Stephen Fry makes a beautifully expressed plea for language lovers to share the love, not the pedantry. Matt Rogers tosses in some animated typographic eye candy.



Julia Rubiner of Editorial Emergency wrote a great follow-up to her article, Stop Abbreviation Abuse Now! (to which I replied ). It’s a nice article, and not just because Rubiner called me her “favorite taxonomist” in it ;–)

Read Call-back: My Epic Fail Failure.


New York Times: We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint

The dangers of PowerPoint-driven thought in the military. From the New York Times article:

“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month.

…”It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

Of course, one can argue that the tool itself is not responsible for its misuse. What not to do, and the corollary better techniques, can be found on Edward Tufte’s site. There’s some useful commentary in addition to Tufte’s cogent remarks.


When “fail” is a win

Editorial Emergency, a charming force for good in copy writing, sends out an e-news publication, “Editorializing.” Recently they published an editorial titled, “Stop Abbreviation Abuse Now!” This targeted some truly awful usages, such as “devo” instead of “development,” and “install” for “installation.”

But they made a slight error regarding the use of “fail,” not realizing this particular term is a deliberate, joking misusage. From the article:

But I wonder if those using “fail” as a stand-in for “failure” are simply witless.

If you regularly use “fail” instead of “failure,” please tell me why. Is it because you think it sounds cool? (It doesn’t.) Is it because you’re in a hurry? If the latter, how much time do you save in not typing “ure?”

This was my response:

Dear Editorial Emergency staff,

I enjoy your columns, and agree with your general argument about abbreviations being a poor attempt to demonstrate familiarity. However, I think one of the words you complain about, “fail,” is in a different situation than the others.

While “install,” “devo,” etc., are used seriously, “fail” is nearly always a joke, and the original point of the joke was that “fail” was a failure of English. (I say nearly, because I haven’t heard all usages, but personally I’ve never heard it used seriously.) The word was misused in a Japanese video game which used poor English, and the joking usage spread among game and software geeks. Since the poor grammar is the joke, it doesn’t make sense to criticize it.

“Fail” was then popularized through a meme, in which unfortunate situations were captured and sent via camera phone with the subject line “Fail.” This also popped up online. Over two years ago, a blog run by the same publishers as appeared to capture these. Icanhascheezburger also deliberately misspells words to (a) mock bad texting, and (b) feed into the pretense that the writing comes from cats. The idea is that if a cat could write English, it would do so poorly. (Clearly they missed Wittgenstein’s observation about lions.) The misspellings have taken on a life of their own, and are now called Lolspeak.

About the time the blog began, “fail” had already spread widely, first among young people, and from them to the adults in their lives. It’s even made it into television dramas and comedies. This solidly breaks it out of jargonistic geek usage. See an example of a “fail” post here:

All the other abbreviated terms you mention are used seriously, but “fail” is a joke. Even when the failure is serious, calling it a “fail” takes it lightly. You may not find it humorous yourselves, but I thought you’d want to know: we’re not all witless. We’re looking at the failures in our world, and joking about teh* funny.

best regards,

Alex O’Neal

* “Teh” is lolspeak for “the,” as in, “Teh intarweb iz mayd of pipes.”


Since this writing, Julia Rubiner of Editorial Emergency has kindly responded to my email, explaining she was being deliberately disingenuous in her assumed air of ignorance regarding “fail.” Just goes to show you should never make assumptions!


Saving face for the other guy works

Off site comment capture:

Schott’s Vocab , The New York Times, requested face-saving excuses readers regularly turned to. Mine actually got marked as an Editor’s Highlight (rare for me), and received a whopping (again, for me) 15 “recommended” clicks ;–)

In a reverse approach, but still aimed at smoothing out the occasional awkwardness:

As someone with a lot of diabetes in the family history (though thankfully I’ve escaped it so far!), I avoid sugar in colas, etc. Sometimes I go through a drive-through and I’m uncertain the person gave me a diet soda (they didn’t mark the top of the cup, or didn’t repeat it back to me). But people typically don’t like their ability to perform simple tasks questioned, so I put the onus on me: “Did I remember to ask for diet soda?” They happily tell me yes, and I am reassured.

This “it’s my fault” approach works in a variety of situations.


Grave’s Edge

This is one of my two published fiction shorts. It won second place in the 14th Chiaroscuro horror short contest; the prize was being paid (it worked out to about 10¢ per word) and published in the October 2008 issue of ChiZine.

If you’re interested, this was the BBC article which inspired the story.

Papua New Guinea.

I knew I was a vampire because I crawled out of my grave.

They piled the dirt over me despite my cries, and eventually I realized I was dead. I had heard stories of souls who died and did not know it. For a brief second I felt myself lucky for having the insight, and then a clod of dirt hit my eye. I covered my face with my arms and my burr-ridden wrap.

They did it at night, which is perhaps why they didn’t bury me too deep. My daughter cried and shooed the children back to the house as her husband shoveled. Shortly after I was covered she broke down completely, and her husband dropped the shovel and comforted her. I heard their footsteps recede, imagining his arm around her as he told her he would finish in the morning. I noticed I was still sucking at the bit of air slipping under the dirt-covered wool. Old habits die hard. I waited a while, hoping I would move on to oblivion. I felt the ground shake as a car passed on a nearby road. I wondered if this was what it was like to live in a cemetery.

I was not in a cemetery. I was in a shallow grave in the woods across the street from my daughter’s home. I expected she would visit at times, and cry, and I would listen and answer and go unheard. I had been unheard for some time, on my pallet in their hut, steadily growing smaller and bonier and weaker.

I had the slims, you see, the wasting disease that brought the foreign doctors with their needles, and the foreign reporters with their cameras, and which they said passed through the blood, or the remnants of love. Perhaps they were right. They came to the southern highlands and were kind, and sometimes even tried to learn our language in addition to the pidgin we all shared, the better to help us. But they were wrong. I think I got it from hating my husband. He was beautiful and blessed with a voice like a growling purr, soothing and predatory, and too many women fell victim to its persuasions. I hated him for it, even after he died wasting as I would, and what god could forgive a mother who hated the man that gave her the loving child of her heart? Obviously not mine.

So I worked until I had to sit down, and sat until I had to lie down, and lay until I died. And now I was in the underworld, beneath footsteps and any other living sound, listening to cars.

My poor daughter. How distraught she must have been to find my body. On the floor, a little stiller than usual. I wondered how long I lay before someone noticed. Probably not too long. Someone was always checking on me: I would feel a palm against my forehead, or my blanket tucked a little more securely, or water at my lips, and I would open my eyes to see my daughter, or her daughter, looking back at me with strained relief.

My body. Oh, what a foolishness—I did not have to stay here straining to hear earthworms. I did not have to remain in my grave. Every ghost story I knew freed the soul from its body. I could rise up, and leave this traitorous shell behind.

So I did. It was very difficult; I was very weak. I lifted my funeral shroud up carefully from my face, trying to make the dirt fall away from me. A little hit my mouth and I began to cough, which seemed terribly unfair. I realized I had to get used to being dead, and laughed while I coughed at how the ghost stories didn’t talk about this. Of course they didn’t. The storytellers were alive.

I sat up with difficulty, then used the crumbling edge of the grave to raise myself up. I had not walked in weeks—months, maybe—and this hurt. If I had been alive I would have said it was impossible. But dead, I knew such considerations were the lying of my mind, and would pass. I stood, tottering, for a moment. In front of me were branches and through them I could see the light seeping past the door of my old home. As I watched it went out, and I was left with only moonlight. I debated looking at my body, behind me. I was afraid. Even though death had come and gone, and I was still moving and aware, something about seeing death written on my features terrified me, made my gut ache and my breath catch like it hadn’t in decades.

But I had to look. Really, who couldn’t? And turning to look behind me, I became a pillar of salt.

My body was missing. Or rather, it wasn’t missing. It was standing.

I stood for some time, absorbing this. I don’t know how long. It seemed there was a very long pause in my mind, and all that occupied it was the empty grave I was trying not to see. Something hovered in my head, demanding my attention, and I tried to avoid it by studying the grave, the bits of brown and roots and grey leaves where the dim light struck, the abyss of the shadows where it did not. But I could not evade it for ever.

I was the undead. I was the monster. My hatred had been even stronger than I had realized, and had cursed me beyond the grave. I was the blood-sucking terror of the night, and doomed eventually by hunger and my curse to hunt the people I had lived with all my life.

What to do? I had to leave, before I lost the habits of life and began to practice the ways of death. My daughter and her husband would be in danger then. My granddaughter! They had no idea such a terrible person had lain on their floor all that time, or the man my daughter married would have removed my head and removed the danger.

I began to totter toward the road. I bit my lip, and told myself not to curse. I blinked a little at the few tears that managed to squeeze into my eyes. I was already thirsty.

A car came down the road and slowed as it saw me beneath the edge of the trees. It was two of the foreign helpers, a man and a woman. The one on my side of the road rolled down the window.

“Do you need help, mother?” The friendly intimacy of his tone struck me like a slap.

I gathered my voice, carefully. “I need to leave.” Like my legs, my voice was feeble. I would need sustenance soon.

“Are you lost?”

“No, I just need to leave.” I hoped they would take me far enough away that I would not endanger my village. I hoped I would control myself and not harm my benefactors, but if not, better foreign strangers than family and friends. I took a step toward the car, and stumbled. The car door belonging to the friendly voice opened and the young man came out and took my arm.

“Are you all right? You’re covered in dirt—did you fall? Are you hurt?”

“No.” I was anxious to get into the car, before he looked past me.

He looked past me, of course, and saw the man-sized blackness in the ground. “What the hell?” He raised his voice somewhat, to be heard to the car. “Hey, Paula, get over here!”

“Please, no. Just take me away.”

He craned his head down to look into my face. His expression was remarkably like the anxious care of my daughter. “Is that a grave?”

I didn’t speak. A middle-aged woman came up with a flashlight. “Do you need help, Reghu?” She shone the flashlight on me, revealing the dirt covering my shroud. “You poor thing, you’re filthy. Where is your home? Can we take you there?”

The young man spoke quietly. “Paula, take a look behind us.”

The flashlight danced beyond us, uncovering the grave. The woman’s other hand went to the camera around her neck, flipping it on and snapping off the lens cap as if part of herself, even as she gasped.

I sighed in defeat. Now they would know what I was, and would never take me anywhere. I was doomed to kill where I loved.

She handed over the flashlight to the man. “Hold this on the grave. I want to shoot it with the flashlight, and then a couple with the flash.” She glanced at me. “And something with both her and the grave.”

“Paula, she’s right here. You can’t talk about people like they’re elements in a still life.”

“I’m not still. I’m not alive,” I mumbled to myself.

“What was that?” he asked, face even more filled with concern. I kept silent. Maybe they would take me anyway. They didn’t seem to realize the monster I had become. The woman stepped back and took a photo of the young man and myself, with the grave just behind. She leaned in to take a close-up of the earth-stained fabric and my hand, and I shook the dirt off at her irritably.

“Please take me away.”

She let go of the camera, letting it hang, focusing on me. “Ma’am, were you in that grave?” She paused, swallowed. “Did someone bury you?”

“Please, I need to leave. I don’t want to hurt anyone.”

Her eyebrows went up. “I’m sorry, but you don’t really look like a threat.”

The man cut her off. “Let’s get her in the car so she can sit down, Paula. Then we can go someplace safe and talk more. I don’t really like standing in the dark near a newly dug grave, do you?”

The woman nodded. “You’re right. You know, I’d heard about families doing things like this to AIDS victims, but I thought it was just a rumor.”

“They buried me wrong,” I explained as the two led me to the car.

“Yes, it was wrong of them to bury you,” the young man—hardly more than a boy—said, correcting me gently.

“No, they buried me wrong,” I repeated. “It wasn’t their fault.”

“It wasn’t their fault they buried you alive?” the woman exclaimed. The boy shot her a warning look.

“I’m not alive, but they didn’t know what they were burying. Please,” I said as I sank down gratefully onto the car seat, and felt my legs lifted and placed in the car. “Please just take me away. I don’t want to hurt anyone.” I looked earnestly into the young man’s eyes. “Would you cut off my head, please?”

“What?” They were shocked.

“I’m dead and I can’t leave, and if someone doesn’t cut off my head I’ll hurt someone.”

The woman shook her head, and the young man put his hand on my shoulder. “You’re not dead, mother.”

“Of course I’m dead. My daughter wouldn’t bury me alive!”

“They made a terrible mistake. But you’re alive.”

“It wasn’t a mistake, Reghu, we’ve heard about this before.”

“God, Paula, be quiet, please. You’re not helping.” He paused. “And now we’ve woken up the people across the street.”

I looked at my home. He was right, a light was moving in my old home. “Please,” I said, “let’s go. They can’t know I’m like this!”

“They’ll know you’re alive as soon as they see the grave, mother.”

“But I’m not alive! I am undead,” I said, watching with dread as the door flap opened, “and I am hungry and thirsty. If we don’t leave I will hurt my family.”

My son-in-law emerged, carrying his machete fearfully. He had probably watched the car a few minutes before emerging to see what was happening. He might not have seen me, since I was on the other side of the car. “Please, quick! Quick!” I begged.

The woman walked around to talk to the man who buried me. He tucked his machete at his waist, unafraid of a woman. Initially quiet, voices were quickly raised and my son-in-law began to yell, trying to walk around to my side of the car. I stopped listening. The boy and the woman tried to stand in his way, but too soon he stood before me, his tattooed face twisted by pain and fear.

“I’m sorry,” I said, before he could speak. “I didn’t want you to know. You should’ve taken precautions.”

He stared. Then, to the young man, “She walked here? She stood on her own?”


I watched comprehension bring horror. “You knew it might happen,” I said. “When my husband got the slims, we all thought it came from the witch in the next village. She had a reason to hate him. Who’s to say the curse didn’t fall on me as well?” I was sympathetic, but angry, too. “Why didn’t you stop this?”

“What was I supposed to do?” he burst out. “Cut off your head? You should have died!”

“Yes, cut off my head!” I was very angry. “I was dead, I was not going to miss it, was I? Now I’m undead, and I’m thirsty.” I leaned toward him. “Thirsty!” The fear in his eyes pleased me; he had not been patient with me the past weeks, I did not contribute and I ate their food and I smelled. “Thirsty…” I said again, and leaned back against the car seat, looking at the woman and the boy. “Take me away from here. Please.”

“No, you can’t!” my son-in-law said. “She will kill you!”

“She couldn’t hurt a fly,” the woman said. “She could barely walk to the car.”

“She hasn’t walked in months! She had the slims, the wasting disease, we buried her. She died! She should have stayed dead! Alive, she could not have walked here!”

“Sir, your mother—”

“She’s not my mother! She’s my wife’s mother, and she’s cursed.” The noise had brought out my daughter, and he yelled at her to go back inside. Suddenly he fumbled for the knife at this waist. “I should have done this before. I didn’t think it would happen.”

Both the woman and the boy grabbed at him, but he brandished the machete at them and they backed off, protesting.

“Sir, you can’t do this! She’s not some kind of vampire, she’s alive! You made a mistake burying her and she came back.”

“There’s no mistake,” I said. “He’s right. He should end me now while he still can.”

“Mother?” My daughter had come around the back of the car. She was holding a gun, more nervously than my son-in-law carried his machete. It was an old one, hidden in the home for decades, found by my father during the years the Japanese invaded. “Mother?”

And then my daughter was on her knees beside the car, head in my lap, crying and begging forgiveness. I stroked her hair, soothing her. I told her there was nothing to forgive, she had not cursed me, her father had done that. She looked up at me. “I love you, dear,” I said. “But you must let your husband do this thing.”

“What thing?”

My son-in-law came forward and took her hand. “Come away from her. She is undead.”

“No, she’s alive! You know she’s alive!”

“No, she’s not! She walked to the car. She walked, do you hear?”

I interrupted them. “Of course I’m not alive, or I wouldn’t have been buried, would I?”

My daughter looked at me, stricken. Understanding seemed to seep into her features, but not the fear I dreaded. The two foreigners were silent now, watching. I looked at my son-in-law. “Will you cut off my head?”

He nodded, and gingerly offered a hand to help me from the car. I stood, a little more easily this time. The boy seemed about to speak, but the woman laid her hand on his arm. Shaking, my daughter pointed the gun she barely knew how to hold at them. I walked back toward the grave with my son.

We stopped at the edge. He looked at me with compassion. “You are ready?”

“Yes. Should I kneel, or lie down?”

“If you can kneel it would help.”

“You will have to help me do it, then. I have not fed and I’m weak.” He touched me again to help me kneel, then stood back, still afraid of me. I looked at my daughter, who glanced back at me and then looked away quickly. “Stand between us, please.” My son complied. The two foreigners watched uncomprehendingly, or rather, as if they could not bear what they understood.

I looked down at the emptiness. I was glad I would be leaving myself behind. Glad I was near my home, glad my family was safe. If my son had not come out, how long would I have had the strength to resist before the blood thirst took over?

I looked up at my son. “Take care of my daughter.”

“I will.”

“Thank you.” I bowed my head.


A trailer for A Field Guide to Surreal Botany, to which I contributed a small piece.


First book fiction en route to the U.S.!

A Field Guide to Surreal Botany is not only printed, but has shipped to the U.S. from Singapore. Woot!

My contribution is just a short piece in an anthology, but I’m happy. The publisher and artist did a truly lovely job putting everything together.

The Field Guide to Surreal Botany
Cover, A Field Guide to Surreal Botany


Thomas Huxley’s letter, on the death of his son

The below is from Leonard Huxley’s The Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. Quoted by Stephen Jay Gould.

A letter written in response to well-meant advice from Cambridge professor and priest Charles Kingsley.

14, Waverley Place, September 23, 1860.

My dear Kingsley,

I cannot sufficiently thank you, both on my wife’s account and my own, for your long and frank letter, and for all the hearty sympathy which it exhibits–and Mrs. Kingsley will, I hope, believe that we are no less sensible of her kind thought of us. To myself your letter was especially valuable, as it touched upon what I thought even more than upon what I said in my letter to you. My convictions, positive and negative, on all the matters of which you speak, are of long and slow growth and are firmly rooted. But the great blow which fell upon me seemed to stir them to their foundation, and had I lived a couple of centuries earlier I could have fancied a devil scoffing at me and them–and asking me what profit it was to have stripped myself of the hopes and consolations of the mass of mankind? To which my only reply was and is–Oh devil! truth is better than much profit. I have searched over the grounds of my belief, and if wife and child and name and fame were all to be lost to me one after the other as the penalty, still I will not lie.

And now I feel that it is due to you to speak as frankly as you have done to me. An old and worthy friend of mine tried some three or four years ago to bring us together–because, as he said, you were the only man who would do me any good. Your letter leads me to think he was right, though not perhaps in the sense he attached to his own words.

To begin with the great doctrine you discuss. I neither deny nor affirm the immortality of man. I see no reason for believing in it, but, on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it.

Pray understand that I have no a priori objections to the doctrine. No man who has to deal daily and hourly with nature can trouble himself about a priori difficulties. Give me such evidence as would justify me in believing anything else, and I will believe that. Why should I not? It is not half so wonderful as the conservation of force, or the indestructibility of matter. Whoso clearly appreciates all that is implied in the falling of a stone can have no difficulty about any doctrine simply on account of its marvellousness. But the longer I live, the more obvious it is to me that the most sacred act of a man’s life is to say and to feel, “I believe such and such to be true.” All the greatest rewards and all the heaviest penalties of existence cling about that act. The universe is one and the same throughout; and if the condition of my success in unravelling some little difficulty of anatomy or physiology is that I shall rigorously refuse to put faith in that which does not rest on sufficient evidence, I cannot believe that the great mysteries of existence will be laid open to me on other terms. It is no use to talk to me of analogies and probabilities. I know what I mean when I say I believe in the law of the inverse squares, and I will not rest my life and my hopes upon weaker convictions. I dare not if I would.

Measured by this standard, what becomes of the doctrine of immortality?

You rest in your strong conviction of your personal existence, and in the instinct of the persistence of that existence which is so strong in you as in most men.

To me this is as nothing. That my personality is the surest thing I know–may be true. But the attempt to conceive what it is leads me into mere verbal subtleties. I have champed up all that chaff about the ego and the non-ego, about noumena and phenomena, and all the rest of it, too often not to know that in attempting even to think of these questions, the human intellect flounders at once out of its depth.

It must be twenty years since, a boy, I read Hamilton’s essay on the unconditioned, and from that time to this, ontological speculation has been a folly to me. When Mansel took up Hamilton’s argument on the side of orthodoxy (!) I said he reminded me of nothing so much as the man who is sawing off the sign on which he is sitting, in Hogarth’s picture. But this by the way.

I cannot conceive of my personality as a thing apart from the phenomena of my life. When I try to form such a conception I discover that, as Coleridge would have said, I only hypostatise a word, and it alters nothing if, with Fichte, I suppose the universe to be nothing but a manifestation of my personality. I am neither more nor less eternal than I was before.

Nor does the infinite difference between myself and the animals alter the case. I do not know whether the animals persist after they disappear or not. I do not even know whether the infinite difference between us and them may not be compensated by THEIR persistence and MY cessation after apparent death, just as the humble bulb of an annual lives, while the glorious flowers it has put forth die away.

Surely it must be plain that an ingenious man could speculate without end on both sides, and find analogies for all his dreams. Nor does it help me to tell me that the aspirations of mankind–that my own highest aspirations even–lead me towards the doctrine of immortality. I doubt the fact, to begin with, but if it be so even, what is this but in grand words asking me to believe a thing because I like it.

Science has taught to me the opposite lesson. She warns me to be careful how I adopt a view which jumps with my preconceptions, and to require stronger evidence for such belief than for one to which I was previously hostile.

My business is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact, not to try and make facts harmonise with my aspirations.

Science seems to me to teach in the highest and strongest manner the great truth which is embodied in the Christian conception of entire surrender to the will of God. Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing. I have only begun to learn content and peace of mind since I have resolved at all risks to do this.

There are, however, other arguments commonly brought forward in favour of the immortality of man, which are to my mind not only delusive but mischievous. The one is the notion that the moral government of the world is imperfect without a system of future rewards and punishments. The other is: that such a system is indispensable to practical morality. I believe that both these dogmas are very mischievous lies.

With respect to the first, I am no optimist, but I have the firmest belief that the Divine Government (if we may use such a phrase to express the sum of the “customs of matter”) is wholly just. The more I know intimately of the lives of other men (to say nothing of my own), the more obvious it is to me that the wicked does NOT flourish nor is the righteous punished. But for this to be clear we must bear in mind what almost all forget, that the rewards of life are contingent upon obedience to the WHOLE law–physical as well as moral–and that moral obedience will not atone for physical sin, or vice versa.

The ledger of the Almighty is strictly kept, and every one of us has the balance of his operations paid over to him at the end of every minute of his existence.

Life cannot exist without a certain conformity to the surrounding universe–that conformity involves a certain amount of happiness in excess of pain. In short, as we live we are paid for living.

And it is to be recollected in view of the apparent discrepancy between men’s acts and their rewards that Nature is juster than we. She takes into account what a man brings with him into the world, which human justice cannot do. If I, born a bloodthirsty and savage brute, inheriting these qualities from others, kill you, my fellow-men will very justly hang me, but I shall not be visited with the horrible remorse which would be my real punishment if, my nature being higher, I had done the same thing.

The absolute justice of the system of things is as clear to me as any scientific fact. The gravitation of sin to sorrow is as certain as that of the earth to the sun, and more so–for experimental proof of the fact is within reach of us all–nay, is before us all in our own lives, if we had but the eyes to see it.

Not only, then, do I disbelieve in the need for compensation, but I believe that the seeking for rewards and punishments out of this life leads men to a ruinous ignorance of the fact that their inevitable rewards and punishments are here.

If the expectation of hell hereafter can keep me from evil-doing, surely a fortiori the certainty of hell now will do so? If a man could be firmly impressed with the belief that stealing damaged him as much as swallowing arsenic would do (and it does), would not the dissuasive force of that belief be greater than that of any based on mere future expectations?

And this leads me to my other point.

As I stood behind the coffin of my little son the other day, with my mind bent on anything but disputation, the officiating minister read, as a part of his duty, the words, “If the dead rise not again, let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.” I cannot tell you how inexpressibly they shocked me. Paul had neither wife nor child, or he must have known that his alternative involved a blasphemy against all that was best and noblest in human nature. I could have laughed with scorn. What! because I am face to face with irreparable loss, because I have given back to the source from whence it came, the cause of a great happiness, still retaining through all my life the blessings which have sprung and will spring from that cause, I am to renounce my manhood, and, howling, grovel in bestiality? Why, the very apes know better, and if you shoot their young, the poor brutes grieve their grief out and do not immediately seek distraction in a gorge.

Kicked into the world a boy without guide or training, or with worse than none, I confess to my shame that few men have drunk deeper of all kinds of sin than I. Happily, my course was arrested in time–before I had earned absolute destruction–and for long years I have been slowly and painfully climbing, with many a fall, towards better things. And when I look back, what do I find to have been the agents of my redemption? The hope of immortality or of future reward? I can honestly say that for these fourteen years such a consideration has not entered my head. No, I can tell you exactly what has been at work. “Sartor Resartus” led me to know that a deep sense of religion was compatible with the entire absence of theology. Secondly, science and her methods gave me a resting-place independent of authority and tradition. Thirdly, love opened up to me a view of the sanctity of human nature, and impressed me with a deep sense of responsibility.

If at this moment I am not a worn-out, debauched, useless carcass of a man, if it has been or will be my fate to advance the cause of science, if I feel that I have a shadow of a claim on the love of those about me, if in the supreme moment when I looked down into my boy’s grave my sorrow was full of submission and without bitterness, it is because these agencies have worked upon me, and not because I have ever cared whether my poor personality shall remain distinct for ever from the All from whence it came and whither it goes.

And thus, my dear Kingsley, you will understand what my position is. I may be quite wrong, and in that case I know I shall have to pay the penalty for being wrong. But I can only say with Luther, “Gott helfe mir, Ich kann nichts anders.”

I know right well that 99 out of 100 of my fellows would call me atheist, infidel, and all the other usual hard names. As our laws stand, if the lowest thief steals my coat, my evidence (my opinions being known) would not be received against him. [The law with respect to oaths was reformed in 1869.]

But I cannot help it. One thing people shall not call me with justice and that is–a liar. As you say of yourself, I too feel that I lack courage; but if ever the occasion arises when I am bound to speak, I will not shame my boy.

I have spoken more openly and distinctly to you than I ever have to any human being except my wife.

If you can show me that I err in premises or conclusion, I am ready to give up these as I would any other theories. But at any rate you will do me the justice to believe that I have not reached my conclusions without the care befitting the momentous nature of the problems involved.

And I write this the more readily to you, because it is clear to me that if that great and powerful instrument for good or evil, the Church of England, is to be saved from being shivered into fragments by the advancing tide of science–an event I should be very sorry to witness, but which will infallibly occur if men like Samuel of Oxford are to have the guidance of her destinies–it must be by the efforts of men who, like yourself, see your way to the combination of the practice of the Church with the spirit of science. Understand that all the younger men of science whom I know intimately are ESSENTIALLY of my way of thinking. (I know not a scoffer or an irreligious or an immoral man among them, but they all regard orthodoxy as you do Brahmanism.) Understand that this new school of the prophets is the only one that can work miracles, the only one that can constantly appeal to nature for evidence that it is right, and you will comprehend that it is of no use to try to barricade us with shovel hats and aprons, or to talk about our doctrines being “shocking.”

I don’t profess to understand the logic of yourself, Maurice, and the rest of your school, but I have always said I would swear by your truthfulness and sincerity, and that good must come of your efforts. The more plain this was to me, however, the more obvious the necessity to let you see where the men of science are driving, and it has often been in my mind to write to you before.

If I have spoken too plainly anywhere, or too abruptly, pardon me, and do the like to me.

My wife thanks you very much for your volume of sermons.

Ever yours very faithfully,

T.H. Huxley.



Years ago I wake, and my home is gone.
No bed. No flat walls.
No ground.
Instead I float on the air rushing past,
Stare into the hole before me,
As the whole of space time becomes a wind tunnel.

It’s not so bad.

For years, the flow of air allows me to swoop and dive and soar.
For years, the push of air keeps me in my place.

Sometimes I turn length and breadth to the wind,
Let it blow me where it wills,
But there is no end to its depth and height.

Sometimes I shut my eyes against the rush of air.

Sometimes I cry and rage in the safety of the roar.

But today I wake, and my home is gone.
I am on a road.
The wind is rushing past,
Roaring down the mountains ahead, and
I am flying into the wind,
Rigging my sails and my self for optimal speed.
I am skilled in the ways of wind.
I will cross the mountains.

Snow blown from peaks beyond my reach strikes the windshield.
The car shudders at the gusts.

Sometimes I rage and sing in the face of the roar.


How not to ask questions

From the NY Times, Yes, Running Can Make You High, 27 March 2008:

Yes, some people reported that they felt so good when they exercised that it was as if they had taken mood-altering drugs. But was that feeling real or just a delusion? And even if it was real, what was the feeling supposed to be, and what caused it?

The bit that bothers me is the middle sentence. Unless the NY Times is seriously proposing that all runners reporting a high are either lying or confabulating, a feeling is a feeling is a feeling. It is real, and originates and is reflected in your physical being, just as every aspect of your experience is. The only relevant definition of real in the context of feelings is “real to the individual experiencing them,” and that cannot be questioned. Of course it’s real, they experienced it.

The question What [is] the feeling supposed to be? has the opposite problem. Instead of a universal affirmative (Of course it’s real), this question can have a variety of answers, some or all of which may be correct. It’s a useful question to ask, since it helps us parse the situation from different angles, but it cannot be answered definitively.

The question most able to be answered here, at least on a biological level, is not Is it real?, but What caused it?, asked in the last sentence.

Psychology will not have come into its own until there is a general understanding that there is no difference between mind and body. This is why the talking cure, journaling, and other cognitive therapy works, because they subtly affect—in essence, reprogram—the brain. Our experience occurs in the interaction of our selves with our environment. The challenge in psychology is in defining the parameters of the environment, and the capabilities of the self in reacting to and understanding it.


Response to OJR’s “In Defense of Facebook”

The Online Journalism Review, of which I am an avid and appreciative reader, recently posted In defense of Facebook, in which they play devil’s advocate to the outcry against users’ inability to delete information from the site, and the site’s privacy-invasive policies.

I respect the attempt, but it fails to persuade. Of course I had to respond:

You write, “people ought to be encouraged to think before they post.” But much of the online world is ephemeral. Someone like myself, involved in online work since the early ’90s, is more used to data disappearing than being retained beyond my control. No one expects to be able to remove their comments in a forum. Everyone expects to be able to remove their email access, because you never know what kind of unpleasantness you’ll encounter from others. It may hurt to delete a profile you’ve invested in, but you do it when you need to. Facebook content should not be held to journalistic standards of consistency. First, the owners of Facebook are not responsible for my content, I am. They cannot morally claim credit or responsibility for what I say or do, even if legally they might be able to try. They are not my publisher, they are at best my writing pad or gaming board, and if I want to tear off the page and throw it away, or not play anymore, it should be allowed.

Second, Facebook is a social network. In the analog world, if I remove myself from a social clique because I find them unpleasant, they don’t see me any more. If I want to remove the ability to contact me, I can do that. If I tell someone one day I’m fine, and the next day I’m not, and the next day I’m tired, it’s not necessary to record it for posterity’s sake. But Facebook apparently thinks it is.

Facebook is more like an imagined secret society in a movie – once you’re in, you’re in, and you can’t take it back. Got a stalker? You can’t delete your profile. Get in and discover dirty chatters on Scrabulous and invitations to friendship from deceptive strangers aren’t what you want from a site? This is a place where people inflict countless invitations to movie quizzes, or to see their virtual pets. It’s unusually socially demanding and if you don’t have time to spare responding to all the emails and updating your profile, you can offend coworkers. But if you want to opt out altogether, you’re stuck. The reason – convenience in returning, which I’m unlikely to do if I leave in the first place – is ridiculously flimsy.

Facebook forcing me to be “present” when I want to leave is like paparazzi invading the life of a privacy-seeking celebrity, or a stalker publishing an online blog of his observations, or an identity thief using my data to accomplish his own ends. It’s just plain wrong.

I want out.

P.S. I notice there’s an “edit” option on this comment. Are you sure you’re not encouraging people not to think before they post by providing this? Could this be an implicit acknowledgment of the fact people sometimes want to correct mistakes, or take things back? ;–)


Unsold Gary Braunbeck interview

This is the full-length version of an interview I conducted with author Gary Braunbeck, sometime in June 2007. It did not get sold in this or two abridged versions, but that’s not Braunbeck’s fault. Braunbeck is a good writer and a fascinating conversationalist, so I thought I’d share the interview.

Listening to Gary Braunbeck talk about his writing—or about anything at all—one gets the impression he has thought long and deeply about a broad variety of subjects.  This is unsurprising in the writer of such works as Prodigal Blues, Mr. Hands, and We Now Pause for Station Identification. In the last five years, Braunbeck has racked up three Stoker awards and one International Horror Guild award for his work, and yet I have difficulty thinking of what I’ve read as simply horror stories.  Braunbeck’s tales are a combination of skilled writing, disturbing imagery, and fantastical situations (sometimes set in reality as we know it, but often straying beyond it), but soaring above all these is a penetrating, compassionate insight into the human condition.

The old adage is to “write what you know,” and despite the nature of his work, Braunbeck does this. The imagination that created Grendel in Prodigal Blues, or devised The Ballad of Road Mama and Daddy Bliss, would not be nearly as good at reaching into the reader’s head and hooking us on his stories if not for Braunbeck’s own experiences.

Submitted for your consideration: Braunbeck’s 2006 novel, Prodigal Blues.  For those who have not read it, Prodigal Blues is a novel set in the all-too-real world of child pornography.  The story encompasses a suspenseful escape attempt and its aftermath, along the way deftly grappling with such issues as the denial of bystanders, victim guilt, and the demands of compassion. But the care with which Braunbeck approaches such a difficult subject is astonishing, and the psychological profiles of the characters very realistic.  I ask him if he drew on any personal experiences for this novel.

Braunbeck shares two experiences, the first from his childhood, when his “nice middle-to-lower middle class neighborhood” was devastated when “virtually everybody on our block was laid off at the same time.” Without blame, he describes the devastation when a factory suddenly closes, and hundreds of adults “used to being on their feet 10-12 hours in front of a lathe machine” suddenly have nothing to do.

“When you have the threat of poverty combined with alcohol, things tend to go wrong in a hurry. The kids in my neighborhood started a sad little game in which we came out in the morning to see who had the most bruises or cuts.” Braunbeck says this without self-pity, merely as the predictable consequence of a suddenly bereft community, and you can hear the writer’s perspective comprehending the awfulness of the situation for both children and adults.

The second experience Braunbeck describes happened in the course of a job. At the time, Braunbeck was working as a janitor. “I got a call one night from the owner of the janitorial company: ‘I need to get five guys together to do an emergency cleanup at a residence.’ I knew exactly where he was going, because about five days before this, a man in our area had snapped and killed his family.” Explaining that clean-up waited until the police were through with their investigation, he goes on: “I got to clean up the kids’ room. Something like that stays with you…You can see the arc of desperation and abuse, and the road that something can take if you’re not careful. I view these stories as cautionary.

“I probably carried that particular incident around for 20-22 years before I was able to get enough distance between myself and the guy who went in to clean up that night.”

But what is it like confronting such subject matter? Braunbeck explained that, “I’ve found that when something really profound happens in your life, if you try to write it down immediately, it almost never works, because you’re still too close.”

Braunbeck does have one exception to this, the story Duty, which earned him his first Stoker award and was written just after his mother’s death.  Duty begins with the memorable line, “Mom woke up just as the priest was giving her last rites,” and that was exactly what had happened three days earlier.  Braunbeck struggled with the story at first. “I’d delete it, write it again, delete it, write it again, and finally I realized I’d never write anything until I got this out of my system.” The story itself, of course, goes well beyond the actual events, but the strength required to allow such a story to pull itself out and appear on paper is considerable. “You can’t really discuss where stories like these come from without discussing the state you were in at the time—it’s a little like method acting, you have to be able to draw on actual experiences and emotions. In any kind of genre where you’re altering reality, you have to make doubly sure that the ground you’re writing in is pure.”

Perhaps his stories are powerful to readers because they are powerful to Braunbeck, too. This may be why he finds himself disliking his best stories. “Do you know how I can tell—the way I use to gauge whether a piece of mine is ready to go out? When I finish it, if I really, really hate, loathe, and despise the thing, it’s usually ok.  It’s when I really, really like it that there’s a problem.  I think that if I hate a piece of work the minute it’s finished, that means the story came in and kicked myself and my ego out the door. It made itself the overwhelming factor, which is the way it should be. If it didn’t, then it wrote it the way I wanted to write it.”

Braunbeck’s advice to writers is to “Forget genre, it will only hobble the story.” As he points out, to set out to write a horror story, a science fiction story, or a thriller immediately limits and changes the story.  “You’ll unconsciously start pulling tropes from the genre into the story,” he explains. “I write cross-genre—a majority of what I’ve written can be set into any of several categories… You write the story as it has to be written.   If you have cowboys, then they have to yippee-ki-yay their way into the story.”

Braunbeck doesn’t see himself as a pure horror writer. “I don’t think I’ve ever written anything that could be classified as genuinely scary—my stuff is more on the disturbing side… If it turns out it lands more on the darker side of the fence, then so be it.”

Stories typically come announced. “It’s usually an image. Most of the time, maybe 70% of the time, an image pops into my head, and I’ll look at it from various angles… The other 30% of the time it’s when two people in my head start talking to each other, and usually I come into it in the middle of the conversation, and have to figure out what’s going on.”

Readers, publishers, and others seem happy with the results of this approach. The short story Rami Temporales was recently adapted into the short film One of Those Faces by Stranger Things—inspiring an accompanying song—and We Now Pause for Station Identification has been optioned.  Braunbeck has also begun podcasting.

Braunbeck is not put off by the demands of adaptation. “I’m just going to enjoy the heck out of this while I can,”  he says. Speaking of the adaptation process for One of Those Faces, “I’ve seen all three drafts of the script, and he’s [Earl Newton, Stranger Things executive producer] incorporated every suggestion of mine, and while it’s radically different from the story, the spine of the story is still there. And that’s what the adaptation process is all about.”

“It’s always interesting to see—over the years I’ve seen other people’s work adapted and I’ve wondered how they’ve felt with that, and this is first time I’ve been through that myself.” Working with another producer on We Now Pause for Station Identification has been quite enjoyable. “He’ll say, ‘Not sure what to do with this, any ideas?’ And I’ll send him a few ideas, and he’ll say, ‘This one works, I’ll use this.’ Both me and the story have been treated with a great deal of care and respect.”

The ease with which Braunbeck is adapting to these different media makes sense when you consider his influences. “There are three major influences in my work that have not changed since the time that I first decided to take up writing… One is the movies of Sam Peckinpah, [one is] the songs of Harry Chapin—because one of the things I always admired about Chapin was that he didn’t just write songs, he wrote short stories in music form, and they followed the structure of a short story. You have a protagonist, you have a problem the protagonist is confronted by, and by the end the protagonist has either overcome it or been overcome by it.

“And the third, and the biggest influence on me, was Rod Serling. Not just from the Twilight Zone, but the other works he did. Most of what I learned about presenting dialogue and characterization I learned from Serling’s work.” Braunbeck explains, “Most of the [screen]writers at that time had limited resources—they couldn’t do anything visually, so instead they did it the only way they knew how, they did it in this incredible dialogue.”

Speaking to his personal responsibilities as a writer, Braunbeck said, “I don’t like to deal in absolutes. Life isn’t made of absolutes. Life is filled with grays, and sometimes life comes down to the lesser of two evils… Some people say that there’s really no room for morality in horror, but of all the genres, to me horror is the one most in need of a strong moral core. Sometimes it’s a vindictive moral core, like the Brothers Grimm stories… At least in my work I know there’s a strong moral center to the story.” Again, it’s clear that the reason the stories make us care is because the writer cares himself.

Braunbeck’s latest novel, Mr. Hands, is being released this August. So, if you value imaginative, well-written stories with an edge—if you want a thrilling story that goes beyond itself into something more—then the next time you pick up a Braunbeck story and find yourself enthralled, be happy you can enjoy it. Remember—

Gary Braunbeck doesn’t like it at all.


The Oliviers, the anchor riders, and the pier people

Years ago I heard an anecdote about Laurence Olivier: A journalist came to interview Olivier in his home, and was met at the door by Olivier’s friend. The friend gave the journalist a warning: to be sure he held the image he had of Olivier clearly in mind. “Whomever you expect to find,” he said. “that is who he will be.”

This story struck me as sad, and the problem as peculiarly apt to a great actor. (Of course, Meryl Streep—that other great actor of the twentieth century, and possibly the twenty-first—is the exact opposite, balanced and deeply self-aware, so obviously this loss of self is not required to act well.) Another theater soul, Nobel prize winner Luigi Pirandello, used his plays to demonstrate the interactive nature of human existence. Olivier probably related. For Pirandello, there was no “I” at the center of existence, only a series of masks worn in response to the behavior and opinions of others.

I’ve written before about the self being at the intersection of how others treat us and the choices we make, but now I’m thinking about how some people tend to fall more to one side or the other. Bart and I were talking about this, and I wanted to share his thoughts on the matter:

Some people (the Oliviers) only recognize their existence in others’ eyes and get washed out to sea and lost. Some people cling to the pier of the “I” and when the waves come, they are swamped. But the people who realize this interaction is going on face the storm. They know that the center moves, but remains the center. “They know you have to ride it out, at anchor.”

Note: credit for the title goes to Bart as well :–)


The writer’s vow of chastity

Just as Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg wrote the film maker’s vow of chastity (also know as Dogme 95), so Bart has proposed a writer’s vow of chastity.

A draft of the rules as of August 4, 2007:

The writer’s vow of chastity

The writer will use no modifiers.
No adverbs.
No adjectives.
The writer should act as a behaviorist.
No words describing emotion.
The writer will not make the reader directly privy to a character’s thoughts (no interior dialogue or interior monologue).
The writer may break these rules only when it is unavoidable.

The above may be summarized as, “Not doing the reader’s work for them.”

The summary references advice from C.S. Lewis to his students:

Don’t say it was “delightful;” make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please will you do the job for me.”


Smart because I’m stupid, stupid because I’m smart

Some people are smart because understanding comes easily to them. I, on the other hand, might argue that what smarts I have come from what I don’t understand.

Take, for example, mirrors. There is a basic rule about mirrors that many take for granted, and that is when we focus on a mirror image, we focus not on the mirror but on the things it’s reflecting. Optometrists use this all the time to avoid having twenty-foot-long rooms. Using mirrors, light bounces from the eye chart letters twenty feet before hitting the patient’s eyes; hence the 20 in 20/20. (20/20 means that at twenty feet, you see at the same clarity as a normal human. Some few see more clearly; 20/10 means you see an object at twenty feet as clearly as it would appear at ten to most people.)

But this presented problems to me because I could not understand how it worked. Here were my questions:

How does my eye know how far to focus in order to see the other object clearly? If I’m looking at a mirror that’s reflecting something out of my line of sight—a plain cube, say—how would I know, without a context, where to focus to see it at the appropriate clarity for my vision? How know if it was five inches a side, or five feet? All my brain knows is that the cube is some distance farther from me than the mirror. Yet somehow my eye focuses. (Briefly I wondered why, if my brain can “decide” how distant a thing is, it can’t “pretend” it’s closer so my myopic eyes see it clearly? I’m a highly near-sighted person who sees clearly about six inches from my eyes, after which the world begins to blur. Don’t worry, I figured it out.)

Why can’t I take a picture of the mirror itself, or glass, for that matter? Saying it’s because they’re transparent only raises the issue of what, exactly, makes transparency possible in the first place. A thing that both allows an unimpeded passage of light through, but can also reflect that light almost perfectly?

It was all too weird for me.

But I understood the basics of refraction, and eventually (I’m ashamed to admit how long this took) I came up with a mental picture to understand this at least partly.

First, I had to acknowledge that transparency was not a focusing issue (more about transparency later). Then I imagined a camera, an object, and a mirror at the points of an equilateral triangle. The mirror is angled so that it reflects the object to the camera, and the camera to the object.

The camera’s view includes both the object and the mirror. But the representation of the object the camera sees via the mirror has traveled twice as far, and so is less clear. As was my understanding, until I thought of this.

Then another question occurred to me. If the camera is absorbing both its direct view of the object, and the reflected view, perhaps a piece of film with both those bits of information was more accurate somehow than simply seeing the object clearly. Then I imagined multiple mirrors, each angling a different aspect of the object onto the same point. The results would have much more complete information about the object than a simple photograph. We might not interpret it well on a flat surface. Then I thought of holograms, and suddenly my understanding of the interference pattern that creates a hologram, and the apparent chaos of a piece of holographic film, improved sharply.

Most of the things in my life that I understand well originate like this, with something obvious to others but not to me. And that’s why I say that I’m smart because I’m stupid.

Stupid because I’m smart

Still, I’m also stupid because I’m smart. There are a bunch of cuttlefish in a lab in Pennsylvania that are demonstrably better able to learn than I am, Here’s why:

Jean Boal, an associate professor at Millersville University, studies cuttlefish intelligence, as well as that of other cephalopods. She has devised a fairly complex test, demanding not only learned association, but unlearning it and learning a new one, then going back and forth in a process called serial reversal learning. They’re pretty good at it.

The cuttlefish goes through a door, into a tank within a tank. It’s small, with opaque walls. To both sides of the cuttlefish are two openings into the larger tank, and in front of it is an object such as a plastic plant.

The two openings are marked differently, one framed with broad, vivid stripes, one a solid color. Both appear to be open to the cuttlefish, but one is closed using a transparent piece of plastic. If the object in front of the cuttlefish is a plastic plant, then the solid-framed doorway is open. If the object is a rock, then the striped doorway is open.

Cuttlefish are smart enough to figure this out, and act accordingly to obtain access to the rest of the tank.

Here’s why I’m not as swift as a cuttlefish. There are two good routes to my workplace, one on the highway, one on a street paralleling the highway. If I stepped out the door to see a mockingbird sat on my mailbox, and this was followed by a wreck on the highway necessitating my taking the street route, I would not correlate these things. Even if every time the mockingbird was on the mailbox there was a wreck on the highway, I sincerely doubt I would notice the correlation. For one thing, I’m smart enough to have a lot of things on my mind, which might make noticing and retaining and associating the data more difficult. For another, I’m informed enough to understand the basics of physics, and this tells me that birds on mailboxes are not catalysts for car wrecks. So the very simple association the cuttlefish makes would be beyond me.

Dr. Boal say that “the ultimate question is, am I smart enough to find out how smart they are?” Well, Dr. Boal, I can tell you one thing—they are most definitely smarter than I.

A last note

Transparency and reflection are still interesting to me. Think about it. Here’s a piece of glass, and it allows light to pass through in a straight line, unimpeded so far as we can tell (I’m assuming no impurities are present to tint or otherwise distort the glass). We look through the piece of glass, and we see what’s on the other side. But that same piece of glass can, if I view it from the right perspective, reflect all that light instead of letting it pass through. And my brain lets me see it clearly, despite the focusing distance being farther than the glass itself. Water and other things are similarly challenging.

It’s as though the property of the transparent object—allowing light through, or reflecting it—is dependent on the perspective and behavior of the observer. I know this is very obvious. But it seems to me that this is a good analogy for some of the more mysterious behaviors in the universe. It’s not that something magical is happening. It’s that we’re seeing different facets of the same thing, and we just can’t see the thing itself yet. Because it’s transparent.


Spineless Smarts, NOVA: Kings of Camouflage. Interview conducted on July 26, 2005 by Gisela Kaufmann, producer-director of “Kings of Camouflage,” and edited by Rima Chaddha, assistant editor of NOVA online. Retrieved July 31, 2007 from


Old school feminism

I love it when I encounter feminist thought from previous generations. Much of my lunchtime reading material comes from Project Gutenberg, where I discovered Arthur Conan Doyle’s Beyond the City. In it I found the following. The first is from a middle-aged feminist:

“I am sorry that I have no tea to offer you. I look upon the subserviency of woman as largely due to her abandoning nutritious drinks and invigorating exercises to the male. I do neither….”

[Another character suggests that “woman has a mission of her own.”]

The lady of the house dropped her dumb-bells with a crash upon the floor. “The old cant!” she cried. “The old shibboleth! What is this mission which is reserved for woman? All that is humble, that is mean, that is soul-killing, that is so contemptible and so ill-paid that none other will touch it. All that is woman’s mission. And who imposed these limitations upon her? Who cooped her up within this narrow sphere? Was it Providence? Was it nature? No, it was the arch enemy. It was man.”

“Oh, I say, auntie!” drawled her nephew.

“It was man, Charles. It was you and your fellows. I say that woman is a colossal monument to the selfishness of man. What is all this boasted chivalry—these fine words and vague phrases? Where is it when we wish to put it to the test? Man in the abstract will do anything to help a woman. Of course. How does it work when his pocket is touched? Where is his chivalry then? Will the doctors help her to qualify? will the lawyers help her to be called to the bar? will the clergy tolerate her in the Church? Oh, it is close your ranks then and refer poor woman to her mission! Her mission! To be thankful for coppers and not to interfere with the men while they grabble for gold, like swine round a trough, that is man’s reading of the mission of women. You may sit there and sneer, Charles, while you look upon your victim, but you know that it is truth, every word of it.”

And this is from a respected male character in the book, a retired doctor, in another scene:

“She is quite right. The professions are not sufficiently open to women. They are still far too much circumscribed in their employments. They are a feeble folk, the women who have to work for their bread—poor, unorganized, timid, taking as a favor what they might demand as a right. That is why their case is not more constantly before the public, for if their cry for redress was as great as their grievance it would fill the world to the exclusion of all others. It is all very well for us to be courteous to the rich, the refined, those to whom life is already made easy. It is a mere form, a trick of manner. If we are truly courteous, we shall stoop to lift up struggling womanhood when she really needs our help—when it is life and death to her whether she has it or not. And then to cant about it being unwomanly to work in the higher professions. It is womanly enough to starve, but unwomanly to use the brains which God has given them. Is it not a monstrous contention?”

And of course, the best and my ever-favorite, from Tolkien. Eowyn is ranting at Aragorn:

“All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more.”

A small aside: I do wish they’d left that exchange in the movie. It’s the heart of the Aragorn/Eowyn relationship; and I notice Aragorn says his heart is where Arwen dwells…