Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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The difference engine

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Earlier this month, within the space of less than a day, two significant events occurred in the life of Donna Strickland, an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo. She won the Nobel Prize in Physics, and she finally got her own Wikipedia page. As the biologist and Wikipedia activist Dawn Bazely writes in an excellent opinion piece for the Washington Post:

The long delay was not for lack of trying. Last May, an editor had rejected a submitted entry on Strickland, saying the subject did not meet Wikipedia’s notability requirement. Strickland’s biography went up shortly after her award was announced. If you click on the “history” tab to view the page’s edits, you can replay the process of a woman scientist finally gaining widespread recognition, in real time.

And it isn’t an isolated problem, as Bazely points out: “According to the Wikimedia Foundation, as of 2016, only 17 percent of the reference project’s biographies were about women.” When Bazely asked some of her students to create articles on women in ecology or the sciences, she found that their efforts frequently ran headlong into Wikipedia’s editing culture: “Many of their contributions got reversed almost immediately, in what is known as a ‘drive-by deletion’…I made an entry for Kathy Martin, current president of the American Ornithological Society and a global authority on arctic and alpine grouse. Almost immediately after her page went live, a flag appeared over the top page: ‘Is this person notable enough?’”

Strickland’s case is an unusually glaring example, but it reflects a widespread issue that extends far beyond Wikipedia itself. In a blog post about the incident, Ed Erhart, a senior editorial associate at the Wikimedia foundation, notes that the original article on Strickland was rejected by an editor who stated that it lacked “published, reliable, secondary sources that are independent of the subject.” But he also raises a good point about the guidelines used to establish academic notability: “Academics may be writing many of the sources volunteer Wikipedia editors use to verify the information on Wikipedia, but they are only infrequently the subject of those same sources. And when it does occur, they usually feature men from developed nations—not women or other under-represented groups.” Bazely makes a similar observation:

We live in a world where women’s accomplishments are routinely discounted and dismissed. This occurs at every point in the academic pipeline…Across disciplines, men cite their own research more often than women do. Men give twice as many academic talks as women—engagements which give scholars a chance to publicize their work, find collaborators and build their resumes for potential promotions and job offers. Female academics tend to get less credit than males for their work on a team. Outside of academia, news outlets quote more male voices than female ones—another key venue for proving “notability” among Wikipedia editors. These structural biases have a ripple effect on our crowdsourced encyclopedia.

And this leads to an undeniable feedback effect, in which the existing sources used to establish notability are used to create Wikipedia articles, when serve as evidence of notability in the future.

Bazely argues that articles on male subjects don’t seem to be held to the same high standards as those for women, which reflects the implicit biases of its editors, the vast majority of whom are men. She’s right, but I also think that there’s a subtle historical element at play. Back during the wild west days of Wikipedia, when the community was still defining itself, the demographics of its most prolific editors were probably even less diverse than they are now. During those formative years, thousands of pages were generated under a looser set of standards, and much of that material has been grandfathered into the version that exists today. I should know, because I was a part of it. While I may not have been a member of the very first generation of Wikipedia editors—one of my friends still takes pride in the fact that he created the page for “knife”—I was there early enough to originate a number of articles that I thought were necessary. I created pages for such people as Darin Morgan and Julee Cruise, and when I realized that there wasn’t an entry for “mix tape,” I spent the better part of two days at work putting one together. By the standards of the time, I was diligent and conscientious, but very little of what I did would pass muster today. My citations were erratic, I included my own subjective commentary and evaluations along with verifiable facts, and I indulged in original research, which the site rightly discourages. Multiply this by a thousand, and you get a sense of the extent to which the foundations of Wikipedia were laid by exactly the kind of editor in his early twenties for whom writing a cultural history of the mix tape took priority over countless other deserving subjects. (It isn’t an accident that I had started thinking about mix tapes again because of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, which provides a scathing portrait of a certain personality type, not unlike my own, that I took for years at face value.)

And I don’t even think that I was wrong. Wikipedia is naturally skewed in favor of the enthusiasms of its users, and articles that are fun to research, write, and discuss will inevitably get more attention. But the appeal of a subject to a minority of active editors isn’t synonymous with notability, and it takes a conscious effort to correct the result, especially when it comes to the older strata of contributions. While much of what I wrote fifteen years ago has been removed or revised by other hands, a lot of it still persists, because it’s easier to monitor new edits than to systematically check pages that have been around for years. And it leaves behind a residue of the same kinds of unconscious assumptions that I’ve identified elsewhere in other forms of canonization. Wikipedia is part of our cultural background now, invisible and omnipresent, and we tend to take it for granted. (Like Google, it can be hard to research it online because its name has become a synonym for information itself. Googling “Google,” or keywords associated with it, is a real headache, and looking for information about Wikipedia—as opposed to information presented in a Wikipedia article—presents many of the same challenges.) And nudging such a huge enterprise back on course, even by a few degrees, doesn’t happen by accident. One way is through the “edit-a-thons” that often occur on Ada Lovelace Day, which is named after the mathematician whose posthumous career incidentally illustrates how historical reputations can be shaped by whoever happens to be telling the story.  We think of Lovelace, who worked with Charles Babbage on the difference engine, as a feminist hero, but as recently as the early sixties, one writer could cite her as an example of genetic mediocrity: “Lord Byron’s surviving daughter, Ada, what did she produce in maturity? A system for betting on horse races that was a failure, and she died at thirty-six, shattered and deranged.” The writer was the popular novelist Irving Wallace, who is now deservedly forgotten. And the book was a bestseller about the Nobel Prize.

Written by nevalalee

October 15, 2018 at 9:04 am

The object of desire

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Yesterday, I began to hear rumors that something was out in the world. My first clue was a congratulatory note from my agent in New York, who sent me an email with the subject line: “It’s a book!” The message itself was blank, except for a picture of his desk, on which he had propped up the hardcover of Astounding. A few hours later, I saw an editor for a pop culture site post the image of a stack of new books on Twitter, with mine prominently displayed about a third of the way from the bottom. In the meantime, there wasn’t any sign on it on my end—I hadn’t even seen the finished version yet. (I signed off on the last set of proofs months ago, and I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time admiring the cover art, but that isn’t quite the same as holding the real thing in your hands.) When the mail came that afternoon, there was nothing, so I figured that it would take another day or two for any shipment from my publisher’s warehouse to make it out to Chicago. In the evening, I headed out to the city, where I was meeting a few writers for dinner before our event at Volumes Bookcafe. When one of my friends arrived at the restaurant, he announced that he had heard a thud on his doorstep earlier that day, and he proudly pulled out his personal copy of the hardcover, from which he had prudently removed the dust jacket. At this point, I was starting to suspect that everybody in America would get it before I did, and when I arrived at the bookstore, I was genuinely shocked to see a table covered with copies of the book, which doesn’t officially come out until October 23. And although I should have been preparing for my reading, I took a minute to carry one into a quiet corner so that I could study it for myself.

Well, it definitely exists, and it’s just as beautiful as I had hoped. As a writer, I don’t have any control over the visual side, but the artist Tavis Coburn and the designers Ploy Siripant and Renata De Oliveira did a fantastic job—I’m obviously biased, but I don’t think any book about science fiction has ever come in a nicer package. The fact that I managed to get the hardcover version out into the world before physical books disappeared entirely is a source of real pride, and I look forward to seeing copies of it in thrift stores and cutout bins for years to come. And while I can’t speak to the contents, at first glance, they seemed perfectly fine, too. After the reading, which went well, I made my first sale of Astounding ever in a bookstore, and as I signed all the remaining copies that the store had on hand, I was sorely tempted to buy one for myself. I sent a picture of the stack on the display table to my wife, who texted back immediately: “Your copies came! One big box and one small one.” An hour or so later, I was back home, where I sliced open the first carton, then the second, to reveal my twenty-five author’s copies. (I’ll keep three for myself and gradually start to send the rest to various deserving recipients.) Now it’s the following morning, and the book is inexorably starting to assume the status of a familiar object. It’s lying at my elbow as I type this, and I can already feel myself taking it for granted. I suppose that was inevitable. But I’ll always treasure the memory of the day in which everyone I knew seemed to have it except for me.

Written by nevalalee

October 12, 2018 at 8:33 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

October 12, 2018 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Poetry must not imitate the aspects of things but rather follow the constructive laws that are their essence, guaranteeing the real independence of everything…The totality of the diverse new facts united by a single spirit constitutes the created work.

Vicente Huidobro, “We Must Create”

Written by nevalalee

October 11, 2018 at 7:30 am

An eye with brain

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There is no less need of organization even if we do not employ the established meter and rhyme. Likewise, if a poet must state his or her personal history, he or she may be asked to be as brief as possible. It is easier to read epigrams than to read the diary, no matter how short the latter may be. The age of confession perished with the Parnassians. We are a vastly other type of soul—if we are soul at all, which I keenly doubt. The poet’s attitude then, for today, is toward the outside. This does not necessarily imply surface. We present ourselves in spite of ourselves. We are most original when we are most like life. Life is the natural thing. Interpretation is the factitious. Nature is always variable. To have an eye with brain in it—that is, or rather would be, the poetic millennium.

—Marsden Hartley, “The Business of Poetry”

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October 8, 2018 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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It is…childish, in the deepest sense of being a child, ever to expect justice. There is none beneath our moon. One can only hope not to be destroyed entirely by injustice and, to put it cynically, one can very often flourish through an injustice obtaining in one’s favor. What matters finally is not the world’s judgment of oneself but one’s own judgment of the world. Any writer who lacks this final arrogance will not survive very long in America.

Gore Vidal, United States: Essays 1952-1992

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October 4, 2018 at 7:30 am

A lover’s lies

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Over the last month, I’ve been listening endlessly to 50 Song Memoir, the sprawling autobiographical album by Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields. Like much of his work, it’s both technically exquisite and cheerfully uneven, with throwaway novelty tracks alternating with songs that I don’t think I’ll ever forget, but it’s clearly a landmark in the career of one of our indispensable artists. One of its best features is a thick accompanying booklet, in which Merritt walks his good friend Daniel Handler through the stories behind all five discs. It’s totally fascinating, both for its insights into craft and for its uncharacteristic moments of introspection. But it also includes an anecdote, which Merritt shares only in passing, that has been on my mind a lot, particularly in light of what I’ve been discussing over the last few days:

[The song] “Lovers’ Lies” is a boyfriend who, it later turned out, was a pathological liar. Dale Peck has a whole chapter about him. Apparently he went out with Dale Peck before he went out with me, which I didn’t know at the time…So he allowed everyone to believe that he was HIV-positive, because he was an AIDS activist, and it just seemed simpler. But he was not in fact HIV-positive, and eventually that got out, and he became a pariah, persona non grata, and had to leave the area.

Handler doesn’t ask for further details, and the conversation quickly moves on, leaving the story to stand enigmatically by itself. And the song doesn’t add much to the picture.

Merritt doesn’t mention any names, but he provides more than enough information to identify the individual under discussion, who is also thanked in the liner notes to one of his side projects. (I don’t particularly feel like naming him here, either, so I’ve quietly edited some of the passages that follow.) Dale Peck—a literary critic whom I previously knew best for calling Rick Moody “the worst writer of his generation”—tells the story in his book Visions and Revision, a long excerpt of which appeared a few years ago in Out. In his memoir, Peck recalls that the activist “was the first person I slept with who told me he was HIV-positive,” and that he also claimed to have been the son of a Holocaust refugee, a survivor of English boarding schools and mental institutions, and the victim of a beating in Boston. But after cataloging his friend’s remarkable background, Peck concludes:

Everything I’ve just told you is a lie. The Judaism—the Holocaust—the move to England and the nervous breakdown, the time spent in a mental institution and hustling on the streets, and above all the HIV infection: Every last detail—save, perhaps, his name—was a fabrication, invented for who knows what reason and perpetuated with some major or minor variations not just with me but with all of ACT UP…I don’t believe it was empirically necessary for [him] to adopt the identity of an HIV-positive person in order to become the kind of AIDS activist he became. But he did, and he immersed himself in his role to such a degree that he put himself at risk.

And he was no ordinary fabulist. Peck tells us that he was “also one of the nine or ten most important AIDS activists in the United States,” and in David France’s How to Survive a Plague, we hear more about the scale of this ongoing act of impersonation:

It was thought that he was the sickest member of the HIVIP support group—he had testified as an AIDS patient under oath before Congress and issued a famous dictum to fellow activists, “HIV Negatives Get Out of Our Way”—but in fact he had never been infected at all. David Barr, the support group founder, pieced together the deception through inconsistencies in his stories, the vagueness about his doctor visits, his secrecy about lab results. I was incredulous when confronted with these facts…For almost a decade I watched him partake in some of the most instrumental skirmishes that revolutionized science and medicine. I watched his work save lives. He could have accomplished as much as an openly HIV-negative man.

And France’s thoughts on the reasoning behind this deception are particularly significant: “What drove him, I guessed, was a peculiar kind of thrill-seeking behavior. There was no more immediate battle in this epic war than the one to survive. For young men it was an almost romantic race against time. I can imagine, but not fully understand, a compulsion to feel those stakes very personally.”

Peck makes a similar point in his memoir: “From the beginning of the epidemic part of the fascination with AIDS was the desire to have it. To live with it? To die from it? I suspect it’s probably neither, which is to say, I suspect the HIV these men wanted was the phantasmic kind that brings ‘meaning’ to life rather than sickness or pain or death.” And it makes for a striking contrast with an argument advanced by Susan Sontag in AIDS and Its Metaphors, which was published toward the end of the eighties. After noting that such diseases as tuberculosis and syphilis have been romanticized for their associations with emotionality or creativity, to the point of creating “syphilis envy,” Sontag writes: “But with AIDS—though dementia is also a common, late symptom—no compensatory mythology has arisen, or seems likely to arise. AIDS, like cancer, does not allow romanticizing or sentimentalizing, perhaps because its association with death is too powerful.” Sontag was clearly wrong about this, and it’s even possible to recognize this impulse in more recent cases of activists who altered or embellished aspects of their identities—some blatantly, others less so—in what Eve Fairbanks of Buzzfeed calls a mindset “that makes having endured harrowing circumstances seem almost necessary to speak with any moral authority.” But it may have been something even more fundamental. As Peck writes of one pivotal moment:

[The activist] said he had something to tell me and even as I guessed from his tone what it was he said: “I’m positive.” I use quotation marks here because I know these were his actual words: I recorded them on a piece of yellow paper ripped from a legal pad that I later tucked into a new journal. I was a sporadic journaler at best, usually starting one when I felt that something momentous had happened, and I knew that something momentous had happened here. Not that I had slept with an HIV-positive person, but that I had met someone great. Someone about whom I need manufacture none of my usual illusions to love.

Written by nevalalee

September 28, 2018 at 9:07 am

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