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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Fanks Easther Bunny, Bawk Bawk!

I don't quite recall the religious significance of Easter, but I'm pretty sure it has something to do with Jesus bringing his son's pet rabbit back from the dead. Of course, free thinkers question whether Jesus actually resurrected said rabbit or whether he just managed to find an almost identical one at the local pet store. Even so, pretty much everyone agrees that the rabbit was named "Mary Magdalene."

At any rate, here are some Easter-related titbits.

First, a photo that cracks me up every time:

Is it wrong to root for the bunny?

Second, for all of you Goth readers of Fosco Lives!, here's a rabbit funeral dance, choreographed by the morbid and talented Wade Robson. Oz and Fosco have loved this dance ever since they saw it last summer, particularly the leg hops that start around 2:21.

Yes, Virginia, bunnies can be terrifying!

Finally, because no day is a holiday without Fosco's adored Patti Smith, here is her song "Easter" (with one of those strange homemade videos that happen on YouTube):

On Easter, Fosco is always reminded of one of Patti's best lines: "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine." Word, Patti.