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I’ve been thinking for a while that nerd culture — SF fandom, gaming fandom, comics fandom, hacker culture — are taking over the world. Traditional nerd passtimes (big fantasy novels, comics) are now major smash movie hits. Computer games are a major business. Important politicians (Al Gore, Newt Gingrich) are SF enthusiasts.

So I was reading (thanks to Jim Henley) this essay about Al Qaeda by Marc Sageman (fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, former CIA case officer in Afghanistan, now a forensic psychiatrist), and noticed this profile of Al Qaeda’s membership:
[... T]hree quarters of my sample came from the upper or middle class. The vast majority—90 percent—came from caring, intact families. Sixty-three percent had gone to college, as compared with the 5-6 percent that’s usual for the third world. These are the best and brightest of their societies in many ways.

Al Qaeda’s members are not the Palestinian fourteen-year- olds we see on the news, but join the jihad at the average age of 26. Three-quarters were professionals or semi- professionals. They are engineers, architects, and civil engineers, mostly scientists. Very few humanities are represented, and quite surprisingly very few had any background in religion. The natural sciences predominate. Bin Laden himself is a civil engineer, Zawahiri is a physician, Mohammed Atta was, of course, an architect; and a few members are military, such as Mohammed Ibrahim Makawi, who is supposedly the head of the military committee.

Sound familiar? How about these:
At the time they joined jihad, the terrorists were not very religious. [...]
Eighty percent were, in some way, totally excluded from the society they lived in. Sixty-eight percent either had preexisting friendships with people already in the jihad or were part of a group of friends who collectively joined the jihad together [...]
There is no recruitment, really. In my sample, I have found no case of a recruiter. They’re all volunteers.

And then there’s China Miéville’s speculation that the name Al Qaeda comes from Asimov’s Foundation books.

Makes you wonder what Claude Degler might have wrought in some parallel universe.
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The answers to that poll about American reading habits:

According to a 1999 Gallup poll:

  • 13% of Americans read no books in the previous year.
  • 85% read all or part of at least one book.
  • 38% read more than ten books.
  • 7% read more than fifty books.

As of right now, the most-chosen answers for questions 1 (no books) is the right answer. Most of you severely underestimate the percentage of Americans who read at all. (Or maybe you misread the second question?) You also underestimate the number of people who read more than ten or more than fifty books a year.

This confirms something I’d noticed, which is that a lot of people in the rough science-fiction-computer-geek communities seem to be really pessimistic about how much reading gets done by Americans in general. I’m always seeing posts on discussion boards or newsgroups about how reading is a minority taste, and readers are a tiny elite in a mass of illiterates, etc, and it’s just not true. My friends in publishing tell me about how more books are being sold now than ever before — more titles, more kinds of books, bought by a wider diversity of people. Yet somehow the Americans-as-illiterates meme keeps getting passed around, probably because it confirms some existing prejudice of ours. I’ve run into it twice just in the past couple of weeks.

Then again, this poll of mine is just the sort of bullshit opt-in poll that I’m always saying nobody should take seriously. I’d probably ignore the results if they didn’t confirm my existing prejudice. And it’s always possible that the Gallup people conducted their poll badly. Illiteracy researchers come up with higher figures for adult illiteracy than that Gallup poll implies.

Oh, and the Gallup poll also says that 46% of American readers prefer non-fiction to fiction.
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This came up in a comment thread in [livejournal.com profile] cadhla’s journal, and I’ve been wondering what people think about the reading habits of Americans in general. So that’s what I’m asking you to guess. No fair googling for the answers — just answer based on your own experience or gut feelings or educated best guess.

A 1999 Gallup poll asked a randomly selected national sample of 1698 adults how many books, either hardcover or paperback, did they’d read either all or part of the way through during the previous year. I’m asking you to guess what percentage answered...

[Poll #317905]
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I think my weather menu app just may be on crack:

[ Crack, I tell you! ]

I’ve downloaded the most recent version just in case.

I wonder if there’s a cut-off age for when people stop absorbing current slang. I think I picked up “on crack” as a synonym for “crazy” at some point in my late twenties, after resisting it for a few years. And I can remember the first time I heard “way” as an intensifier (“way cool”) in college, and my roommate being surprised when I started using it.

I think I’ll continue to resist “ass” where my generation uses “crap” or “shit” (“that looks like ass”); it just sounds prissy to my ears, like something you’d say on TV when you couldn’t say “shit”.
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David Bernstein, of the Volokh Conspiracy, quotes from the April 26th issue of People Magazine (which isn’t online):
She’s got the deejay blasting Beyonce and a computerized light show. She has nearly 100 friends crammed into Manhattan’s ritzy Bryant Park Grill. She’s got the gift table groaning with Tiffany bags and guests greeting her dad at the door with “Mazel tov!” Everything is perfectly poised for 13-year-old Kimya to have a world- class bat mitzvah, except for one tiny detail:

Kimya isn’t Jewish.

Welcome to the strange new world of faux mitzvahs, where non-Jewish teens like Kimya Zahedi—whose parents are Iranian-born Muslims—and Taylor Lasley, African-American and Presbyterian, get to party like it’s 5764 (that’s 2004 on the Hebrew calendar). A centuries-old Jewish tradition, bar mitzvahs (for boys) and bat mitzvahs (for girls) mark the passage from childhood to adulthood with rituals like candlelighting and slicing braided bread called challah, as well as with elaborate and often expensive celebrations. Now more and more non-Jewish kids areinsisting on their own bar or bat mitzvah-style parties—without the religious rites and months of studious preparation—when they turn 13. “You see how you can have so much fun with so many people,” says Kimya, who attends one or two bar or bat mitzvahs every weekend in and around her wealthy neighborhood in Alpine, N.J.
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How long have piercings and tattoos been really popular? In the mainstream of the US middle class, I mean. Has it been long enough that people with piercings and tattoos can be horrified when their kids want to get jewelry implanted in their eyeballs? (Thanks, [livejournal.com profile] zoe_trope, I’ll be having nightmares now.)
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You’ve probably seen this argument: If you’re not willing to personally kill and butcher an animal, you shouldn’t eat meat.

Let’s apply that logic to other areas of life, using the magic of reductio ad absurdum! )
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The Black Table reviews proposals for the World Trade Center memorial:

It's not that these potential memorials lack the appropriate gravitas or are altogether terrible, it's just that they all feel the same. From the street level, in the shadow of a massive new World Trade Center, passersby will likely see a park. Or a reflecting pool. Or some lights. Or some combination of the three. It's as if it were half-price day on "running water over engraved stone" at the old idea shop and all these guys had coupons.
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OK, here’s something to be annoyed about. (We could all use more of that, right?) Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] kathrynt, I looked up this MSNBC story about a recent poll on American attitudes towards gays and the freedom to marry, and then looked up the poll report itself. (This is always a good idea, if you can manage it. Newspapers often leave out important details; television always does.) On page two I found the following information:

Why are people homosexual?19852003
Something born with20%30%
Way people are brought up22%14%
Way some prefer to live42%42%
Don’t know16%14%

Only 14% knew the right answer, and that’s down from 16% in 1985!
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One topic that pops up occasionally among fans of fantasy novels and role-playing games is the question of whether the treatment of the various fantasy races — elves, dwarves, orcs, etc. — is racist. I think it generally is, though it’s not the serious, toxic racism of The Turner Diaries. It’s a more dilute racism, introduced for fictional convenience.

One common form of racism is the belief that a person’s character is determined by his ethnicity. This is a boon to writers of adventure fiction. If you and your audience share the same notions of what character traits go with what ethnicities, then all you have to do is give a character an ethnic name and maybe a spot of funny accent or touch of description and your audience will know to assume that he’s crafty or stubborn or greedy or lazy or whatever.

That sort of thing is deservedly frowned upon nowadays, but it’s common in fantasy and science-fiction. Greedy dwarves, logical Vulcans, belligerent orcs, inscrutable elves, all tropes straight out of pulp adventure fiction. Why else do you think we so often refer to “alien races” when they are more properly alien species?

I was reminded of this while reading CS Lewis’s review of Lord of the Rings in On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature (which I borrowed, along with Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, from Beth, who’s a big Lewis fan). He says:

Much that in a realistic work would be done by ‘character deliniation’ is here done simply by making the character an elf, a dwarf, or a hobbit. The imagined beings have their insides on the outside; they are visible souls.

Confirmation of what I’ve long believed.

I’m not claiming that Tolkien was a racist (though the thread running through LotR, the belief that nobility of character runs in bloodlines, is one that bothers me whenever I try to reread the series), or that modern fantasy authors are racists (though some of them might be), just that the common habit of assigning personality by “race” is a lazy one, and the descendent of a racist worldview, and something that an author might look towards trying to transcend if he wants to create a work of lasting quality (or even just of attention-getting novelty).

April 2017



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