Friday, December 30, 2011

Ways to categorize Olympic sports

  • Individual vs. team
    (Weightlifting vs. rowing)
  • Direct competition vs. parallel competition vs. non-simultaneous scoring
    (Judo vs. track vs. ice skating)
  • Professional leagues vs. totally amateur
    (Basketball vs. fencing)
  • Winter vs. summer
    (Skiing vs. rowing)
  • Wide vs. narrow sponsorships
    (Cycling vs. biathlon)
  • Spectated for artistry vs. spectated for outcome (vs. no spectators?)
    (Gymnastics vs. triathlon)
  • Everyday familiarity vs. "If it's on it must be the Olympics"
    (Golf vs. pentathlon)
  • Athletes earn money by doing sport vs. teaching sport vs. sponsorships vs. being heirs vs. working at Home Depot
    (Football vs. judo vs. swimming vs. dressage vs. luge)
  • Sports Americans make fun of vs. those they don't
    (Table tennis vs. ice hockey)
  • Sports that involve sitting vs. those that don't
    (Bobsleigh vs. archery)
  • Ranged from least to most equipment
    (Running to sailing)
The one time of year I wish I had a TV is when the Olympics are on. Which is obviously not right now, so never mind why I was thinking about them. Anyway, I started wondering, in which sport would a potential Olympic participant be competing with the most vs. least other aspirants?

I imagine running would have to be up there. It's popular all over the world; it's relatively affordable; and you can't make a living doing it any other way, so the Olympics are where every serious young runner is headed. Something like basketball is popular and almost as affordable, plus you can make a living at it, so it's popular - although the would-be players aren't in it for Olympic glory but for professional teams.

The thing about running, rather like golf or shooting or weightlifting, is that lots of people do these activities, but the vast majority do so without aspiring to Olympic heights. We can't consider 45-year-old 5k first-timers to be part of the would-be Olympic runner's competition. On the other hand, I bet most 8-year-old gymnasts have at least fleeting dreams of Olympic gold, and there aren't a lot of folks who take it up at my age.

I'm guessing something like pentathlon has fewer aspirants, because it requires mastery of several disparate, expensive sports. Other sports, like trampoline, are obscure. Then there are sports like the luge - does anyone who isn't in the Olympics do them? Are there a lot of weekend lugers out there, other than as a one-time experience when visiting Calgary?

Really, what I guess I am wondering is, if everyone on the planet started trying to excel at [any particular sport], how much would elite performance improve? I don't think there is a great well of untapped running talent out there, the way there probably is in badminton.

It's not a question that matters, nor do I think it means that running is somehow "better" than badminton. It's pure idle speculation. How would we even go about figuring this out in a rigorous way?

Monday, December 26, 2011

What I'm reading in 2012, part III

I can see that I'm going to need some help.

Now, if you take a look at my Amazon wishlist, you'll see that there are enough books by women to get me well into 2012. The trouble is, they're on my Amazon wishlist and not on my bookshelf. What if I need a book right now?

I was in the Dallas airport the other day, worried (justifiably) I was going to finish Wizard of the Crow before I got home, so I took a spin around Simply Books. As airport bookstores go, it was reasonably sized, although no Powell's. It was the kind of bookstore devoted to the reader of bestsellers. Technically, I could have read any book I wanted, since it's still 2011, but I couldn't help but noticing the selection.

First off, everything in the "science fiction" (understood to include all speculative fiction) by women was straight-up urban fantasy. Vampires, werewolves, and demon-hunters, oh my! No, I know it's not all crap, but it's not generally my thing. Where were the Elizabeth Bears, Vonda McIntyres, and Joan D. Vinges? It turns out there was one Bear, on the "new fiction" shelf.

Second, all the books by African-Americans were in African-American fiction. Not in "classics" or "famous authors," where I would put Sapphire or Toni Morrison, but right next to the Hoodwives books. "Famous authors" is reserved for white guys writing thrillers and white women writing mysteries (plus Carl Hiassen and Ncholas Sparks). Hasn't this pissed enough people off yet?

Third, those people who argue that spec fic readers have an advantage over mundanes because they're comfortable exploring new ideas and worlds, and might therefore handle the apocalypse better, have clearly not looked at what's not the shelves lately: It's all the zillionth tale in the Dune or Wheel of Time or Star Trek sagas. Whatever their entertainment or literary value, these books are not going to make your head explode with novelty.

Clearly, most of what I'm looking for is out in the long tail, except for A Visit from the Goon Squad and romance novels. Literature, at least the most visible, is still gendered: Female authors have a strong showing in the mystery, romance, urban fantasy, young adult, and Moving Family Saga areas. Male authors have a strong showing in the science fiction, thrillers, westerns, horror, and Real Literature areas (with a respectable tally in mysteries).

So, are the books I want to read not being written by women, not being accepted by publishers, or not being mass marketed? Because, let's be entirely fair - 19 out of the 90 books I gave five stars to on Goodreads are written by men, even though my reading is about 50/50. Moi may be part of the problem.

My conclusion is that I need more ideas of what to read; going to Book Culture and judging books by their covers may actually be effective, but it is not efficient. Are there books I'm dismissing as Moving Family Sagas I might really like? Is Brian Sanderson actually the pen name of a woman? (That's a rhetorical question, folks.)

So what do you suggest? Keep in mind, I need books by women. Also, please don't suggest The Help or The Hunger Games. I don't live under a rock, and if a book is hyper-famous, I've probably already decided whether or not I want to read it.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Best novels I read in 2011

The awkward title of this post refers to the fact that, as usual, this isn't a "best books published this year" list, just a "best stuff I read this year" list. Yeah, I'm behind on my reading, what can I say? Only one of these has a 2011 release date.
  • Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Do you like absurdist novels of communist dissent such as Master and Margarita or The Golden Calf? Read this. Interesting fact: The author did his own English translation.
  • The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle by Edgardo Vega Yunque. Do you like books with long titles about young men whose names start with O such as The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao? Read this. Interesting fact: I tripped across this book online when doing research about neighborhoods in Manhattan.
  • Pym by Mat Johnson: Do you like novels about academe or conspiracies? Read this. Interesting fact: You really don't have to read Poe's novel first.
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Do you like smart YA literature or keeping up with the books everyone else is reading? Read this. Interesting fact: Suzanne Collins is not the same person as Jacqueline Suzanne or Jackie Collins.
  • Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy. Do you like "The Yellow Wallpaper"? Read this. Interesting fact: Pairs well with Donna Haraway.
  • Blindsight by Peter Watts. Do you like nonfiction about how the brain works such as The User Illusion? Read this. Interesting fact: You know about Peter Watts getting knocked around by US border agents, right?

Saturday, December 24, 2011

2011 in photos

Lamp and pillars

Rest break

Shore thing

Campfire girls

Coming down the Pinch-In

Cummins Falls

Cool flower



Grupo Capoeria Angola Palmares



Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What I'm reading in 2012, part II

There is a never-ending conversation in sci-fi circles about gender. A few months ago, it was flaring up again. Charlie Stross had asked his blog readers to name the best novels of the last decade; then in his next post, he asked for the best novels by women.

The number of people who said, "I haven't read anything by women lately," or, "It just happens that all the writers I like are men," was astounding.

The "just so happens" argument is pure bullshit. None of us "just happen" to like any art form. Our tastes are influenced by what we are familiar with, by what we are told is valuable, and by what we have learned enough about to appreciate. It's like that canard that, "I like all music except rap and country." Which means, "I want you to know I have an open mind, but not so open as to enjoy music associated with the lower classes." Also, "Randomly, I have the exact same taste as every other pseudo-intellectual white boy. What a weird coincidence!"

About ten years ago I stumbled across a list of ten books by African-Americans that everyone should have read (published, of course, for Black History Month). I took a look at my bookshelves and realized almost every book on them was by a white person. I had read maybe one book on the list, so I sat down and read the rest. (And in the process, discovered Samuel Delany, now one of favorite writers.)

About three years ago I read an article about how little translated fiction Americans read compared to the rest of the world. So I found Three Percent's short list of translated fiction for the year, and I tried to read it all. One book, I couldn't make it through. But it was through their lists that I discovered 2666 and Brandao.

Now before you throw your laptop across the room because I'm being insufferable,* I'd like to point out that a glance at what I read shows it's still mostly white people, mostly Americans with some Brits thrown in. It isn't representative of the demographics of America, and certainly not the world. I could be trying a lot harder. My point is, that if you go out of your way to start learning about something and to take it on its own terms, three-quarters of the time you'll develop some appreciation for it. (Because, contrary to what I said earlier, there is some "just so happens" at work. It's just much less than we like to believe.) I could make a concerted effort to start reading Westerns, for example - my experience pretty much begins and ends with Lonesome Dove - and I'd probably expand my horizons considerably.

Now, I'm not going to tell anyone else they can't just read what they're comfortable with. If all you like are cooking-themed mysteries, do what makes you happy. I just don't want to hear your long, involved explanation of how it's "natural" for you to like them best and go on with some long, highbrow-sounding defense of your taste. Admit you're remaining in your comfort zone, and, more importantly, that you actually have no idea whether or not you'd like the stuff you haven't touched. How could you possibly know?

So, how does this relate to what I'm reading next year? True, I read a lot of novels by women. But a lot of these are romance novels or other brain candy. (Yes, I know the romance can offer serious social critique or other digestive fiber. But does the average mass-market romance do this? No.) With the exception of Jennifer Crusie, my favorite novelists are all male. As a feminist who reads lots of women, I'm still undervaluing literature by women.

My hypothesis to be tested is that there are women out there writing things I would be crazy about. And it is falsifiable. (Eg.: The lover of spy thrillers would have a harder time finding great books by women that the lover of moving multigenerational sagas.) Because, in the end, merely reading books by women doesn't put me too far ahead of the "boys only" readers if I consider all those books second-rate.

*I mean, is showing off, ooh, ooh, I'm so multicultural, any more virtuous than being anti-country and -rap? The Stuff White People Like post virtually writes itself.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What I'm reading in 2012, part I

It started when I read two books in a row that I like. One I enjoyed, one I really loved, which is why I'm not going to call them out by name. Both books featured mostly male casts of characters. In one, the only female character was the love interest. (Literally one other woman had any lines; her role was the equivalent of Clerk #3.) The other novel had three speaking roles - again the love interest, and the other two defined by their sexual relationships with male characters.

And I thought to myself, I'm tired of this.

I can't condemn any one book for failing the Bechdel test, or for being about Teh Menz. Sometimes you just want to write a book set in a monastery or a boys school. Sometimes I want to read those books.

The problem is, and this is the Cliff Notes version of Sociology 101, that individual choices are influenced by society, and when you add everything up, that finger-weight of pressure means a huge tilt in that direction. In the aggregate, fiction suffers from a serious case of The Smurfette Problem, aka the Princess Leia Problem, aka Trinity, aka Lt. Uhura ... you know, the there's a a bunch of dudes, and one dudette. Other times, there are lots of chicks - because all the main characters have love interests.

Of course, there are both men and women out there writing fiction with fantastic female characters. But there aren't enough of them (either writers or characters), and sometimes I find it a little wearying. I also wonder, how much of this is the authors I seek out? How much of it is the publishing industry? How much of it is society? How much of it is biology?

So, I wondered, what would it be like to read only female authors? How would the experience be different - how would gender be represented? What else would be different? Well, I thought I'd find out.

That's right: In 2012, I'm only going to read novels by women.

A few quick parameters: I do specify novels rather than "books" because my job requires me to keep up with academic literature regardless of the author's gender. And I haven't yet figured out if I'm going to be strict about short stories. I won't, for example, seek out a "year's best spy stories" anthology, but if Tor's free online story of the week is by a man, what then? I mean, hey, free!

In a way, this is just a stunt, no different from supersizing myself or living Biblically for a year, although not as likely to lead to a book deal. Reading all women doesn't necessarily mean feminist books (1970s-era bodice rippers, anyone?); better quality books; or even stronger, more realistic depictions of women. What will it mean? Stay tuned in 2012.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Dharma Mittra, final thoughts

I've spent the last three months doing yoga at Dharma Mittra, which I gave a preliminary review to earlier. Now, after three months, I can give it a more final assessment.

Most of the studios I've practiced at have been fairly eclectic in approach. Because Dharma's studio is guru-driven, the other teachers don't have much in the way of individual styles. That's not to say they are interchangeable - there is one, for no good reason, that I find annoying, and some are more advanced in their own practice than others - but there isn't a noticeable difference in their sequencing, whether they like to chant or read inspirational quotes, or whether they demo or adjust.

The classes are very sequenced, although not as much as strict ashtanga. They do have a good mix of poses, generally held for a while, and I like that they encourage everyone to work on inversions such as headstand and scorpion, even in level II classes. (Classes are levels I-IV, but they offer a lot more at the lower two levels.) This sequencing means you can make real progress on poses if you're going regularly. Only a few weeks in, I got scorpion for the first time and was making huge progress on forearm balances. The downside is that some poses get left out; I haven't done eagle in three months.

Now, one thing you may know about me is that I'm not a very spiritual person. You know how people say they are "spiritual but not religious"? You could say I am religious but not spiritual. OK, I jest a little, but the studio is far more spiritual than I am. They unironically capitalize more Abstract Concepts than a smartass like myself can fully get behind. I am comfortable in studios that emphasize the mental and/or spiritual benefits of yoga, rather than just the physical, but Dharma Mittra believes things I don't, and they are important to embracing his practice fully, I think.

In other words, I already find myself challenged by the notion of having a capoeira "mestre"; having a guru is too much for me.

Ultimately, I think it's a good studio, and if, for example, you were going to visit New York for a yoga tour, you'd be remiss to leave it out. (I'd still like to try his two-hour master practice myself.) But it's not going to be my yoga home.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Half-bucket list

The other day, I was googling something and came across the 30 Before 30 project and was kind of inspired.

Well, obviously it's a little late for me to accomplish anything before I turn 30. Also, the list of things I'd like to accomplish in the next few years isn't that long. 40 is a nice round number to get to, but I had no desire to make up random items just to check off.

What I came up with was The Half-Bucket List. That is, by the time I'm 40 I'll be statistically halfway (really, slightly past) to kicking said bucket, so what do I want to have accomplished by then? I've spent the last six years of my life getting a PhD and a real job ... so what now?

A couple of words about what's on the list. First, it isn't about career accomplishments. So you won't see Get Tenure or Get Published in the Journal of Higher Ed on the list. Second, I tried to avoid goals that require the cooperation of either another party - no Date George Clooney. (I violated this second rule slightly on one or two, as you will see.) Third, no goals that require a benevolent universe; all of these only require that that the apocalypse doesn't happen next week, that the universe is at least non-malevolent, but that is a gamble I am willing to take. But there's nothing on there like Win the Lottery.

Without further ado, by the time I am 40, I hope to have achieved all of the following:
  1. Be able to walk across a slackline
  2. Do macaco
  3. Be fluent in Portuguese
  4. Travel to Brazil
  5. Have a novel published
  6. Do the Annapurna Circuit
  7. Hold a handstand for a minute unaided
  8. Successfully traverse the swing-a-ring
These items will require different resources to accomplish. Brazil and Annapurna are really a matter of money. Others require practice, but I am totally confident that they are doable - I can improve my Portuguese substantially. Others are more of a challenge: Can I master macaco, which is essentially a backflip in capoeira? Sure I have five years, but I'll be getting older every day of them!

So stay tuned for the next five (really four and a half) years.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Ask again later

Today and tomorrow is a short conference at The New School on "The Future of Higher Education." Tonight was part one, when four talking heads and a moderator shared their thought on what universities ought to look like in 20 to 30 years.

One of the pontificators was the chancellor of the CUNY system. Now I should mention that I know practically nothing about the current CUNY situation, other than that it has been particularly hard hit by the budget woes that all of public higher education has been facing. I say that not because I'm proud of my ignorance, but towards the point that I don't have a dog in this fight.

A group of (presumably) CUNY students had come out for the occasion ready for battle. When the chancellor was introduced, there was rise in the amount of sneezing and coughing that was statistically unlikely to be coincidental. They also did three or four "fact check" chants that interrupted proceedings. This was a little frustrating for those of us that weren't there for a referendum on CUNY.

They also undermined their own demands for answers (the Q&A session involved almost no actual Q) by asking, twice, why the panel had no women on it. It was a perfectly legitimate question; the entire conference is overwhelmingly male, even granted the demographics of America's Top Administrators. But when the conference organizer rose to answer the question, the protesters interrupted with a fact check that had nothing to do with the topic at hand. I, for one, would have like to hear her answer.

The upshot was that I don't think the CUNY crowd gained any new supporters. But before you feel too sorry for the poor beleaguered administrators, a couple of things struck me.

One, I came away with no idea of what they thought higher ed would look like in 20 or 30 years. There was more lamentation of current problems than proposed solutions. The solutions I did hear were things like "innovation." Okaaaaay … or as the kids used to say, back when I was one, "No shit, Sherlock." None of the presenters tried to operationalize that; none suggested anything concrete. No one said, "Here is what it ought to be like," or "Unfortunately, I expect this is what it will be like."

Two, the CUNY chancellor's answers were remarkably tone-deaf. The man has a tough job, I am sure; being a system head of a troubled system means everyone wants answers but you don't build personal relations with any of your constituents. But his answers never entirely addressed the questions, and they were in vague administrator-speak. (The exception to this was his answer to a "fact check" about faculty health insurance, which was specific and clear.) I have no idea if the man has helped or hurt CUNY during his tenure, or if anyone else would have done better or worse. But from a PR perspective, a leader for troubled times needs to be able to code-switch out of bureaucratese and talk frankly and straight (or seem to).

I very much came away with the sense that, whatever the future of higher ed was going to look like, these guys were not going to be its architects.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Holiday travels

Greetings from Philadelphia, where I am hanging out for the weekend. I stayed in New York for Thanksgiving, although my parents came out to visit. Before that I was in Charlotte for the conference. And, yes, I'll be heading out to Oregon for some Christmas festivities.