would androids of the same factory model have distinct personalities, or would they all be doubles too? Elizabeth Shaw and the disembodied android, David, were the only survivors at the end of Prometheus. The crew of the Covenant find him, 10 years later, repaired but alone. Like a robot Dr Moreau, he has continued to develop his own interest in reproduction, which we saw in Prometheus: with terrifying results.

Katherine Waterston plays the female lead, Daniels, and she is Ripley's double - a tough brunette, whose actions mirror those of the heroine in the original film. Throughout the quieter moments of the film there are visual echoes of Alien, reminding us that this film is a reproduction too.

In terms of the plot, there are still gaps unfilled. The crew have 2000 colonists with them (all in sleep-suspension), and hundreds of embryos. Why the embryos? To increase genetic diversity in the new settlement? Will the colonist women bear them, or have we developed a synthetic womb?

None of these questions are answered. The bigger question for me though was "Where are all the animals?". Unless there were horses and dogs in sleep chambers we didn't see, this would be the first time humans colonised anything without animals: for labour, meat, or companionship. Even Ripley had a cat. A world with only humans: no animals, birds, or fish - what a strange dystopia that would be.

But if there is one thing I have learned from the Aliens series: space is full of monsters, death, and the emptiness of eternity. I don't want to go.

Needle in the hay

What is an editor?

When I was a PhD student, I copy-edited some articles for a professor. When I did this, I checked every footnote - by which I mean, I found the book in the library, checked the wording of the quote, checked that it appeared on the page referenced, checked the publication details of the book. I later discovered that other copy-editors doing similar work did not believe that to be their job. They just looked for stray commas.

The differing expectations of editors are something I came up against later, when I hired a copy-editor for my first book (this was not something the publisher would do). In the manuscript, I had misspelled the name of a scholar I quoted. The mistake was mine, but I (naively) had assumed that hiring someone to proof it was some backstop against that kind of thing making it to press. The copy editor missed it. Later, someone who wrote a negative review of the book did not. 

The copy editor I hired was in fact an un(der)-employed academic, and since then I have noticed a trend. Humanities academics offer themselves as "editors" without necessarily any skills or training, or even experience, in editing the work of others.

So I was interested to read this excellent piece, by a professional editor, about the sliding standards of book editing. I know I'm not the only writer who has been expected to provide my own copy-editing services for an academic book, and the results are not pretty.

And that's beyond even having someone at the press who will EDIT a book - such as, tell you that chapter three should be excised, that the section from p.58 should be brought forward, and have you thought about adding a bit more about President McKinley? When I write for magazines and websites I've received that kind of editing, and been grateful for it. I've never had it for a book. Certainly not from the person whose job title is "editor" at the press.

The only good experience I've had hiring editorial help was actually with an indexer. She worked on my second book, and was wonderful. Worth every penny. Hire her (Laura Knox).



Little Boxes on the Hillside: the housing crisis and history

The UK is in the midst of a housing crisis. More people want a house than can afford to buy one, and in the rental market prices are out of line with salaries in many places. As a historian of cities and urban development, I'm taking a moment to consider what the problem actually is, and whether the suggested remedies will actually solve it.

More people want a house than there are houses available: basic market economics pushes the prices of houses up. In the UK the issue is also complicated by geography. There are empty houses, and properties languishing on the market. I'm not just talking about luxury flats in London owned by foreign investors (although this is perhaps part of the problem I doubt it's a large proportion). The unwanted houses are in towns where the mill or mine closed down decades ago and employment opportunities are few. So the problem cannot be framed as simply "UK needs XX,0000 new houses per year" when the demand is for houses specifically within easy reach of London (and to a lesser extent Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester). All these cities have brownfield sites that could be effectively converted to housing, and that is certainly something to be encouraged.

But there are further questions I don't see asked in most of the discussion of the housing crisis. The questions are as fundamental as what we think of as "normal" patterns of residence. One element is a culture that has emerged over generations and seems specific to English-speaking countries, of home-ownership as a prime means of investment and the owner-resident being the normative middle-class position. This has been encouraged by the state in various ways (for instance making mortgage interest tax deductible, which is no longer the case in the UK but still is in the US, and not counting primary residence for means-tested benefits). It is also encouraged more broadly in society, where long-term tenancy (except in social housing) is rare. Real estate is seen as a safe investment - and given the last few decades' massive price inflation on residential property it has definitely paid off for many. In fact, so entrenched has the idea become of homeownership as a retirement plan that lifetime tenancy is seen as a social problem (as it is not in, for instance, Germany or Italy).

This social focus on home-ownership as a standard life goal is part of the explanation for the housing crisis, but we need to also recognise changing social patterns of residence - and consider whether proposals to address the crisis will anticipate how society may change further.

The type of housing people want changes. Even a generation ago, it was normal for a middle-class family to have a 3 bedroom house, with one bathroom, and to raise a family in that space (and it was affordable for single-breadwinner families). The expectation of multiple bathrooms, a bedroom for each child, and the amount of personal space now considered "normal" in suburban residences only came to be seen as normal once it became affordable for a significant proportion of the middle class (notably, once households with two working parents also became standard).

This does not mean that the suburban tract is always the answer, though. The UK already has some traces of the larger problem in America, of unsaleable suburban houses, while millennials prefer to live in the city.

The proportion of the population living alone has also increased. This has shaped the development of new housing, with more studio and one bedroom flats, and in many suburbs the conversion of houses to multiple dwellings. But we don't know that this trend will continue. It is historically not "normal" for significant numbers of adults to live alone. It only became normal, again, once it became affordable for a large-ish cohort during a particular historical window.

In the early twentieth century, single adults in cities often rented a room from a family, or lived in residential hotels. In high-demand cities like London or New York, these would seem like an ideal answer to some of today's housing pressure, but the residential hotel is largely a thing of the past (as is the lodger). After the Second World War, such residential models dropped in popularity as people moved to the growing suburbs, and living in a residential hotel ceased to be seen as "normal". Meanwhile, cities imposed various laws to drive these housing types away, in the case of the hotels often in favour of more lucrative corporate development. But we must remember that the regulations only shut down the lingering elements of the residential hotel model already waning in popularity (most residents were elderly long-termers). Cities would not have been able to legislate successfully against a housing type that was still popular with a significant number of urban residents. Urban authorities could turn this around, particularly in the age of Air BnB, and offer ways for the residential hotel to become viable again - and perhaps again seen as normal.

For new development, the challenge is providing more housing which is both affordable and of a kind that people actually want. This may seem obvious, but the difference between the architecture people want and what they're offered can be stark.

What the UK could also work on is expanding transport infrastructure so that houses (currently empty) in smaller towns could be viable for commuters. The money being spent on HS2 could have been better assigned to reopening some branch lines, to towns that have been cut off from railways since the 1960s.

While the demand is there for more houses, I am not convinced that this can ever be fully addressed. This is cynical, but I suspect that much like Parkinson's law of tasks expanding to fill the time available, that housing demand will expand as more houses are built. As long as the population keeps growing, we will never have "enough" of whatever type of housing is currently in demand. (This is even before we consider the environmental impact of increasing urban sprawl and the morality of encouraging it).

All the small things: True care, truth brings

I'm often wary of historical books and TV shows, because of the (almost inevitable) inaccuracies. I was recently watching Deutschland 83, a show about which people have justly raved. It has been credited with a Mad Men-like attention to period detail.

So it was rather jarring to see a character with multiple foreign passports, one of which was British, and looked like this:

Anyone who ever had one, knows that UK passports in the 1980s looked like this:


Now it might seem like a trivial error (and maybe most viewers in Germany would not have noticed), but for me this kind of mistake is like the Van Halen Brown M&Ms.

Which is to say, if the producers made a small mistake like this, I start assuming they got other things wrong, things I wouldn't have known about.

It works the same way in books. I was reading a book (which I shan't name), set in England in the 1840s. It seemed well-researched, until the main character spoke of sitting "Indian style", meaning "cross-legged". At that moment, I was reminded that the author was American, and living in the present day, and that many other things in the story were probably also wrong - I just hadn't spotted them.

The Times Aren't A-Changing Very Much

I was one of the many people whose response to Bob Dylan winning the Nobel prize for literature was "are you kidding me?!". There were plenty of people commenting on twitter that the Nobel committee were just trolling Philip Roth (or Leonard Cohen): all other men.

The Slate Double X Gabfest had an interesting discussion about whether the Nobel prizes are sexist, and went on to talk a bit about Dylan himself, and the myth of male "genius".

There have been rumours for years about Dylan being a contender for the Nobel - conveniently, the Nobel committees will never confirm or deny any names under consideration, which helps the traffic in this kind of speculation (along with all those supposedly "nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize").

But Dylan has acolytes, or rather, scholars of his genius in a way that women songwriters (and writers in general, in fact), tend not to. Female songwriters have fans, but not "ologists", scrutinising their work with Talmudic intensity, and writing dense scholarly narratives about their significance.

The great female songwriters of the last fifty years are never mentioned as Nobel contenders. The prizes can't be given posthumously, so Nina Simone is out of the running, as deserving as she would have been. Dolly Parton? Surely at least as great as Dylan. Carole King? At least she got a Broadway musical about her life (but then, so did Eva Peron).

I'm sure that the Nobel prizes are not consciously sexist, but they are part of a society that doesn't see in women a flash of the transcendent inspiration we attribute to "genius". After all, a woman writes a novel about marriage, it's called "chick lit" - when a Jonathan (Franzen or Foer) does the same thing, it's taken seriously as literature.

We can't disabuse society of the notion of male genius, but perhaps we can work on seeing women as geniuses too. Dolly Parton-ology: I'm going to make this a field.

Fool's gold?

A couple of days ago, the Times Higher Ed published a piece about journals ranking their reviewers (in terms of who gets their reviews in on time). This led to a discussion on twitter about how fair it is to judge and rank people who are doing a voluntary task.
The timeliness of reviewers is an important element in publishing, but it is understandably hard for many scholars to prioritize putting time into reviewing if they are facing other time-sensitive demands from their employer (like, you know, TEACHING).

One thread of the discussion moved to “why shouldn’t reviewers be paid?” I had an exchange with another twitter user on this which highlighted the divide between STEM and humanities academics. He was thinking of the publishing “behemoths” like Elsevier and SAGE, who probably could afford to throw some money at reviewers. I was thinking of the small scholarly associations (who publish many humanities journals), and who definitely could not.

This got me thinking again about scholarly publishing and who pays for it. There have been some insightful discussions over at Scholarly Kitchen on Open Access in the last year. Some of their analysis has discussed the cost (or savings) to institutions of Gold open access. For some it would be a saving (they would pay less in submission fees for their academics than they currently pay for subscriptions), while at highly productive institutions it might actually cost more.

My feeling has tended to be that Open Access (and the expectation of it) is going to be increasingly a cudgel used against smaller publishers/academic societies, who will cut off their main income stream if they lose subscriptions and memberships. Large publishers may have the financial cushion to subsidize the transition, but smaller players will not. Meanwhile the author-pays element will increasingly freeze out scholars who are marginally employed, or at institutions who don’t have the cash to pay for their submissions. My sense is that this will hit the humanities much harder for two reasons—first, more of our journals are published by academic societies rather than Elsevier et. al.; second, there are more independent scholars trying to publish in the humanities (it’s easier to do some humanities work as an independent scholar than if your research requires access to lab facilities).

The scholarly associations I am thinking of often have a membership/subscription bundle - all members are subscribers and vice versa. While it may be that they can replace the subscription funding with author payments to the journal, they will lose the membership element. Membership confers much more than just access to a journal. These are often societies going back over a century, with a history of advocating for their members. They organise conferences, give scholarships, create disciplinary networks. Without members, who will feel invested in them? And what will scholars lose when we don’t have these groups to speak for us?

Then it fell apart....

It is some years since I worked as a film critic, but I still occasionally see a film that I want to write about. In this case, the long-awaited Jason Bourne.

[mild spoilers]

I yield to no-one in my love of the Bourne series, and I was looking forward to this. There was no clear need for a sequel after all this time, 14 years after the Bourne Identity and 9 after the Bourne Supremacy. But the question of what had become of Bourne was one that could have been worth answering.

Unfortunately, the answer suggested by this film is not a great one. We first see Bourne making a living in prize fights in Eastern Europe, and the camera lingers over the signs of the toll his life has taken. Scars from bullet wounds, the greying hair at the temples, the sinewy muscles.

The story here involves Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) hacking in and retrieving information about CIA black operations, and passing this to Bourne. The NCIS-level plotting has the CIA storing such data in a file labelled “Black Ops”. The CIA operative who spots the hack then attempts to track down Parsons, and through her, Bourne.

This young officer (Alicia Vikander), is a computer whiz who was hired straight from university - which from the looks of her was about six weeks ago. Vikander is fine as an actress, but the character is totally implausible. She’s far too young to be not only given control of an operation, but then to have the stones to ask to be made CIA director.

Vikander’s character should have been 10-20 years older, like Pam Landy (Joan Allen in The Bourne Supremacy). Landy was in the position of choosing between supporting her employers and having doubts about the Black Ops enterprise. Landy’s character also demonstrated what many mid-career women experience in male-dominated workforces. She gets gaslighted by her male colleagues, who plan to scapegoat her when a project goes wrong.

That level of nuance and development among the agency staff is absent here. Vikander’s character is apparently only driven by ambition. But having introduced a junior tech genius who could trace a hack, there should have been a character somewhere in the hierarchy between her and the old guy in the corner office. The character of “Generic senior CIA guy who wants Bourne gone" (previously played by Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, David Strathairn) is played by Tommy Lee Jones.

The limited storyline also involves some folderol about Bourne’s father, and Bourne’s motive for volunteering for Treadstone. But we learn nothing really new about Bourne, and this additional backstory is too hackneyed to build on the web of subterfuge created in the earlier films. Although his name is the title, Bourne is more the object than the subject of the action.

Bourne's nemesis, or rather, his opposite number, is a character not even given a name beyond "The Asset”. “The Asset” is played by Vincent Cassel, a lean actor with high cheekbones and a sardonic pout. An award-winning actor in France, he has appeared in action-thrillers making use of his martial arts skills, as well as more serious dramas. His forays into English-language cinema have been few, notably the choreographer in Black Swan and the cat burglar in Ocean's 13. However, he is wasted here. In what passes for character development, we are told the Asset was held hostage in Syria and tortured. But whatever sympathy that was designed to elicit evaporates the second we see him killing civilians left, right, and centre. He is the Big Bad, with no moral gradations.

In the earlier films, Bourne - and the system that created him - existed in a moral grey area. Individuals might be bad or good, but they were all in the same swamp of ambiguity. In The Bourne Identity, another Treadstone assassin (played by Clive Owen), was sent after Bourne. In him we saw that Bourne was not alone, as an agency man trapped in his role. As he died, he said to Bourne: "Look at this. Look what they make you give”. Both men knew that they were victims of the same system. The idea that such men are morally compromised, have doubts, and are psychologically damaged by their work, is the heart of the Bourne character. But here, such nuance has disappeared.

The tone is also changed. There are two big chase sequences: one, on a motorcycle through Athens, is pure Bourne. The other, in Las Vegas, looks like it belongs in Mission Impossible, or another more glitzy action flick. (One driver is even in an armored SWAT vehicle, and the smashing of casinos reminded me of Con-Air, when a plane was landed on the Vegas strip). The earlier Bourne films always avoided glamorous locations. In European cities, the action took place in rail stations or anonymous suburban streets. That gritty realism was part of what gave the films their edge. Glitzy action and a flimsy plot: Jason Bourne deserved better than this.

In my enjoyment of the series, I have wondered about what the future would really hold for Bourne. Since he wants to stay off the grid, he can’t seek legitimate employment or start a business as a security contractor. How, as our net of surveillance grows tighter, does someone really escape? (Especially when you’ve been on an Interpol watchlist for the past decade).

In this film, people talk about Bourne “coming in”, but never say why. To work for them? Face trial? This is unclear. But his return to the nest would at least have been a reason for a final film after such a hiatus. As he gets too old to be scratching at the margins of the cash economy, why not finally decide that the only way out was back to the start? Surely, while beating up Serbian toughs on the Greek border for a handful of sweaty banknotes, the option must have occurred to him. Plot-wise, a story in which his hand were forced—such as finding himself in a foreign jail, or stumbling onto a genuine threat to the USA—could have presented the situation for him to make the choice he’s been avoiding for years.

A film could end with him settling into an office at Langley, with JASON BOURNE (or even DAVID WEBB) on the door. That would have been a better outcome for this troubled but patriotic (and pragmatic) character. Extreme ways indeed.

How brave of you!

Recently an academic told me he had "pledged" to not participate in any all-male conference panels.

I wasn't sure how to respond: was I supposed to be grateful, as a female academic, that he was making this gesture? It seemed both condescending and smug. But I couldn't clearly articulate quite why it pissed me off until I read this piece in Jezebel:

Damn, You're Not Reading Any Books by White Men This Year? That's So Freakin Brave and Cool

If you want a change to be normalised, just do it. Don't ask for applause.

Here, there, and everywhere

I was recently fortunate enough to interview members of ICE's human rights group, who work tracking down war criminals in the United States. I wrote about it for TIME.


I've also written for the Chronicle, on teaching


and university finances


Are the only real "Expendables" women?

The Expendables 3 is coming out. I will confess I did see the previous two, but I doubt that's necessary to follow the plot.

I notice there is a woman in this one, getting main billing on the poster with all the men. Will this film pass the Bechdel test? I somehow doubt it, I suspect it's going to be the Smurfette syndrome.

The female star is Ronda Rousey. She is a mixed martial artist, which means she should be convincing in the fight scenes. (I've no idea her acting skills but it's not like anyone else in this line-up is Laurence Olivier). Also, at 27, she's young enough to be the daughter of most of the men in the film.

But where are the VETERAN female action stars? Where are Linda Hamilton, Sigourney Weaver, or Michelle Yeo? Or Milla Jovovich, Michelle Rodriguez, Kate Beckinsale, Lucy Liu?

I mean, come on, Kelsey Grammer? A guy whose most action-y role so far was playing a psychiatrist who probably sprained his ankle hurrying to the box office for opera tickets?
I want to see Geena Davis (who has spoken out so much against the underrepresentation of women in film) as a bounty hunter.

Face to face with the man who sold the world

The last three weeks have been a hectic whirl, of four countries and a nightmare of moving that I won't even begin to express. 

In London I went to see David Bowie Is.... , a mindblowing exhibition. It's rare for any museum to put on a show about such a talented, fashion-shaping individual, but the way they laced different phases of his life (personal notes, clothing - lots of clothing - and drawings) was so involving, and the soundrack on the audioguide was brilliant. I have never seen anything like it—and I doubt I will again.

Meantime, my own scribblings have appeared elsewhere: 

In Slate, I reviewed a book on the History of Neon.  

And for The Australian, a book on the history of whale hunting.  

And now through the miracle of technology, I can track the ship carrying my possessions from Munich to the Pacific.  

Need a big loan from the girl zone?

Salon just published a piece saying that the gay rights movement has an advantage over the abortion rights movement, in that celebrities are willing to come out as gay, while few come out as having had an abortion.

This distinction can be parsed further though, in ways they do not: gay is an identity, having an abortion is an event - in a life full of other events.  

Nonetheless, I said recently to my students that people will more readily admit to a drug addiction to an abortion. Most (especially the male students) seemed surprised by this. But it's obviously true: there is a tv show called Celebrity Rehab, not Celebrity Abortion Clinic.  

I realise this is because abortion strikes at the twin axes on which women are most harshly judged. One: their sexual behaviour (if you need an abortion, you must be a slut having sex out of wedlock), and Two: their maternal skills (getting rid of a pregnancy is about as unmaternal as one can get). The women who tend to speak publicly about abortions are the repentant, putting it in the "terrible mistakes I made when I was young" category, not the "damn straight I did it and I'd do it again" school.  

It's true that if women more willingly admitted to having ended pregnancies, this would have the power to overturn the debate on the issue: as politicians would realise how many women they know have made use of the right to choose.  

All I need is a rhythm divine

In 1941, Desi Arnaz was an up-and-coming performer, with some Broadway and Hollywood credits, looking to become a headliner. He had married Lucille Ball the previous year, after they met on the set of Too Many Girls.

But when he premiered his song "Babalu" at Newburgh’s Ritz Theater, few in the audience would have known the significance of the date: December 17.

Babalú, first a Yoruba deity, crossed the Atlantic with his adherents when they were transported as slaves. As Santeria emerged in Cuba as a syncretism of African spirit worship and Catholic rituals, Babalú became one of the most popular of the Cuban Lucumí Santería orishas. He has been linked with Saint Lazarus, and now shares that Saint’s feast day of December 17.

The name Babalú-Ayé translates as “Father, lord of the Earth”. He is believed to be associated with epidemics—curing them, as well as bringing them down upon communities when displeased. In Cuba, thousands of devotees gather each December at the Church and Leprosorium of Saint Lazarus in El Rincón.

The Spanish version of the song, written by Margarita Lecuona and performed by Arnaz, describes invoking the god with offerings of tobacco and alcohol, and lighting seventeen candles in the shape of a cross. He asks Babalú for protection.

Ta empezando lo velorio
Que le hacemo a Babalu
Dame diez y siete velas
Pa ponerle en cruz.
Dame un cabo de tabaco mayenye
Y un jarrito de aguardiente,
Dame un poco de dinero mayenye
Pa' que me de la suerte.

However, the English version published that year (lyrics by S. K. Russell) doesn't translate the story, but change it completely. The lyrics set the piece back in Africa, making the (implicitly white) singer an observer, not a participant in the worship of Babalú. It also refers to Babalú as a "Voodoo" god of love.

Jungle drums were madly beating
In the glare of eerie lights:
While the natives kept repeating
Ancient jungle rites.
All at once the dusky warriors began to
Raise their arms to skies above
A a native stepped forward to chant to
his Voodoo Godess of love.

Of course in December 1941, just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, audiences were also looking for a distraction. Arnaz’s music, and his long conga solo, would have been a welcome source of entertainment. A few years later “Babalú” became the signature song of his character, Ricky Ricardo, on I Love Lucy. That he chose to perform it first on December 17 shows that perhaps he was hoping for some protection, and luck, too.

I am the words, you are the tune

I like Regina Spektor's music. But when I heard "On The Radio" the other day—being sung along to by a couple of girls—I was struck by the line "everyone must breathe, until their dying breath". Well, yes, I suppose they must. But where does this pseudoprofundity come from? (or rather who decided this was an ok line to go ahead and record? Cole Porter wouldn't have gone near it, Jimmy Webb might have but regretted it the next morning). But there seems to be a lot more of this kind of nonsense in music these days.

The popular singer-songwriter is a modern creature, dating only from the availability of sheet music and recorded music. Earlier singer-songwriters were troubadours, who adjusted their ballads to suit the audience, or related recent events—and what they performed generally wasn't written down.

Folk songs, which everyone knew, weren't written down either, and were probably written collaboratively over generations by Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

There were also people who wrote down songs that aspired to universal themes, about life, death, and God. Those songs are called hymns. "Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away".... more affecting than something about breathing until you stop breathing.

Once we got into the twentieth century though, people wrote (and recorded) songs typically on the themes of:

1. I'm in love!
2. The person I love doesn't love me, and it's a bummer.
3. My whole life's a bummer. Dead dog, no job.
4. Everyone's life's a bummer. Try to look on the bright side. (a popular theme in the Great Depression).
5. Commentary on blue-collar life and/or prison.
6. The apparent suicide of Billie Joe McAllister.

But songs that include the singer's (banal) pronouncements on the meaning of life started increasing since the 1960s (with the arrival of a new theme: 7. Stick it to the Man), and seem to have really proliferated today. It's one thing to get musings on life from people who've really clocked up some city miles, like Tammy Wynette, or Johnny Cash, or Neil Young, or Edith Piaf. But learning that "If the light is off, then it isn't on" (Hilary Duff), brings to mind the all-time-stupid of Des'ree's preference for toast over ghosts.

A song relating personal feelings, performed in the first person, can be one of the most moving art forms we have. "Love Me Tender" and "Cry Me a River" are aimed at specific, second-person recipients. But any listeners can imagine themselves either as the singer or the recipient. These songs paradoxically achieve universality by being personal. Many of us have acquired our emotional vocabulary through such songs.

However, when songwriters strive for universal observations on the human condition, they wind up sounding like fortune cookies. We don't experience life in general, but in specifics.

If you think I'm being harsh towards Spektor (and before anyone tells me that English isn't her first language, I'm pretty sure that "dying breath" stuff doesn't sound any better in Russian), she is clearly innovative musically, and this kind of lousy lyric lets her down.

That same song has the far more evocative passage:

And then you take that love you made
And stick it into some
Someone else's heart
pumping someone else's blood

This reminds me of another form of songwriting, the factory-like production of pop and dance songs by Ester Dean to be performed by the likes of Rihanna. The astonishingly talented Dean's feelings, her words, are put into someone else's heart, filling someone else's album. In fact, she is able to step into another performer's persona, in creating a song to suit their image.

Of course, it remains to be seen which of today's singles become part of tomorrow's songbook. As Van Halen said, "Only time will tell if we stand the test of time."