Thursday, April 30, 2009

We'll always have Lawrence v. Texas

I can't quit you, David Souter.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Fun with Juxtaposed Pictures

From today's Huffington Post:

From the Chicago Tribune:

Monday, April 27, 2009

You're no mystery to me, Miss California.

On occasion, "Music Monday" requires a bit of setup.

Sometimes it feels like we meet someone loathsome every week. Last week, it was Miss California, Carrie Prejean. Prejean, who looks like nothing so much as a vinyl effigy of Elizabeth Berkley, was the frontrunner in last week's Miss USA Pageant--until, as you know, she was asked about her position on same-sex marriage. Her answer has become famous by now, especially in courses on how NOT to win Miss USA.

Indeed, Carrie's plea for "opposite marriage" (only, of course, in "[her] country"--wherever that is...) seems to have cost her the crown. Instead, our bronzed rack of lamb had to settle for First Runner-Up. Unfortunately, her consolation prize was merely to co-host the "Today" show for a couple of days. This is particularly sad as, if she had won the crown, she would gotten a much better gig. Like, um, cutting the ribbon at the new Food Lion in Greensboro, NC. Hang in there, Carrie--you'll make it someday!

Naturally, she immediately became a political figure. Insane people loved her "courage." Equally insane people hated her. Prejean herself attempted to crazy up her image a little, blathering about being "biblically correct." Eventually, someone finally noted that she had her facts wrong anyway. And somehow, we all cringed to discover that she casually dates Michael Phelps (has he made one good decision outside of a swimming pool?).

Now Fosco doesn't want to hate on Miss California too much. After all, asking beauty queens about politics is a recipe for disaster--as far as I'm concerned, she just mostly made herself look bigoted and stupid for posterity. (Although, whether we should be taking her "opinion" seriously for the rest of the week is a different question altogether.) And besides, no one has been able to adequately explain to me why two infinitely more loathsome people were on stage with her that evening (that would be Perez Hilton and Billy Bush). Carrie's clearly the distant third in that trio of repulsiveness.

What the hell does any of this have to do with music? I am pleased that you asked. Fosco's annoyance with Miss California last week was decidedly attenuated by his discovery of the song "Miss California" by his beloved Jack's Mannequin. Somehow, Fosco had managed to overlook this song (which is a bonus track on The Glass Passenger) until last week. For some reason, imagining Carrie Prejean as the Miss California named in the song makes Fosco laugh--a lot. Perhaps it has something to do with the lyrics:

But I'm gonna take you to my boxcar on the beach
And I'm gonna hang the sun above your bed
And soak your hair in bleach

You'll be missed Miss California
You'll be kissed by only me
When they can't find you, you'll turn into a mystery
but you're no mystery to me, Miss California.
Yes, these lyrics are a little creepy (or, as Oz suggested, a little "kidnap-ey"), but the song itself is really a great sing-a-long pop jewel. And of course, I'm not advocating the abduction of Carrie Prejean; however, these are the kinds of silly fantasies that stupid people have about beauty queens (and that Jack's Mannequin is clearly mocking in this song). It's just a funny song that is made funnier when you imagine Prejean's semisynthetic face in the middle of the narrative.

Sadly, the best version that I've been able to find online is this live video from YouTube. It's not a terrible performance (the energy is high), but you should probably find a way to listen to the studio version.

Also, why does he keep trying to stand up? Sit down!

Oh, and if you'd like a "bonus track" from Jack's Mannequin, listen to this excellent cover of MGMT's "Kids"--good stuff.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sunday in Venusburg

Fosco has been listening to Wagner's opera Tannhäuser this week. The music is absolutely ravishing (Don't believe me? Get a hold of the Overture--an easy download from anywhere.), but I had never really paid attention to the plot before this week. Guess what? The plot is stupid. Even so, the opera's a pretty thrilling listen.

Another thing I never knew about Tannhäuser: the overture is referenced in the title of an almost-equally ravishing Cézanne painting.

This is Cézanne's Girl at the Piano (Overture to Tannhäuser) (1868-70). It lives at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. It is entirely possible that this young woman is playing the piano transcription of the overture by Franz Liszt (although there seem to have been versions by several composers).

I wish you a restful Sunday, filled with wonderful music (and perhaps some needlework?).

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Saturday Story Hour: Wells Tower

After taking a week off to reload, "Saturday Story Hour" is back. With a BANG.

This week, we're focusing on an author who is entirely new to Fosco! Just a few weeks ago, Fosco semi-randomly clicked on a story on the NY Times front page about a short story collection by an author named Wells Tower. The name of the collection is Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, which is a pretty catchy title. Fosco decided to buy the book (from his local independent bookstore--thus paying almost $10 too much), after reading these paragraphs in the Times piece:

Wells Tower’s book of short stories, “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned,” has attracted a great number of vivid descriptions from admiring critics in the few weeks since it came out, and “strange” is perhaps the most commonly employed.

Also: “lurid”; “crammed with more pathos than a 400-page potboiler”; “bittersweet,” “beautiful” and “ardently conflicted” (in the same review); and “sad-funny-disturbing” (all in the same hyphenated clause). The last came from Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times, who wrote that the book “decisively establishes” Mr. Tower “as a writer of uncommon talent” and drew comparisons to Sam Shepard’s social radar, Frederic Barthelme’s ear and David Foster Wallace’s eye.
To me, those paragraphs pretty much sold it.

When Fosco got the book home and cracked it, he was surprised to discover that one of the stories had originally appeared in The New Yorker last November. Apparently, that one slipped past me. The story is called "Leopard" and I'm glad that I got this second chance to read it, because it's great.

The story is written in the second person--which is somewhat unusual and, in the hands of some writers, very show-off-y. However, in this case, I found it very easy to slip into. By the third or fourth paragraph, the oddness of second person address had entirely disappeared. At that point, I was comfortably living inside the head of Towers's teenage protagonist.

The story is also, in places, extremely funny--and poignant at the same time (just like your own teen years, right?). Consider this section that describes a small fungus spot that has appeared on your upper lip (wasn't Junior High absolute torture?):
A tiny hamburger is what the fungus resembles, cracked and brown and perfectly centered in the little fluted area between your septum and upper lip. Yesterday, in the cafeteria, Josh Mohorn pointed out the similarity before a table of your friends. A painful thing, considering how much you would like to be Josh Mohorn. He turned to you and said, “Hey, Yancy, do me a favor.”

“What’s up?” you said, excited by the rare pleasure of Josh’s attention.

“Could you take that seat down there?” he said, gesturing toward the far end of the table. “I can’t eat my lunch with your fucking burger in my face.”

Even you had to admire the succinct poetry of the line, which launched an instant craze of everyone jeering and calling you Burger King, or Patty, or All Beef, the name that stuck for the rest of the day and that will surely greet you this morning at school. You are eleven years old, the age that our essences begin revealing themselves, irremediably, to us and to the world. Just as Josh Mohorn is irremediably a soccer ace and a clothes ace, with feathered hair and white bucks, you are irremediably a fungus man.
I don't know about you, but for me that passage pretty much sums up my life during the years 1985-1989.

Sadly, it turns out that you live with your loathed stepfather. By the end of the story, you'll be silently praying for him to be devoured by a renegade leopard. How does the story go from your fungus to the leopard? That's what makes it so amazing--the strange chain of contingency that seems so perfectly normal for a day in the life of a misfit eleven-year-old.

You can read "Leopard" here.

If you would like to purchase Towers's collection from Amazon (thus saving almost $10), you can do so by following this link:

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Primatology of BBQ

"Foodie Friday" returns (a little late in the afternoon) with something mouth-watering.

The first week of April brought Fosco's friend Todd on his annual pilgrimage to the Bay Area. You may not know that, in recent years, Todd has become something of a BBQ expert. Because of his travels around this country (and a group of very food-obsessed friends), Todd pretty much has recommendations for good BBQ in almost any major American city. I never travel without asking Todd if there is a good BBQ place to visit at my destination. Todd was particularly excited this visit, as he finally had a lead on some good Bay Area BBQ. And so we drove to the small town of Pacifica, just south of San Francisco along the coast, to find Gorilla BBQ.

Gorilla BBQ turns out to be notable for several reasons. First off, there is its location in a bright-orange boxcar. Second, there is its theme song (listen to it at the website). Third, there is the fact that the owners spent $26,000 on a smoker. Fourth, the place recently appeared on punk bear Guy Fieri's "Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives" on Food Network. And perhaps most interesting: one of the co-owners has the words "PORK" and "RIBS" tattooed on his knuckles. Indeed!

Let's check out the setup. This is boxcar (and over that hill is the ocean--that's Highway 1 right there).

The sign is perhaps slightly misleading, as I have yet to see much smoke coming from the place. Too much smoke is probably against local environmental restrictions anyway.

This is Jeff, one of the co-owners (and apparently the primary chef). Notice all of the monkey tchotchkes on the counter.

This is Rich (aka "Gorilla"). He's the one with the tattooed knuckles. He takes the orders.

As you can see, there isn't much space in the boxcar to run the whole operation. Of course, it's takeout only.

So let's talk about the food. The menu features the standard smoked meats: pork ribs, chicken, beef brisket, pulled pork, hot links. There are traditional sides (mac and cheese, red beans and rice, corn muffins, potato salad) and NorCal-inspired sides (portabello mushrooms, grilled eggplant). When Oz and I went with Todd, I opted for the three meat combo: brisket, pulled pork, and hot links. It came in two containers: one for the meat, one for the sides. Plus sauce on the side. Here's the meat:

The pulled pork is fine. The hot links are spicily delicious. The brisket is EXTRAORDINARY--crusty, smoky, tender, cut-able with a spork (yes, a spork is what they provide you to eat with...). The BBQ sauce (appropriately served on the side) is tart and wonderful--best I've had outside a hundred-mile radius of Memphis. One thing I liked: the attention to the sides, which were pretty much all delicious. The Mac N Cheese is absolutely awesome, and the corn muffins are the Platonic ideal of corn muffins--best I've EVER had. Seriously.

Oz and I were smitten and we returned the next week (with Todd in our memories...). This time, we concentrated all of our attention on the brisket and mac n cheese:

At this point, I am absolutely obsessed with this brisket. Apparently, however, I am not alone. This was the line at 11:45 on Saturday (for the opening at noon):

Sure, it may have taken half an hour to get to the counter. But it was worth it. Brisket!

Of course, Gorilla may not compete with the best of Memphis (or Texas and North Carolina, for that matter), but I suspect it's the best in Northern California--and that's not too shabby. If you are ever within 50 miles of this place, it is worth a trip.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Did Jesus ever rebuke "Ankle Biters"?

In yesterday's post, I published a photograph of lovely Christian gentleman and his informative sign listing all of the groups of people who will be judged harshly by God. Here, again, is a closeup of his sign:

In my previous post, I helpfully turned this poster into an easy-to-read list and my readers responded--by determining how many of these categories are going to contribute to their own eternal damnation.

However, as you may recall, there were two groups that Fosco couldn't quite read. With the help of some new bionic eyes (and some other pix of this guy from other sources), Fosco is pleased to announce that he can now complete the list:

ADDITIONAL People Who Will Be Judged (Presumably Unfavorably) By God

  • Thieves
  • Ankle Biters (what does that even mean?)
Do these additions cause any revisions in your personal number, readers? (Especially if any of you are small dogs...)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Postcards from the Counterculture: A Fosco Lives! Special Report

Unless you live in a college town, you may not be familiar with yesterday's 4/20 holiday (it's "clever" because yesterday's date was 4/20). It's that day of the year when pot smokers come together at 4:20 PM to celebrate "cannabis culture" by smoking up--often in public. It is a particularly popular holiday at two major US public universities (as noted in this article in the NY Times): University of Colorado at Boulder and (wait for it) Fosco's own University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). In fact, the holiday has become so closely associated with UCSC that a picture of UCSC's 4/20 event is used to illustrate the 4/20 entry on Wikipedia. (And yes, the above picture is of UCSC's mascot, the Banana Slug, smoking pot.)

The event has always been unsanctioned by UCSC, of course. However, as the holiday has become larger and more public in recent years, the UCSC administration has become more concerned about the questionable PR. This year, UCSC sent an email to the parents of all first-year students asking them to discourage their sons or daughters from participating. As the email suggested (with keen insight into the mind of today's youth):

"I encourage you to talk with your student about his or her plans for 4/20. Ask direct questions about the choices they make and express your expectations regarding marijuana, alcohol or other drug use. Although students may not initiate discussion on this topic, your opinions and expectations can influence their behavior."
"Golly, Beaver, I sure hope you aren't planning to take the pot on April 20th. Remember that anyone who offers you drugs is not a true friend."

But that was just Prong ONE of UCSC's two-pronged attack on 4/20. Prong TWO was to essentially shut down the campus for the whole afternoon, in an attempt to prevent easy access to the Porter College Meadow (traditional home of the gathering). This meant shutting down the bus routes, closing the West Entrance to campus, and beefing up parking enforcement. Of course, there was added benefit of inconveniencing any non-pot-smokers who remained on campus: "Can't get home? Blame the potheads!"

Normally, Fosco would strenuously avoid an event like this, considering that he considers any group larger than twenty-five people to be an unpleasantly large crowd. And when that group is made up of pot-smoking hippies... well, let's just say that Fosco has aesthetic objections to "cannabis culture." However, this year found Fosco in class at Porter College until 4 PM on 4/20. Essentially, Fosco was a within an easy quarter-mile walk of the whole gathering: could his inner anthropologist resist a glimpse of the spectacle? Would a giant crowd of pot-smoking hippies be enough to convince Fosco to stay on campus for an extra half hour?

Yes, of course, I went to look. You would have too. And this is what I saw...

By 4 PM, the people walking toward Porter Meadow had become a steady line (see Monterey Bay in the background?).

It's kind of like watching pot-loving ants, no? And look at the smoke cloud.

Here's a view of the line looking back from the Meadow:

One thing I didn't mention yet: this was the hottest day we've had this year. It was 97 fucking degrees. (And yes, even with my canteen of water, I was regretting the quarter-mile walk by this point--anthropology is hard.) Of course, the heat did give the Santa Cruz Sentinel the opportunity to use the "twice-baked" pun in their coverage, so I suppose it was worth it.

One option for beating the heat was to smoke in the woods that surrounds the meadow:

Other heat-beating options I observed: umbrellas, parasols, shirtlessness, sweating profusely. These photos were taken around 4:05 or so--note the giant crowd and smoke cloud.

For the first time in the history of UCSC's 4/20 event, there were some party-crashers: local Christian nutballs showed up with signs to protest. Seriously!

Don't these guys have something better to do? Like picketing AIDS funerals? Or throwing blood on abortion doctors?

This guy was my favorite:

Who would have thought that God could hate so many things! Luckily, this guy has made a list for us. Can we go to a closeup? Yes?

Let's just take a moment and convert this sign into a list.

People Who Will Be Judged (Presumably Unfavorably) By God
  • Sex Addicts (tough luck, David Duchovny)
  • Baby Killers
  • Witches
  • Dikes [sic] on Bikes
  • Pencil Neck Weak Kneed Gutless Men (hmmm...)
  • So Called Christians
  • Pot Smoking Little Devils (Bingo!)
  • False Religions
  • Lewd Women (well, duh!)
  • Porno Freaks
  • Homos
  • [something I can't quite read]
  • [another something I can't quite read]
  • Sports Nuts (Seriously?)
  • Perverts
  • Racists
  • Money Lovers
  • Two Faced People (sorry, Harvey Dent)
  • Rebellious Women
  • All Non-Homemakers (wow, I bet these guys get lots of dates)
  • Party Animals
  • Drunkards
  • Jesus Mockers
  • And Catholics...
Whew. I don't know about you, but that's the kind of God I could really get into. Watch out, Sports Nuts.

Anyway... the golden moment, 4:20 PM PDT, finally arrived and the smoke got even thicker:

These pictures don't quite capture the moment adequately--for one thing, you can't hear all of the drums. Consequently, allow me to offer the brief video that I recorded (and uploaded to YouTube):

Sadly, I cannot make this experience available to you in "Smell-O-Vision" because, as my college roommate David noted, the whole thing "must have smelled unspeakably awful." I cannot disagree.

All in all, I managed to stave off incipient heat-stroke until about 4:30 when I gave up and walked back to my car at Porter. I wasn't the only one leaving:

Caption: "We'll always have these stupid memories."

Walking back, I passed the only official UCSC presence at the event:

And what did I learn? Well, for one thing, I thought there would actually be a more communal atmosphere at this thing. I had envisioned people passing joints and conversing. Instead, everyone just broke up into their own friend groups--and most of them weren't actually very nice about it. I had kinda been expecting to be offered some smoke (not that I would have indulged), but that didn't seem to be the vibe. I've been to much friendlier football tailgates. And I've had more pot offered to me at concerts.

For another thing, I wonder how many actual UCSC students were there. Walking down, I was in front of a group from Berkeley. In the Sentinel coverage, they interviewed students from everywhere but UCSC: UC Berkeley, UC Davis, CSU-Monterey Bay, Cabrillo College. N.B., some kid from Berkeley was named in the Sentinel coverage as "Skittles." Delightful! Also suprising: I didn't see anyone I knew there. I've been at this school for three years and have a pretty large circle of acquaintances: colleagues, grad students, current students, former students, etc. Of course, it's possible that my students saw and avoided me...

Random 4/20 observations:
  • You could not pay me enough to eat the vegan food being sold onsite by the Hare Krishnas.
  • Hippie guys are not very attractive.
  • God is surprisingly wrathful. That's probably bad news for my afterlife plans.
  • Too many people brought their dogs (which are prohibited on campus). And too many of them were pit bulls.
  • I thought there would be more music (of the non-bongo variety). Where were all the people I saw walking with acoustic guitars?
  • It was SO FUCKING HOT.
All in all, I think I learned some important lessons. And I hope that I have created a precious anthropological record--especially for those of you who wonder what undergrad life is like nowadays.

Oh, and of course, I will NEVER do this again.

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A Programming Note

You've probably noticed that my blogging has been sporadic lately, and I think you (the loyal FL! reader) deserve an explanation.

You see, Spring Quarter (stupid quarter system!) started recently and Fosco has a couple of abnormally time-consuming activities to deal with right now. For one thing, Fosco's teaching assignment is a course that has two sections a week. This means that I have to prep for section twice a week (Monday and Wednesday). And because I am constitutionally opposed to subjecting my students to time-wasting activities like "everyone get in small groups and talk about your papers while I sit at the front of the room and take a little nap," the extra prep time adds up. Not to mention that the professor for this course has allowed the TAs complete freedom in planning the course for their students (which is, in many ways, a good thing); however, this means that I don't have predetermined activities or assignments to fall back on.

The second time-consuming activity for me this quarter is the final course that I need to satisfy my language requirement. I read French pretty well and my previous French course (last year) was not a huge burden--we read the novels in French and had our discussion in English. However, the French course I am taking this quarter is not just French readings: the entire seminar (including discussion) is conducted in French! This is both difficult and terrifying (although the professor is perfectly understanding). I find myself planning in advance the simplest discussion comments (I frequently write out what I want to say in discussion the night before, so as to double check the grammar, etc.). It's getting a little easier every week, but I still spend almost every class (and it meets twice a week) feeling either panicked or embarrassed. You should have seen my deep blush today when I very publicly misunderstood one of the professor's directions. In addition, there is a passage translation due every week and I, with characteristic conscientiousness, try to make my translation perfect (while I regularly watch the undergrads in the seminar just sight-translate a passage). It's been a long time since I've felt so academically inferior in a class (well, since college physics) and while a humbling experience is always useful, it can also be painful.

I don't want all of this to sound like a bid for sympathy, because it's not--at least not primarily. I recognize very clearly the following things:

  1. I chose this life.
  2. I still have it pretty good.
  3. Lots of people have to work much harder than I do.
  4. At least I have a job.
  5. It's a privilege to be doing something that I (mostly) enjoy.
  6. It's all part of the process of becoming a professor.
  7. It will all someday be worth it.
  8. I could always quit and get a job waiting tables.
So there is no need to repeat any of these things, Dad. :) However, I did want to explain why my blog has been so empty lately (and why I've been so bad about reading and commenting on the blogs of some of my favorite people [esp. Jill!]).

The good news: I have a plan! My blogging may not reach pre-Spring-Quarter levels for a while, but I am going to try to ramp up my posting--starting now. Once again, thanks for your patience! My love to you all.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Queer Crucifixion

"Music Monday" was always sorta queer, don't you think?

Today we have the second installment in Fosco's series of "The Queerest Music Videos Ever!" Today's video is from those ultraqueer Swedes, Army of Lovers. This is "Crucified"--a song which is, I suppose, slightly blasphemous--especially if you don't have a sense of humor. If you watched a lot of MTV in the 90s, you may recognize this video from an episode of "Beavis and Butthead." Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly), I think this video is funnier without their commentary.

I've still never watched this video without laughing out loud at least once. Usually, it's the Elvis bit, but sometimes it's also when the dark-haired guy raises his eyebrow so provocatively. I don't know about you, but I can't help but appreciate a video where everyone seems to be having so much fun!

And good luck getting this song out of your head today.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

It's (Once Again) the End of the World As We Know It

I've been remiss, I know. I'll see if I can be a better blogger this coming week.

As an amuse-bouche for a good week, here's a late-night/early-morning treat for you: a weather forecast of doom from the San Jose Mercury News!

This is slightly sinister, no? I'm not sure what is even sunnier than sunny, but I don't think it's a good thing. What is "and then some"? A tanning bed? A UV storm? A supernova? Twenty-four hours of daylight? Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!

It's clearly going to be a week of Biblical significance in the Bay Area. I'll try to keep you posted.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Don't Keep It in the Closet

Put on your eyeliner, because here comes the first installment in the ?-part series called: "The Queerest Music Videos Ever!" (And if the songs happen to be really good, well that's just gravy...)

Today's entry wasn't particularly queer when it was released, but has become much queerer in the (nearly) two decades since. When Michael Jackson's "In The Closet" video was released, the buzz was mostly about Jackson's heterosexual shimmying with supermodel Naomi Campbell. And yes, it is a sexy video (and song)--in its way. However, watching the video today, I certainly don't see much heterosexuality in it. What I do see is Naomi Campbell grinding with a (not entirely convincing) drag king. Maybe it's Michael's ponytail or maybe it's his little girl breasts, but I'm not seeing this video as anything other than lesbian dirty-dancing. And that's pretty queer.

I still love this song, too. And his hand gestures are absolutely priceless.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Amazon Glitch Roundup

This has certainly turned into the internet obsession of the day, no? I wrote two posts in haste last night and called for a temporary boycott of Amazon.

More news came out today. I am grateful to the intrepid AEJ for doing updates in the comments here; in fact, I think her comments are so useful that they deserve a place in an actual post. I reprint them, in order, here:

This is an interesting wrinkle - a hacker is claiming credit for this whole thing, saying he created an exploit that takes advantage of Amazon's "Mark this as inappropriate" tag. Of course, I'd be happy to hear that this was indeed not something Amazon did itself, so I'm trying not to allow my preference for this to be true to outweigh reasonable skepticism; still, I would say it's plausible. (Both because this type of filtering would be idiotic as a business move, and Amazon isn't usually idiotic, and because there is a whiff of mischief about the whole thing - from the beginning I've thought this had to be the work of an individual, whether within Amazon or not, rather than corporate policy.)

More at Ars Technica.

This will be my last comment - sorry to keep coming back, but I've been really bothered by this so I keep looking for news and I'm just passing along stuff as I hear it... Anyway, there are now conflicting stories - see these two posts on Salon - coming out of Amazon (not surprising, since as others have noted they hardly want to admit either to being hacked or to doing this intentionally) - but the upshot is that there are apparently something close to 58,000 titles affected and they're fixing it now. Whether someone outside actually found a vulnerability and pranked them or someone in France (really? France is our scapegoat?) mistagged stuff or whatever, I think the possibility that this is a corporate policy is vanishingly small. As the Amazon spokesperson put it, "embarrassing and ham-fisted," definitely; the good news is I think it really was a coding debacle rather than a homophobic salvo. So while I'm still irked, as others have noted, that they haven't just apologized to the writers and readers affected, I'm taking some small solace in the current look of things.
Nice work, AEJ. You've convinced me to suspend judgment for a bit, especially as I agree with your suggestion that that the likelihood of this being a corporate policy is "vanishingly small." Of course, I would like to see all of this get fixed within a reasonable amount of time.

Of course, one of the annoying things here is that we are unlikely to get a thorough and accurate explanation of what actually happened--or, at least we are unlikely to get that explanation anytime soon. Until we know for sure, Gawker/Valleywag offers this handy guide to the possible causes. And if you have wondered whether there are ways to analyze this whole debacle using anthropology, allow me to recommend this post by Ted Gideonse. Ted seems to have taken a page from Obama's book, because (as you'll see in his post) he's clearly the coolest head in the room right now.

There is a good lesson from this, though: gays and their allies are finally mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore. We're coming for you next, Mormons!

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Oops, I Don't Know Where I Am

A brief, late entry on "Music Monday."

Britney Spears brought her spectacle to San Jose last night. I would say "concert," except, as the review in the Mercury News reports, Britney did precious little singing. And judging from that photograph, apparently Margaret Cho was one of her backup dancers, which would indeed be a spectacle. Not to mention the dancing midgets--seriously.

Britney is on tour to promote the Circus CD and, interestingly enough, she actually seems to be... promoting it--as opposed to touring based on her greatest hits:

To Spears' credit, the 27-year-old mother of two has left her teeny-bopper roots behind. This is no nostalgia act. Though the two CDs she recorded as a teen are among the biggest sellers of all time, only "... Baby One More Time" from that era made the cut here.

That means that instead of charming teen trifles like "Oops — I Did It Again" we got a lot of dark, erotically charged 21st-century dance music like "Hot as Ice" and "Get Naked." (In this context, "If U Seek Amy," Spears' cheekily naughty current single, came across as a pop gem.) So if you only knew Spears' music from the radio, there wasn't a lot to sing along with.
I think that's a surprising and not unadmirable approach; however, if I had paid $150 to see Britney last night, I would have expected to hear some of my old favorites.

My favorite part of the Mercury News review? This gem (remember: this show is in San Jose):
On this night, it was 40 minutes into the set — the same set she moved her lips to at every other tour stop — before Spears finally addressed the crowd, with this heartfelt sentiment: "Sacramento, how are you doing?!"
Oh girl... I would have paid $75 for that line alone.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Amazon's Attitude Toward Homosexuality

[Fosco thanks his former student Laura for pointing out the following problem.]

Something is seriously amiss at Amazon. As I noted earlier, Amazon has removed many gay/lesbian books from its ranking system because they are considered "adult." While this is repulsive in and of itself, there is a further problem. Apparently, these books are being excluded from searches at the site. Otherwise, how might you explain the results of an Amazon search for the word "homosexuality"? Here is the screen shot (click to see it full-sized):

Yes, it appears that the top search result for "homosexuality" is a book that claims to be a guide to preventing homosexuality. Note, this book's Amazon sales rank is #119,767. And yet, somehow it is the top hit for a search of the term "homosexuality." Does this seem problematic to you? Yeah, me too.

Please join the Amazon boycott until this problem is resolved.

N.B., for those of you who are wondering, the only way to prevent possible homosexuality in your kids is to not have kids. For any parents who are worried about this, I highly recommend that solution.

UPDATE: As AEJ notes in the comments below, this does not seem to be a policy decision on Amazon's part. As of 4/14/09, I am rescinding my call for a boycott. Hooray! I can spend 10% of my income at Amazon again!

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How Will We Know When Judith Butler Cracks the Bestseller List?

Remember when you were a horny teenager and you went to websites like to look for really sexy adult content, like books on Queer Theory? Then, remember how you used to order boxes of those books, hoping your mom wouldn't open the telltale smiling box?

When I was twelve, my good friend C used to keep a dog-eared copy of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet under his mattress. Sometimes, late at night, we would read (by flashlight) sentences like the one below, barely able to keep our hands off our pubescent erections:

At the same time, however, just as it comes to seem questionable to assume that cultural constructs are peculiarly malleable ones, it is also becoming increasingly problematical to assume that grounding an identity in biology or 'essential nature' is a stable way of insulating it from social interference.
Wow, I get hot just hearing those words again.

A few years later, I used to sneak out of the house to attend late night "Queer Theory" parties with some of the more sexually-advanced students at my high school. We never had one of our teen orgies without a copy of Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe. Trust me, there is nothing that gets teens off like a careful historical study of gay marriage in the Middle Ages.

Okay, okay: why am I doing this whole facetious riff? Well, because, as the LA Times reports, has a quiet new policy of labeling certain books as containing "adult" content. As the LAT blog notes, an "adult" content tag removes the book from sales rankings, Amazon's bestseller lists, and "in some cases, being de-ranked also means being removed from Amazon's search results."

At first glance, this may seem reasonable enough: maybe you don't want your tween coming up with Bukake porn when she's searching for the new Jonas Brothers CD. However, the execution of this policy seems to be suspiciously homophobic. As the LAT reports:
Our research shows that these books have lost their ranking: "Running with Scissors" by Augusten Burroughs; "Rubyfruit Jungle" by Rita Mae Brown, "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic" by Alison Bechdel, "The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1" by Michel Foucault, "Bastard Out of Carolina" by Dorothy Allison (2005 Plume edition), "Little Birds: Erotica" by Anais Nin, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" by Jean-Dominque Bauby (1997 Knopf edition), "Maurice" by E.M. Forster (2005 W.W. Norton edition) and "Becoming a Man" by Paul Monette, which won the 1992 National Book Award.

Books that remain ranked include: "Naked" by David Sedaris; "Tropic of Cancer" by Henry Miller; "American Psycho" by Bret Easton Ellis; "Wifey" by Judy Blume; "The Kiss" by Kathryn Harrison; the photobooks "Playboy: Helmut Newton" and "Playboy: Six Decades of Centerfolds"; "Naked Lunch" by William Burroughs; "Incest: From 'A Journal of Love'" by Anais Nin; "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" by Jean-Dominque Bauby (2007 Vintage International edition), "Maurice" by E.M. Forster (2005 Penguin Classics edition).

Certianly [sic] many of the books that are no longer ranked are no more "adult" than many of those that are -- as the list above shows, the same book, by different publishers, might meet either fate. And Kindle editions of some books remain ranked. "Unfriendly Fire," for example, is #1 in Gay and Lesbian Nonfiction on the Kindle -- even as the hardcover of the book, which was released on March 3, does not show up at all when searched for.
For those of you who are keeping score at home, there is a suspiciously large number of gay-themed books that end up being labeled "adult"--including academic works like Foucault's History of Sexuality.

Fosco decided to pursue this line of inquiry, testing which books in his academic specialty of queer theory/gay and lesbian studies made it onto the "adult content" list. According to my research, the following important academic texts have been removed from Amazon's ranking system:
Please note that every one of these books is an academic book, dealing with literary interpretation, historical research, or sociological analysis. Some of them are pretty difficult to read--theory-wise, that is. However, there is nothing particularly "adult" about most of these books, unless by "adult" you mean containing language that is over the head of your average teenager (or, for that matter, your average American adult). But that's not what Amazon means, is it?

I suppose it is hard to be too upset about a policy that may prevent teens from learning about obscure academic books. Even so, I would suggest that there are plenty of queer teens who could find books like those of John Boswell to be meaningful and/or useful. A rigorous history that reveals the lies that the Catholic Church tells about the Church's historical attitudes toward homosexuality? For that right teen, that kind of book could even be life-saving.

Even more upsetting is my discovery that Beth Loffreda's Losing Matt Shepard: Life and Politics in the Aftermath of Anti-Gay Murder is also included in this "adult" list. Loffreda's book is not academic: it's beautiful and sad and political. It's an extended meditation on anti-gay hate and how the Matthew Shepard murder revealed certain fault lines across our culture. It's a complicated book that refuses the easy answers. And it is certainly not "adult" or obscene--unless, of course, you consider anti-gay murder to be obscene (but that's not what Amazon means, is it?). What it is, for everyone--gay, straight, youth, adult, is a must-read. And yet, Amazon has tried to make this book harder to find. I think that is unforgivable.

Though I'm not computer scientist, it's pretty clear that Amazon's identification of a book as "adult" is based on some sort of text-based algorithm that presumably scans the titles or descriptions of books for certain "adult" words. And yes, I recognize that any algorithm of this sort will never provide a perfect discrimination between "adult" and "non-adult" books. What is equally clear, however, is that this algorithm is using words like "sexuality" and "queer" and "gay" to define a book as adult. And that is unacceptable. I'm not demanding that Amazon stop using an automated process to determine "adult" books; however, I do demand that Amazon fine-tune this algorithm to reflect the fact that gay themes are not "adult."

And so, until Amazon can demonstrate that they have improved this practice or until they stop doing this at all, I will not purchase anything from them. Nor will I provide Amazon links at this website. I would encourage you to join me in this project. (Besides, this might provide a good temporary excuse to shop at your local independent bookstore!)

UPDATE: As Jeremy notes below, Amazon is calling the whole thing a "glitch." However, as Gawker reports, there are several reasons to question the "glitch" explanation. One of them being that, before this became a PR nightmare, Amazon called the whole thing a policy decision. Oops!

UPDATE (4/14/09): It now seems pretty clear to me that this was either an honest mistake on Amazon's part or an act of malicious hacking beyond Amazon's control. Consequently, I'm going to re-embed my Amazon links on this site.

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