A Premature Return to Normal and In-Person Conferences

Last week I attended my first in-person conference since January 2020 when I attended the AIA-SCS annual meeting in Washington DC.

It was a surreal experience.

On Wednesday afternoon after I finished teaching for the day, I hopped in the car and drove to Eau Claire, Wisconsin to attend a regional history conference where I would be chairing one panel and presenting on another. Both the venue and the conference acknowledged the ongoing pandemic with signs requesting or requiring masks (depending on where one was at a given time) and seats conspicuously distributed about six feet apart around the presentation spaces. Most people abided by the mask guidelines, as far as I could tell, but this only served to make me more frustrated with those who weren’t whether or not they had the pretense of food or drink nearby.

How much I like in-person conferences under normal circumstances depends a lot on my headspace. I get quite nervous about public speaking and go through frequent bouts of imposter syndrome, but I also find these events invigorating. For every time I have stood awkwardly at a reception, I have made two friends by putting aside my hangups and just gotten into a conversation. After all, the attendees are (generally) there to make new contacts. Likewise, I am now at a place in my career where I can pull aside graduate students after a talk to give them positive reinforcement and suggestions much as was given to me a decade ago.

I have loved the accessibility that accompanied the pivot online during the pandemic, but there is a tradeoff. I have attended more conference than usual, as well as workshops hosted out of Winnipeg, Rio de Janeiro, Oxford, Chicago, Oregon, and Athens (to name just a few), but I have not found the virtual experience nearly as conducive to networking, at least as someone who was not already connected to the host networks.

In this respect, I found myself glad to be back at a brick-and-mortar conference where there could be fortuitous encounters in line at the coffee shop or where I could grab dinner with conference attendees (on a patio).

By the same token, the decision to make this an in-person conference led to a significant amount of chaos. Many people—myself included—had applied to the conference with the understanding that it would be held virtually. When this turned out not to be the case, I was fortunately still able to attend, but many attendees required virtual accommodations. To their credit, the conference organizers did provide a Zoom option for these attendees, but we were still working out how this would work the day before the conference started. The format made it easier for people to present more easily than to watch papers online, but when it worked things went smoothly enough. However, this time crunch put the onus on panel chairs (rather than tech volunteers) to manage the Zoom feed, so when it went poorly things went haywire, whether because the organizer and panel chair couldn’t reach a presenter (who likely sent a pre-recorded talk that went unnoticed) or because a nervous presenter closed out a Zoom room and no-one noticed until it was too late to bring the attendees back.

The reality is that we are still in the middle of an ongoing public health crisis. I was willing take the risks of exposure because I am fully vaccinated (still <6 months since my second dose) and could afford to take many precautions in how I travelled. Still, if we are going back to meatspace in-person conferences, I think that they will have to include a hybrid or virtual option for the foreseeable future.

If anything, this experience reminded me that saying there will be a virtual option is one thing, but executing it is something else entirely. Suffice it to say that I am even more pleased that the AIA-SCS has been planning a virtual event for months already even though the conference is in January.

I enjoy the ritual of setting aside my daily routine for time spent engaging with colleagues. This time I just also spent this conference thinking about how this was all premature. Wishful thinking won’t make the pandemic go away. I understand the desire to win back some of what has been lost over the past year and a half, particularly if most attendees are already vaccinated, but it is too soon to return to the pre-pandemic status quo, if that should even be the goal.

Two Takes on Social Media

The algorithm that serves as Facebook’s beating heart is too powerful and too lucrative. And the platform is built upon a fundamental, possibly irreconcilable dichotomy: its purported mission to advance society by connecting people while also profiting off them. It is Facebook’s dilemma and its ugly truth.

I joined Facebook in 2004 in my Freshman year of college, deleted that account in 2012, and then rejoined the Facebook orbit with an Instagram account a few years later. (I dislike Facebook, but Instagram preserves the parts I liked without most of the noise and lies behind my growing interest in photography.) Along the way I picked up and discarded a variety of other social media accounts, most notably Twitter.

In short, my entire adult life has coincided with the era of social media.

2021 has been the year when social media finally made its way into my reading, starting with Fake Accounts earlier this year. Recently I added to this theme two more books published this year, Tahmima Anam’s The Startup Wife and Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia King’s An Ugly Truth.

I read the fiction first.

The Startup Wife is a send-up of start-up culture. Asha Ray is a brilliant coder working on a PhD on neural networks that seems to be going nowhere when she reconnect with Cyrus, the boy she had a crush on in high school. For his part, Cyrus is different. He spends his time wandering from reading and absorbing ideas, but also lives with a friend, Jules, who has a trust fund. Yet, people gravitate to Cyrus to create unique rituals. Asha likewise finds herself in Cyrus orbit, as well as his bed.

Soon, Asha drops her PhD to begin coding a new project: an algorithm that will harness Cyrus’ preternatural gift for ritual. With Cyrus’ mind, Jules’ money, and Asha’s code, the three found WAI (pronounced “why”), which stands for “We Are Infinite” and get inducted into a startup incubator, Utopia, that is preparing for the end of the world. As WAI begins to catch on, Asha faces the personal and professional challenges that come with managing a start-up—everything from how to monetize this platform without selling out to being forced to share her husband with everyone on the platform.

Tahmima Anam writes from the experience of her husband’s start-up company, lending believability to the steps taken to seeking capital, even when the specific details of the meetings are absurd. Likewise, this background infuses the story with the frustrations of a woman who has had the distinct displeasure of hearing how women get talked about in the startup world and of being overlooked in board meetings.

The post-IPO wife is the butt of many of our jokes. We’d been tetchy when that first lawyer brought it up (Your odds aren’t good!), but now that Cyrus knows more of these people, we realize Barry wasn’t singling us out, because divorce after great success is actually a trend. Not a dirty little secret but like a totally sanctioned and okay thing that men do once they hit the big time.

The personal side of The Startup Wife—Asha’s marriage and her frustrations with startup culture—provide both the comedy and the emotional resonance of the book. The WAI algorithm, by contrast, provides the depth. The premise of the site is simple:

We have devised a way of getting people to form connections with others on the basis of what gives their life meaning, instead of what they like or don’t like.

The founders of WAI are all generally well-intentioned, but what does it mean to do no evil? Obviously this precludes physical hard and predatory behavior, but does it extend to keeping the platform free? What about keeping profiles active after the owner dies? How much editorial control should Asha and the team exert over the community?

Ultimately, The Startup Wife is better at raising questions than answering them, but it nevertheless offers a romp through this world that is troubling and funny in equal parts. An Ugly Truth, by contrast, is just troubling.

Frenkel and King lay out thousands of hours of reporting in this new exposé of Facebook that tracks the last decade of its existence. The story opens with Facebook cresting a wave in 2012—ironically about the time I deleted my account. Sheryl Sandberg had joined the board and was successfully monetizing Facebook’s algorithm. Facebook still touted its utopian vision for society, but amid the obsession with growth lay the seeds of something darker—questions particularly about speech given that Facebook’s algorithm capitalized on engagement and amplified anything that received an emotional response.

Facebook technically barred hate speech, but the company’s definition of what constituted it was ever evolving. What it took action on differed within nations, in compliance with local laws. There were universal definitions for banned content on child pornography and on violent content. But hate speech was specific not just to countries but to cultures.

By the 2016 election, Facebook hit a crossroads. Zuckerberg and his inner circle resolved to be scrupulously impartial in order to counteract accusations that they were partisan when, in truth, growth and engagement were the guiding stars. Partisanship was good for business, but it also led to discontent in the ranks among some staff who saw the site as stoking divisions and others who were ostensibly hired for security but then sidelined. Around the same time, rumbling started in Congress about regulations.

Zuckerberg responded to criticism by reaffirming his faith in Facebook’s ability to regulate itself with algorithms and circling the wagons. Instagram and WhatsApp were integrated into Facebook to make them harder to spin off and Facebook proper doubled down on privacy and private groups. According to the people Frenkel and King interviewed, the latter was a particular problem not only because it led to the rampant growth of conspiracy theory groups, but also because Facebook’s transparency was the very feature that allowed the site to help root out child pornographers.

Research had shown that people who joined many groups were more likely to spend more time on Facebook, and Zuckerberg had hailed groups as the type of private, living room chat he thought his users wanted to see more of. But he was growing disturbed by the number of people joining groups dedicated to conspiracy theories or fringe political movements, rather than the hiking clubs and parenting communities he had envisioned.

Facebook has nearly three billion monthly users and enormous amounts of influence. In An Ugly Truth, Frenkel and King make an argument that Facebook’s naive optimism that the truth winning out over misinformation belies how social responsibility is incompatible with the mandates of growth and profit. In other words, An Ugly Truth is the answer to the questions raised in The Startup Wife.

ΔΔΔ

I recently finished reading Nicholas P. Money’s book The Rise of Yeast. I hoped to glean information about beer and bread, but Money was more interested in the structure of yeast and biofuel—perhaps because he is a biochemist, as well as Leviathan Wakes, the first of The Expanse books. As a fan of the TV series, I am stewing over why I didn’t react as negatively going from TV to book as I usually do going book to series. I am now reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

The Plot

“I just care about the story. Either it’s a good plot or it isn’t. And if it’s not a good plot, the best writing isn’t going to help. And if it is, the worst writing isn’t going to hurt it.”

You’re only as successful as the last book you published, and you’re only as good as the next book you’re writing. So shut up and write.

Jacob Finch Bonner is a novelist of some promise, at least that is what the New York Times said after his first novel. The second book did less well, which is how he wound up teaching at Ridley College’s low-residency MFA program. His students almost never show any potential except for one summer when Evan Parker shows up. Unbearably smug, Evan assures Jake that his is a plot unlike any other—so unusual that it is inevitable that it will be a success. Much to his chagrin, Jake agrees with this assessment.

Ridley goes to an even lower residency program, though, and Jake bounces around a few positions until several years later when another writer at another cut-rate writer’s retreat where he has a job reminds him of Evan and prompts Jake to see what ever became of that promising plot. As it happens, not only did the book never come out, but Evan is dead. A drug overdose in his hometown of Rutland, Vermont.

So Jake writes the book himself, just transposing the details to upstate New York.

Crib, the novel, is a smashing success. Multiple rounds of book-tours. Meetings with Steven Spielberg to produce the movie. A beautiful woman who schemes to get him to come to her radio station before striking up a relationship with him.

In short, life is grand—you know, other than his agent asking for the next book.

And yet, Jake also finds himself trying to solve another mystery while hiding the details from everyone in his life. At the height of his success, he begins to receive emails from a mystery sender with the screen name “Talented Tom” (as in the Talented Mr. (Tom) Ripley) threatening to reveal him as a fraud. This story, the sender says, does not belong to Bonner and in time he will be exposed as a thief.

Of course, from a legal perspective the blackmailer has no leg to stand on. The “author” of the original plot is dead, but, even if he wasn’t, Bonner wrote every word of the book. A plot twist along doesn’t belong to any one person, but the combination of increasingly hostile messages and Jake’s insecurities about being a failed writer prompt him to begin digging into the troubled family life of his former student, only to discover that the mystery and plot twist might have been more auto-biographical than Evan had initially divulged.

There is a lot to like about The Plot. For one thing, Korelitz casts a jaundiced eye at MFA programs and writers in comic ways. Jake might have had promise once, but he’s also an indifferent teacher and his own worst enemy in terms of writing his next book.

“I’ve learned so much about writers. You’re a strange kind of beast, aren’t you, with your petty feuds and your fifty shades of narcissism? You act like words don’t belong to everyone. You act like stories don’t have real people attached to them. It’s hurtful, Jake.”

Korelitz also puts out a sophisticated narrative structure that follows Jake through time while weaving in Jake’s investigation into the mystery of Evan Parker’s background and snippets from Crib. This is a thriller restrained by writerly craft, pushing you forward but withholding the plot.

However, this was also a book that gave me several major hangups.

First, the story within the story. When we are introduced to the plot that becomes Crib, we receive several pieces of information:

  1. it is filled with compellingly overwrought characters who wouldn’t have been out of place in Infinite Jest.
  2. the plot is compelling because of an unforgettable, impossible to predict plot twist.

The passages of Crib that Korelitz provides are much like the rest of The Plot: solidly crafted, but with relatively unremarkable characters and a more somber atmosphere. I could absolutely see Crib being picked up for a prestige drama (though probably not a movie), but the idea that this book could have become a must-read national sensation defied credulity for me.

Second, while I was impressed by the narrative structure of The Plot, I had effectively guessed the twist by about the midpoint of the novel. This didn’t stop me from enjoying the book, but, in a story meant to mirror a book that is popular because it had a twist unlike anything anyone had ever seen, it certainly made my experience closer to “shrug, okay” than “oh, wow!”

(I’m also not convinced that Jake is correct that this plot is so unique since the very allusion that is keeping him up at night is itself a variation on this very plot.)

The Plot is a good read. I’m willing to forgive setting the opening scenes at a fictional college in a part of Vermont that doesn’t have one (I suspect the model is the low-residency summer program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, but it is set in the Northeast Kingdom), and I liked the nods to and cracks at writers because this, ultimately, is a story about Jake’s numerous flaws that drag him down. I correctly identified the twist in this literary thriller, but there was no other way to adequately resolve this plot.

This praise just also falls short, not only of the supposed excellence of the parallel story Crib, but also of the satisfaction of a perfectly executed thriller.

ΔΔΔ

I have another post in the queue for the tomorrow that has my thoughts on The Startup Wife and An Ugly Truth. I am also planning to write about Omer el Akkad’s What Strange Paradise and have some thoughts about television adaptations involving The Expanse and Leviathan Wakes. I am now reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

A Master of Djinn

“Some kind of cult maybe? You know how Occidentals like playing dress-up and pretending they’re ancient mystics. Order of the this … Brotherhood of the that…”

Fatma glanced to the book, remembering its sensational content. It looked like utter nonsense. Most of these “Orientalists” thought their bad translations and wrongheaded takes might help them better understand the changes sweeping the world. It seemed reading from actual Eastern scholars was beneath them.

For many of the same reasons I don’t usually go for speculative fiction set in historical settings, and despite my unabashed love of The Dandelion Dynasty books, I don’t read much steampunk. The mashup of times and technologies just doesn’t quite grab my attention, at least until I read the premise for A Master of Djinn: a fast-paced mystery set in 1912 in a Cairo where the widespread return of djinn through the actions of the mystic al-Jahiz a generation earlier set in motion a chain of events that has led to a leap in magic and technology in the world and made Egypt a burgeoning superpower.

This inciting event in the near past allows Clark (the nom de plume of history professor Dexter Gabriel) to simply spin events forward a generation and creates a compelling backdrop for this story.

A Master of Djinn opens with the secret ceremony of the Hermetic Brotherwhood of al-Jahiz (likely modeled on the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn). Lord Worthington, a wealthy Englishman, founded this order in Egypt to uncover deeper truths about the world, though it mostly serves for westerners to engage in role-play. Only, this time, a masked and robed figure claiming to be al-Jahiz appears at the ceremony and immolates everyone there with an otherworldly fire.

Suddenly, al-Jahiz begins to appear everywhere in Cairo stirring the anger of the downtrodden against the establishment.

Against this imposter — he must be an imposter, right? — the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities assigns one of their best, Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi, who also happens to be one of the few women working in the agency. Immaculately dressed in her tailored European suits, Fatma begins to investigate, grudgingly accepting the help of a junior agent, Hadia, and less grudgingly relying on her lover Siti, an enigmatic woman who belongs to a cult that worships the old Egyptian gods rather than being a good muslim.

A Master of Djinn is in many ways a procedural where these three and an assorted cast of other agents and djinn must race to discover the identity of al-Jahiz, particularly once it turns out that the imposter can control djinn and appears bent on opening a portal that will allow him to bring immensely powerful and ancient Ifrit lords back into the world. The result is that the mystery eventually gives way to a race to stop the imposter, whoever he is.

There is a lot going on in A Master of Djinn. It is post-colonialist in the best way, centering the story on people who talk about the occidentals and their strange ways, including the anti-magic legislation in the United States. It is sex-positive, with a queer love story. It is anti-racist and class-conscious, frequently making nods to or tweaking historical attitudes and prejudices, many of which are still floating around today.

Archibald could quite believe it. Dalton was obsessed with mummies—part of proving his theory that Egypt’s ancient rulers were truly flaxen-haired relatives to Anglo-Saxons, who held sway over the darker hordes of their realm. Archibald was as much a racialist as the next man, but even he found such claims rubbish and tommyrot.

It is also immensely fun, with all of these themes layered into the richly-painted backdrop of this imagined Cairo. And, to cap it all off, A Master of Djinn was also funny, with exchanges like:

“But alone, we could live with our thoughts. Dwell on the purpose of our existence.” He looked up, daring to meet the baleful gaze of the hovering giant. “It is called philosophy.” The Ifrit King frowned. “Phil-o-so-phy?”

“…The more I thought, the more I began to understand myself. To know that I was created for more than just drowning my enemies in flames. I began reading many great works by mortals and other djinn. That is how I discovered, I am a pacifist.”

In fact, there was only one minor plot point that I found jarring, which was the appearance of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The premise—that he was in Cairo for a peace conference—was itself fine, just having him here surrounded by otherwise fictional characters struck me as an out-of-place caricature.

Setting that minor quibble aside, A Master of Djinn is an excellent book with a compelling and propulsive plot set in a richly imagined world. Whether I go back to Clark’s earlier novellas set in this world or just eagerly await the next novel, this is the sort of story I want more of.

ΔΔΔ

I expect to write about The Startup Wife and An Ugly Truth, perhaps in a double feature. I have also finished Jean Hanff Korelitz’ The Plot and Omar el-Akkad’s What Strange Paradise and am now reading Leviathan Wakes, the first book of The Expanse series. I tend not to watch film adaptations of books I like, but I am enjoying the opportunities of a book to develop both the internal stories of characters and to play with time and space in ways that are hard to show on television.

The Golem and the Jinni

I am way behind on book posts given the start of the new semester. I actually read this one almost a month ago and only just not had the energy to write about it. I expect these posts to be sporadic for the foreseeable future, but I hope to be able to write a few each weekend and delay publishing for a few days so that there are more regular updates.

“But love founded only on loneliness and desire will die out before long. A shared history, tradition, and values will link two people more thoroughly than any physical act.”

It was all too easy for her to be caught up in the rhythm of the bakery, the thumps of fists on dough and the ringing of the bell over the door. Too easy to match it, and let it run away with her.

I am usually skeptical of speculative fiction where the author too blatantly uses a historical setting because it pulls me out of the story. This may be one of the downsides to being a historian. Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across The Golem and the Jinni, a story set in a very particular historical milieu and discovered that it worked exceedingly well.

What Wecker does is to tell an immigrant story using folklore from two cultures that come into dialogue in interesting ways.

The Golem and the Jinni opens not with the Golem, but with her creator. On the eve of leaving Poland for the new world, Otto Rotfeld seeks the corrupt kabbalist Yehudah Schaalman to make for him a wife—a wife who is submissive, attentive, and curious. Yehudah makes for him a golem with instructions not to wake her until he has landed, but Otto falls ill on the passage and animates her in one of his final acts. The golem is thus awakened and conscious of the needs and wants of first an entire boat and then a city, New York, where she is taken in by a kindly rabbi who takes her in, names her Chava, and sets her up with a job in a bakery in the Jewish neighborhood.

At roughly the same time, a tin-smith in Little Syria awakens a jinni who has been imprisoned in a flask for over a thousand years. Trapped in human form, the jinni has little choice but to act as the smith’s apprentice even though he chafes at being forced to live within this society rather than being his own master in the desert, which leads him to seek experiences generally not open to the residents of Little Syria such as seducing the wealthy heiress Sophia Winston.

Ahmad senses a kindred spirit when he stumbles across Chava, albeit one made of earth rather than fire.

Much of the The Golem and the Jinni, comes in the form of these two double-outsiders learning to make their way in the melting pot of turn-of-the-century New York. They have the twin tasks of learning to live among humans even as the humans they are living amongst are learning to live in a new country. Neither requires sleep, so they are left to fill the hours that everyone else sleeps: Ahmad roams restlessly, Chava staves off boredom with minor tasks. And yet, the days are even harder for Chava given that she can sense the desires of everyone around her and her creator imbued her with instructions to obey these commands, but, eventually, curiosity will get the best of her.

However, the plot kicks into high gear with the arrival of Schaalman who gives into his own curiosity about his creation. As it happens, Ahmad is exactly what Schaalman has been searching for his entire life. It is up to Chava and Ahmad to defeat this person who has enormous power over both of them before he can bend them to his will.

Wecker recently published a second novel in this series, but I am lukewarm about reading it. I loved The Golem and the Jinni both as a conceit and in the execution of its plot. Chava and Ahmad were solid enough characters, but they worked because of how their alienness was able to reflect and harmonize with the immigrant communities of 1900s New York City.

The synopsis of the new book The Hidden Palace promises more of the same, but over a longer span and with a more sprawling cast that includes more of their own kind. At first blush, this is a reasonable premise, but I am concerned that widening the scope will lose some of the magic of the first book.

ΔΔΔ

My reading has continued apace. I have another post scheduled on A Master of Djinn and expect to write about The Startup Wife and An Ugly Truth, perhaps in a double feature. I have also finished Jean Hanff-Korelitz’ The Plot and Omar el-Akkad’s What Strange Paradise and am now reading Leviathan Wakes, the first book of The Expanse series. While I tend not to watch film adaptations of books I like, I am not finding going the other way nearly as objectionable.