Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Head Smack Series

I am an inveterate problem solver. I don't do it on purpose. Things just spring to my attention and, as soon as I notice them, I know a way to do them better. I name this characteristic “not being passive to information.” It may not be a sign of intelligence, but it’s how I am.

My problem with my problem-solving, if I may put it that way, is that my solving skills far exceed my convincing skills. This is frustrating. Cassandra has become my patron saint, when Methusaleh should be (ref: Gigi, “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore,” lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner).

I find my ideas so obvious, so excellent, so simple-quick-inexpensive, that I figure that if I just tell the right person, ne will smack nis head and say, "You're so right. I'll make that happen immediately."

But my experience with Stanford, Google, San Mateo County, and other objects of my mental bounty is that my ideas are rarely implemented. I am tired of writing to folks up and down the org chart and not finding a head-smacker.

I have two theories. Both, I regret to say, are cynical or at least curmudgeonly.
But first I'll acknowledge that these head-smack solutions often solve problems that affect many, many people a little, little bit.  That is, each affected person faces an occasional, temporary irritation, not a life threat. I've thought about how this skews all aspects of the matter: from identifying the problem to solving it to redressing the detriments of not having solved it sooner. Our litigation-centered view of societal problems is part of the story. These ideas may appear in upcoming posts called Cost-Benefit Calculus: The Area under the Curve and Litigation: It's NOT the Tip of the Iceberg. Stay tuned.

The financially cynical theory is that simple-quick-inexpensive solutions to real problems provide no room for corruption: no kickbacks, no bribes, no expensive presents from grateful contractors.

The psychologically cynical theory is that power-loving or ambitious people -- which describes pretty much all the people I write to in the hopes of finding a head-smacker -- view such solutions as ignorable.

You know the cynical old saying "Anything worth doing is worth doing for money”? Well, today’s version, applicable to both profit-making organizations and non-, may be “Anything worth doing is worth holding a power meeting about."

If there is no opportunity for scheduling a meeting with people whose schedules are already very full, and no reason to write a lengthy and serious report, and no possibility of favorable publicity, within the institution or outside it, then why bother? The fact that the solution serves the organization’s goals and will keep it from looking ridiculous to anyone who is affected (albeit temporarily and not severely) is not sufficient incentive to act.

Oh well. I accept defeat -- at least as to the efficacy of writing suggestions to those apparently in charge. Instead, I'll channel my energies into the Head Smack series.

Friday, May 21, 2010

NE-NER-NIS (part 2) - LANGUAGE 02

As mentioned in a previous post, I've created a trio of neuter singular pronouns, as follows:
NE: subject pronoun. Replaces he, she, he or she, they, or one.
NER: object pronoun. Replaces him, her, him or her, them, or one.
NIS: possessive pronoun. Replaces his, her, hers, his or her, his or hers, their or theirs, or one's.
These pronouns can be used for persons (or animals or robots) of unknown, unspecified, or irrelevant gender.

WHY NER, and not NIM, for the OBJECT PRONOUN

Some people tell me they'd prefer NIM for the OBJECT pronoun. I explain that I thought about that, too, before I rejected it in favor of NER for OBJECT and NIS for POSSESSIVE.

Principle #1. Gender Equality. NE uses the E that is common to both HE and SHE. For the non-subject pronouns, I wanted to be fair and borrow the masculine ending for one and the feminine ending for the other.

Principle #2:  Auditory Comfort. In order to be accepted, the substitute pronouns should be such that our mental and physical ears do not balk: the N is enough of a surprise.
The problem with using the ending sound of the feminine possessive is that it has two forms: HER and HERS:
It's HER book. The book is HERS.
HIS has only one form. The other grammatical persons have two forms, too, mostly with an S at the end:  OUR and OURS, YOUR and YOURS, THEIR and THEIRS.  Our ears want to add that S - or rather the sound of  Z - whenever the possessive pronoun is not followed by a noun. The only exception to the final S is the first person singular: MY and MINE. That makes HIS unique, or maybe I mean singular in two ways. Anyway, because HIS is the same with or without a following noun, NIS seemed the better choice for the possessive. That made NER the right choice for the object pronoun.

In addition, ER ends both the objective and the possessive adjectival forms of the feminine singular pronoun. That could lead to endless confusion or a violation of Principle #1 or both.

The Natural Superiority of NE NER NIS (with apologies to Ashley Montagu*)

Consider this sentence:
I feel certain that if people just start using these neuter
 pronouns, they can accustom their ears to the sounds.

Because there are two plural  nouns --  people and pronouns -- the word "they" after the comma is ambiguous or at least a potential stopper. To avoid a second ambiguity, I use "sounds" rather than "them" at the end of the sentence.  But with NE NER NIS at my disposal, I can write: 
I feel certain that anyone who starts using these neuter 
pronouns can quickly accustom nis ears to them.
As to ear-training: At some level, good grammar and good word usage are whatever does not offend the ears of the people who think they know better. And yes, I consider myself one of those people because I pay attention, I care, and I try to hold myself to a high standard of carefulness and thought. If you are reading this, you do, too.  If you don't like NE NER NIS, then "people who think they know better," who I hope also qualify as reasonable people, can differ.

* Montagu (1905-1999), a  male anthropologist, wrote The Natural Superiority of Women, one of my mother's favorite books.  It was first published in 1953.  A fifth edition came out in 1999.
rev to fix HRts: 11-14-2012
 to fix italics and make minor changes: 11-20-12
other revisions:  7-5-13, 1-31-14

Monday, April 5, 2010

LANGUAGE 01: The Reticent/Reluctant Hesitation

In today's Chronicles of Higher Education, Gabriela Montela writes in the On Hiring column:
"In a recent post, Lesboprof chides herself for having been reticent about pursuing a leadership position in academe...."
Montela quotes a portion of the blog that does not contain the word RETICENT.  I checked the actual post, however, and it does mention "reticence."  Whoever's word it is, it is wrong.

Had the blogger been RETICENT, then she would have applied for the job but not told her friends about it. What she describes is being RELUCTANT to pursue (not RETICENT about pursuing) the position.  Indeed her reluctance turned to refusal: she never did apply.

RELUCTANT may not be precisely the right word, but RETICENT is absolutely wrong.

The Start of Several Series

I plan to post a number of pieces that share a general subject.   They will constitute series (serieses?) although I won't be writing regularly to any single series nor finishing one series before starting another.  I will write when the spirit -- usually irritation plus procrastination -- moves me.  Many will be  based on things I have written over the years for myself or in email to friends or as (rejected) letters to the editor.

In myunpublishedworks, one series has already begun.  It consists of thoughts from the Stanford Technology Law Review February 2010 Symposium on Patent Reform.  Another was not billed as a series but could become one:  Citizens United. (Next in that series: freedom to speak v. freedom to speak anonymously.)  Other series in preparation are:  myths in patent law, bluebooking, writing better judicial opinions, and why knowledge is always power even for potential accused infringers.

In myunpublishedworks2, one series has begun but without the series title, which will be "Very Short Essays."  The first entry was  Like "Merit Needs a Publicist," the posts in that series will be written in poetry form. 

Other subjects I already know I will pursue are:  language, transportation, economics, friendship, and human anatomy.

It seems unlikely I would write more than 9 times about any of these subjects, but just in case, I will use two digit numbers, starting with 01.  Each essay in the series will be titled "SUBJECT-##:  Specific Title."

Today I start with LANGUAGE-01: The Reticent/Reluctant Hesitation.

April 5, 2010 
last rev 4/6/10.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The True Story behind the Hirschhorn Museum's Contest to Create Art from a Single Sheet of Paper

In February 2008 a friend sent me a message with some wonderful images of paper-cutting sculptures.  Today, more than two years later, I received the same message, with the same jpgs.  Here's an example:

The message said:
> Entries for an sculpture art contest at the Hirshhorn
> Modern Art Gallery in DC.
> The artist could use only one sheet of paper.

Two years ago, as now, it seemed obvious that all these supposed contest entries were by the same person. That made me skeptical.  I looked at the Hirshhorn's website.  They had never had any such contest.  I checked Nothing. I forwarded the email to Snopes and meanwhile looked for more information.  A blog that perpetuated the Hirshhorn contest myth included the images, so I forwarded the link (and my skepticism) to my usual recipients, rather than fill their inboxes with attachments.The blog page has disappeared or I'd give you the link here.

My friend Nancy 3. Hoffman was also curious, and she was more persistent and clever than I.  She discovered that these are the works of a Danish artist, Peter CALLESEN.  His wonderful website,, has many, many brilliantly creative and beautiful examples of his paper cutting art.

Snopes has never covered the story.  I guess that the lack of proper attribution for an artist's work, and the incorrect reference to a nonexistent contest at a  fine art museum, do not rise to the level of internet urban legend for them. Hence this post.

Maybe some day the Hirshhorn will hold an exhibit of Callesen's works. It hasn't yet, but maybe it should, so that this highly-circulated message will have -- retroactively -- a grain of truth.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Health CARE, not Health Insurance

        I go to a non-profit HMO where everyone is on salary. Why then did my flu shot cost - in addition to the serum - a fee for the nurse to administer the shot?  And not a little fee.  $86.  What else was she supposed to be doing with her time?  I'm already being charged for an office visit.  I presume that charge is calculated to cover the salary and benefits of the medical personnel I see, plus the appropriate amount toward rent, electricity, other salaries, equipment and everything else that is part of the basic running of the clinic.
         And when my gynecologist (a nurse practitioner) spends no more than a few second noticing a vaginal polyp and then removing it, why does the statement show a charge for almost $700? Again, she was supposed to be seeing me during that time, I paid for the office visit, and she's on salary.  Plus there was a SEPARATE pathology/lab charge.  Is the excuse for the $700 charge malpractice insurance?  An extra $700?  As high as premiums are,  I doubt that is justifiable.
        But I do know what these extra fees pay for at least in part: all that infrastructure to create, track, and collect all those separate fees, and to pay the doctors and nurses when they spend time filling out all the paperwork instead of caring for patients, and to pay the people who identify all the separate things that might be charged for, and their supervisors who review those items, and then the economists who have to work out the appropriate prices for each separate item's pricing, and the bookkeepers and programmers who have to make sure the money is charged to someone and then collected. And the reams and reams of paper that this enormous effort requires.
        Since I have insurance, I don't pay any of that.  I only am charged a small co-pay for the office visit, but SOMEBODY is paying for it somewhere. In a sane health CARE system, I'd go to the clinic, get the flu shot or have the polyp removed, and would pay one standard office visit fee.  The employer of the doctors and nurses would pay them their salaries.  The end.
        True, many people currently employed in the health INSURANCE business, in the insurance companies, in the clinics, in the companies who employ the insured employees, would have to find other work.  I am sorry about that, but I think it is a price our society should be willing to pay. It would be a short-term detriment with an infinitely long benefit.

Maybe when we lucky insured folks get statements like I did from our providers, we should write to them and to whoever is paying the bill and question the charges?  In the short run, that would be terrible: even more people would need to be hired to address these insurance questions and insurance charges would go up even more.  But maybe in the long run, the employers would get wise, and demand a system that makes sense.

Drafted on 3/18/2010.  Minor revisions and actual publication 11/20/2012.
I am indebted to my friend Lisa Chu-Thielbar for the succinct formula "care not insurance."  

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Oscars and Oscar the Grouch: Footnote

When I wrote the title for my post yesterday, I had a suspicion that combining the Oscars and "Oscar the Grouch" was as original as combining motherhood and apple pie, but I went ahead anyway.  Now I have a moment and can look, at least on the internet.  For this year alone, there are at least two examples:  Chris Laverty on February 2 in and New York Daily News columnist Elizabeth Weitzman on February 26.  And if I looked beyond the first page of hits, or even (gasp) explored pre-web sources (the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, perhaps, in the library), I'd probably find dozens and dozens of instances dating back to the time when Oscar the Grouch came into existence forty-odd years ago, at which point the Oscar the Award was already about thirty-five.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Oscars Meet Oscar the Grouch - Part 2; Great news about Bigelow, but.

Yes, it's wonderful that Kathryn Bigelow is the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director.  But.  She worked with a male writer, an all male group of producers and a virtually all male cast. I haven't seen The Hurt Locker, I confess. Maybe the person listed seventh and last on the advertisement cast list, Evangeline Lilly, has a great part - even better than the first 6 put together - but I doubt it.  The roles of the only other female names on the expanded cast list on IMDB are Mortuary Affairs Officer, Nabil's Wife and Soldier (uncredited).  Those don't sound like opportunities for memorable performances, but I could be wrong.
        Women are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Are they totally unimportant and marginalized?   Does the army prohibit women from being in special forces units that deal with IEDs?  Nope: or anyway, not according to this February 2010 report about Christine Ferguson  Hein, a woman in an IED unit who received an award for bravery  Hein explains that the army has to include at least one woman in each unit because Muslim women can't be searched or talked to by men.  If women do serve in IED units, what made Mark Boal leave them out? Maybe it was the same thinking that affected the National Geographic in a possibly apocryphal story I once heard:  The magazine doctored a photograph of a group of kids who'd climbed to the top of a mountain in order to remove the girl.  The reason:  if they showed that a girl could do it, then boys wouldn't think it was a great achievement.
        So, yes it's nice that a woman finally won an Oscar for directing.  But the movie she directed is hardly a testament to the openness of the industry to female participation.

[last rev 9/12/11 - rjm]

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Up: Against: Why I ultimately was down on UP

Today, Pixar's UP is set to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.  I find this a downer. 

Don't get me wrong.  I enjoyed the movie "UP." (What a dumb title in the Google age, though, eh?)   It was sweet and funny and it generally kept my attention.  But about forty minutes into it, I realized something: It had NO major roles for female actors.  True, in the beginning, the most interesting character is the little girl Ellie.  But she gets killed off.  After that, it's a Boy's Club through and through.  Even the dogs are all boys.  There's not a bitch among them.  The bird, named Kevin, turns out to be female, but it's a non-speaking role in an animated film.  Sorry, ladies: no opportunities there.

A note about Young Ellie:  according to IMDB, she's played by someone named "Elie Docter."  I guess they saved money by not having any open casting call for females at all on this film?
I identify as old, not just female, however, so I was happy and grateful that director Peter Docter and Pixar's writers gave a role to an older actor.  Ed Asner is wonderful.  But let's be real:  statistically, the surviving spouse would have been the woman.  Why ignore statistics when you could write the part for, say, Estelle Parsons?  Maybe Asner needed the work, while Parsons had a gig on stage in August: Osage County, where she was brilliant, by the way. She certainly could have done a good job at crotchety and nay-saying.  Or Diane Rheem.  For once, her voice would have been exactly right.

But let's not stop with the creating and casting of Carl.  There were other important roles.  Was it necessary that the spunky and obnoxious kid be male?  If the studio was worried about hints of inappropriate sexual interest, surely an old man could be as much under suspicion with a boy as with a girl.  The scout could have been a girl scout.  They get badges as well.

I won't quarrel with the Explorer being a man, although there were some real female precedents for female daring around the supposed time of Carl and Ellie's youth:  Amelia Earhart, Beryl Markham.  But if the explorer was a man, why did the surviving spouse, the child explorer, the helpful dog and the dog leader, to a man, have to be men?  (And white, except for the kid, who, like Boo in Monsters, Inc., was drawn mildly Asian.)

Pixar does not, apparently, care about on-screen equal opportunity.  And while Peter Docter and his writers and producers must have had mothers -- and maybe some had sisters and a few may have female spouses or offspring -- they seem to inhabit a world where women are utterly neglectable.  And nobody at Disney, and not Steve Jobs, finds it odd.  Odd.

I loved Monsters, Inc., too, but in thinking about it afterward, I was struck by the fact that all the main monsters and monsters' assistants were male.  Women have a long history of scaring little children.  They certainly do it in old Disney movies and the Wizard of Oz.  Yet even Roz, the company receptionist with the ultimate power, was voiced by a male actor.  True, the little girl is a little girl.  And maybe that was the problem for UP.  Pixar already had done a large older male with a little girl, so they didn't want to do it again.  And a large older female with a little boy just never occurred to anyone.   

I know there's a theory in Hollywood that boys and men have no interest in stories with female protagonists.  Why that didn't bother our ancestors when they created fairy tales, I don't know.  I guess box office was not a problem around the campfire.  And I suppose that when Disney began to make blockbuster animated movies based on fairy tales, the truth of the anti-girls theory was not yet understood.  Think about Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White [and the Seven Dwarfs, OK: all male] and Beauty and the Beast (at last, second billing for a male lead): each has a female title character played by a female actor, and plenty of supporting roles, including villains, voiced by women.  Maybe only girls bought tickets for those movies?  Or maybe Docter and his friends at Pixar have a long-standing, deep-seated grudge from a childhood of being forced to care about all those interesting girls and to be frightened by all those evil women, and now they want to get even?

I have a challenge for the studio and Mr. Docter.  Write your next movie exactly the way you did Up and Monsters, Inc.:  with almost no females in sight.  But then require the storyboarders to draw all the characters, even the animals and robots, from real girls and women, and require the casting director to cast only female actors.  I promise you, you can find women's voices in every range, from squeaky coloratura to bass.  If you have to adapt the story a little, do it.  If you're really as creative and funny and brilliant as you think you are, the result will be the best movie you have ever made.  And female actors will at last find work at Pixar.   


PS  I first thought this and wrote about it to friends in the summer of 2009 right after seeing UP.  But I procrastinated in posting it on this blog.  I now see that other people wrote immediately. Here are some links. Please let me know if I should add more:
Linda Holmes, June 2009:
Packaging Girlhood,