On Daniel Handler’s “All the Dirty Parts”

On Daniel Handler’s “All the Dirty Parts”

Heartbreak smells the same in any language.

During my second year of graduate school, my advisor wanted me to do an organic synthesis using cyanide.  I’ve long since forgotten what we were trying to make.  All I remember is that I promptly said:

“Almonds.  The official scent of unrequited love.”

“Oh, you can smell it?” my advisor asked.  “That’s good.  Some people can’t.  You’ll be much less likely to die.”

41Bn22qtn6LI actually, I had no idea whether I could smell it.  Still don’t, since my advisor fired me before I got around to that synthesis.  I was just riffing on the opening to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (translated by Edith Grossman):

It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.

It doesn’t matter whether you call it heartbreak or desengano amoroso or any other name – it’s going to hurt.


Kids needs to learn about heartbreak.  They will feel sorrow.  Especially while they’re in high school, tugged by turbulent emotions but inept in so many ways … like conversation, like forbearance, like patience.

I know I was miserable during high school.  And, yes, the wellspring of my misery was my own incompetence.

Reading more would have helped.  Engaging fiction bolsters emotional maturity.  When we empathize with characters in books, we might skip some of their suffering – we can’t learn without making mistakes, but fictional characters can make mistakes for us.

And so we expect high schoolers to read stories of heartbreak, things like Ethan Frome, Romeo and Juliet, The Great Gatsby … novels in which intense emotions are described in school-appropriate language.

This is heartbreak.  Learn it well, young person.  You too will hurt.


proust_yuc7utMarcel Proust wrote a scene for In Search of Lost Time (translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff) in which his narrator tumbles in the park with his first love, grasping after a letter she is holding.

and we wrestled, locked together.  I tried to pull her toward me; she resisted; her cheeks, inflamed by the effort, were as red and round as two cherries; she laughed as though I was tickling her; I held her gripped between my legs like a young tree that I was trying to climb; and, in the middle of my gymnastics, when I was already out of breath from the muscular exercise and the heat of the game, I felt, as it were a few drops of sweat wrung from me by the effort, my pleasure express itself in a form I could not even pause for a moment to analyze; immediately I snatched the letter from her.  Whereupon Gilberte said, good-naturedly:

You know, if you like, we might go on wrestling for a little longer.”

At that moment, Marcel, the character, was no longer interested in wrestling.  He’d rubbed his pelvis against her body enough to climax in his pants.  Now he “wished only to sit quietly by her side.”  It would be a few hours, perhaps, before he desired her again.

He felt joy that afternoon.

But then, months later, that same joy stabs him.  Their relationship has ended.  Marcel fancies himself indifferent.  Then, one day, he sees her walking alongside someone else – suddenly he is in pain.  The memories of his own happy times with her swell unbidden:

The accident comes from the side to which one was not paying attention, from inside, the heart.  Giberte’s words: “If you like, we might go on wrestling,” horrified me.  I imagined her behaving like that, at home perhaps, in the linen closet, with the young man whom I had seen escorting her along the avenue des Champs-Elysees.

He loved that she loved him.  He hates that she might now love another the same way.

And that, kids, is what life is like.


But … how many high schoolers will sit down and read In Search of Lost Time?  I certainly didn’t.  Proust’s words would help, but they don’t reach young people.

I did, however, read certain paragraphs from John Fowles’s The Magus again and again at night.

all-the-dirty-partsAnd so Daniel Handler has written All the Dirty Parts.  When he was growing up and making his first forays into the “grown up” section of the library, Handler gravitated toward books with racy scenes.  Which is why his heartbreak novel is full of them.

Heartbreak hurts in the chaste language of Ethan Frome … but it hurts just as much in the ribald language of All the Dirty Parts.

You found it right away.

They always say guys can never find it, that it’s hard to find.  The clitoris is not hard to find.  I mean, it’s not like sometimes it’s behind her heel or in your desk drawer.  Go to where you think it is and root around and you will for sure know when you’re right.  And porn helps.  Find a shaved girl saying “lick my clit” and where he licks, that’s the clit.  It’s educational.

Or, on the same page:

I’m seventeen now, and no real girl has really told me to ejaculate on her face.  Maybe it’ll never happen, I told [my friend] Alec.  We’ve watched a couple blowjobs together, or not together but at the same time, me in my room and he in his, always slightly weird.

Pornography lied to us.

I’m writing my congressman.

OK but let’s watch another one first.

The protagonist of Holder’s All the Dirty Parts is a pornography-obsessed high schooler who proffers graphic descriptions of his conquests.  But he too has a heart.  And when he meets someone more callous than he is, he is doomed.

Officially together?

She repeats this in the tone of what’s-the-problem-officer.  I already thought it might not work, to ask her.


Do we need a permit?  Do I have to pay for the whole year up front?

I was just asking.

Can we just, play it as it goes along, by ear?

And, like a sock to the stomach, I get how every previous girl felt looking and asking that question, officially, at me.

They’re in high school.  Their relationship won’t last forever.  Which she knows.

So should he, since she is treating him the same way that he has treated everyone else.

And then, like Marcel, the protagonist of All the Dirty Parts will feel crushed remembering their embraces … knowing that now she is now sharing them with someone else.  Worse, by the time he loses her, he has behaved so badly that he has no one to talk to.  He sits alone in his room and ruminates:

I wasn’t just a fuck to them, any of them probably, is what I’m seeing.  For every girl I thought I was uncomplicated sex, it wasn’t.  Put it this way: if you can’t see the complication, you’re probably it.

And the book ends beautifully, with a pearl of wisdom, some words to live by delivered deus-ex-machina-style by an adult.

When you are older –

That’s the only part of the advice I hear.  But, Dad, I’m not.


I’m sorry, dude.  It does hurt.

And, yes, I’m sorry for all the high-schoolers out there, and the kids who aren’t in high school yet but are gonna be: it will hurt.  There might not be anyone you feel like you can talk to.

At least Daniel Handler wrote a book for you.

On college, chance, and Elif Batuman’s ‘The Idiot.’

On college, chance, and Elif Batuman’s ‘The Idiot.’

Our lives are often shaped by unplanned events.  We have big dreams – I wanna be a fire fighter when I grow up! – but then the unexpected happens and our whole course shifts – my counselor helped me get through a hard year, and now I want to do the same for others.

Undergraduates seem particularly susceptible to this sort of sudden swerve.  Perched on the cusp of adulthood, everything feel momentous… and many are in a position, for the first time in their lives, to make their resolutions stick.  In David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, an undergraduate inadvertently attends a review session for the certified public accountant exam and decides that this is the heroic career he was destined to pursue.

frank drawing
This dude is probably not prepared to make decisions that will reverberate for the rest of his life… and yet. Anyway, this is me, freshman year of college.

19537_27p1pIn Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, a slapdash decision changes a life:

You were only supposed to take four classes, but when I found out they didn’t charge extra for five, I signed up for beginning Russian.

This logic made me smile – at my university, too, students were supposed to enroll in three or four classes each quarter, but a fifth was free as long as you gathered a sheet full of signatures (as was a sixth, as long as you didn’t insist on receiving a grade or credits toward graduation).

Indeed, being a cheapskate steered the course of my own life, too.  Like the protagonist of Batuman’s The Idiot, I chose my class schedule with an eye for value, enrolling in as many classes as possible, always choosing the highest numbered course from each subject I was interested in (having mistakenly assumed that bigger # in catalog = more learning).  Worse, a woman I was attempting to woo liked studying with me, so during my sophomore year I signed up for all her classes in addition to my own; at the end of that year, I’d completed all the requirements for a chemistry degree.

Toward the end of college, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, so I figured why not do more school?  I applied for graduate school… in chemistry, because that was my undergraduate degree.  All despite never liking chemistry.  My plan, before I’d arrived on campus, was to study mathematics, economics, and philosophy.


But the woman I had a crush on sophomore year did briefly date me.

This dude? Still not prepared… and yet. This is me, first year of graduate school.

Back in the world of Batuman’s The Idiot, the protagonist soon develops a similar life-altering crush on a student in her haphazardly-selected Russian class:

On Thursday, I got to Russian conversation class early.  Only Ivan was there.  He was reading a novel with a foreign title and a familiar cover: the illustration showed two hands tossing a bowler hat in the air.

          “Is that The Unbearable Lightness of being?” I asked.

          He lowered the book.  “How did you know?”

          “It has the same cover in English.”

          “Oh.  I thought maybe you knew how to read Hungarian.”  He asked if I had liked the book in English.  I wondered whether to lie.

          “No,” I said.  “Maybe I should read it again.”

          “Uh-huh,” Ivan said.  “So that’s how it works for you?”

          “How what works?”

          “You read a book and don’t like it, and then you read it again?”

UNBEARAB.gifI can understand why someone – especially a female character – might not like Kundera’s book.  Yes, it depicts the way an out-of-control state can derail someone’s life… but so much of The Unbearable Lightness of Being depicts an entitled protagonist behaving rakishly toward women.  I happen to like this book, but only because Kundera, by revealing events out of sequence, includes a transcendentally beautiful description of where love comes from.

Midway through The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a sad passage included several seemingly unimportant details:

Three years after moving to Paris, [Sabina] received a letter from Prague.  It was from Tomas [her former paramour]’s son.  Somehow or other he had found out about her and got hold of her address, and now he was writing to her as his father’s “closest friend.”  He informed her of the deaths of Tomas and Tereza [Tomas’s wife, whom he’s treated shabbily through most of the book].  For the past few years they had been living in a village, where Tomas was employed as a driver on a collective farm [because, despite his successful medical career, the new regime would not let him practice].  From time to time they would drive over to the next town and spend the night in a cheap hotel.  The road there wound through some hills, and their pickup had crashed and hurtled down a steep incline.  Their bodies had been crushed to a pulp.  The police determined later that the brakes were in disastrous condition.

We live.  We die.  This passage would seem a tragedy – an ill-maintained vehicle was the death of them (from the final pages: [Tereza] recalled a recent talk with the chairman of the collective farm.  He had told her that Tomas’s pickup was in miserable condition.  He said it as a joke, not a complaint, but she could tell he was concerned.  “Tomas knows the insides of the body better than the insides of an engine,” he said with a laugh.  He then confessed that he had made several visits to the authorities to request permission for Tomas to resume his medical practice, if only locally.  He had learned that the police would never grant it.).

And yet – a stray line, which I thought unimportant when I read this passage, suddenly blossoms into romance in the book’s final chapter: From time to time they would drive over to the next town and spend the night in a cheap hotel.

Four pages from the end:

          “Seeing you in that dress makes me want to dance,” the young man [whose dislocated shoulder Tomas had just reset] said to Tereza.  And turning to Tomas, he asked, “Would you let me dance with her?”

          “Let’s all go and dance,” said Tereza.

          “Would you come along?” the young man asked Tomas.

          “Where do you plan to go?” asked Tomas.

          The young man named a nearby town where the hotel bar had a dance floor.

This moment – brought coincidentally about, because who could know that this young man would dislocate his shoulder?  That he would want to dance?  That he would know a nearby bar where they could dance and drink and spend the night? – is special.  Finally, after years of marriage, this is the beginning of Tomas and Teresa’s honesty with one another, their happiness and their love.  Which we, the readers, know because of that stray line earlier.  Kundera lets us watch the first night Tomas and Teresa go dancing together, after coyly embedding the knowledge that they would repeat this experience through the rest of their lives.

          “Haven’t you noticed I’ve been happy here, Tereza?” Tomas said.

          “Surgery was your mission,” she said.

          “Missions are stupid, Tereza.  I have no mission.  No one has.  And it’s a terrific relief to realize you’re free, free of all missions.”

So, yes, I liked The Unbearable Likeness of Being… but only for this moment, this sudden twist that Kundera enacts inside a reader’s brain.  Without this – considering only the plot, for instance, or the characters – the book wasn’t for me.

But I can understand why the protagonist of Batuman’s The Idiot considers lying.  The Unbearable Lightness of Being is very popular – especially at Harvard, where she was attending college.  During my sophomore year, someone published a list of most-purchased book titles at various collegiate bookstores.  The woman I was wooing felt extremely dejected after she saw this list.  She’d chosen to attend Northwestern instead of Harvard because the former had admitted her for a 7-year combined undergraduate & medical degree.  The list made her think she’d chosen wrong – that Harvard was the place for cultured human beings, and Northwestern appropriate only for over-earnest Midwestern strivers.

The most-sold book at Harvard’s bookstore?  The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  At Northwestern’s?  An organic chemistry textbook.

s-l225.jpgI have to admit – I contributed to this problem.  I bought a copy of that organic chemistry textbook.  I took the class my freshman year, when I foolishly bought texts for every class I was taking and stumbled back to my dorm crestfallen after forking over $450.  I was so appalled that I resolved to never buy another textbook… which I stayed true to until I bought a text for the grad-level microeconomics series my junior year.

When I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I’d borrowed it from the library.

In Batuman’s The Idiot, the protagonist one day decides to write an email to Ivan from Russian class.  This first email spawns a long correspondence: an electronic simulacrum of romance.

Batuman’s style resembles that of Tao Lin’s Taipei (which in turn resembles Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises).  We are drawn into a privileged world through the sheer accumulation of detail regarding the characters’ day-to-day lives.  In Lin’s and Hemingway’s novels, the characters take drugs and muck up their romantic lives – in Batuman’s, they skip class, teach the less fortunate, and muck up their romantic lives.

All brought on by what?  The sudden realization that a fifth class would be free.  When we look back, it becomes glaringly clear: such small decisions set our paths!

On Peggy Orenstein’s Girls and Sex.

peggyPeggy Orenstein claims in the acknowledgements of her new book that she is “difficult to be around.”  I don’t believe her.  Her tone throughout Girls & Sex is charming.  She covers topics that could make a reader squirm, but she so consistently sounds like your witty & understanding best friend that the whole book flows easily.

Maybe she was denigrating herself in the acknowledgements because she puts her best self into her writing (she did qualify that “difficult to be around” with “while I am engrossed in book writing”), but I suspect she’s just being humble.  She couldn’t have drawn such honest & trusting material from her interviewees if it was true.

cinderella ate my daughterAnd I’ll have to read Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter next.  Just the other day my own daughter picked out a dress to wear and announced she was a princess — it took a five-minute conversation to convince her that it might be more fun to roar around as a DINOSAUR PRINCESS! than to waif it up as the regular humanoid kind.

Throughout Girls & Sex, Orenstein discusses problems with the way young people, especially females, learn about & engage in sexuality.  She had many conversations with young women about what they were doing, and why.  What she was most surprised by is how badly these women wanted to talk with an adult.

Instead of adult conversation, these young women usually relied upon the internet.

Orenstein is not against the idea of pornography.  Explicit depictions of human sexuality could be a positive influence on people’s lives.  But the young people she spoke with have found adult conversations about sexuality to be very inaccessible, and pop pornography, with its narrow focus on female performance over pleasure, to be all too readily available.

unnamedPornographic actors don’t behave the way they do because it’s most fun.  Their goal is to create a product that holds visual appeal for consumers.  Pornographic actor and animal activist Zara Whites described this in an interview: “With women — who I really love to make love with — in the movies I don’t enjoy it as much because when you’re giving head you have to keep your head at an angle so the camera can see what you’re doing”  (quotation from the bio at zarawhites dot com, unlinked because of unpleasant & decidedly NSFW images at the top of the page — somewhat exemplary of the problems with pop pornography). The actors purposefully put themselves into uncomfortable positions for the benefit of the camera.

This leads to physical contortion.  Sex that proceeds wordlessly.  Acts that matter more than people.  Mechanical pistoning of parts between semi-anonymous bodies shaven & stylized to evoke children (super-upsetting, this last aspect.  In a world rife with child abuse, entertainment designed to normalize the sexualization of children is not okay).

If the only venue for young people to “educate” themselves about sex is pop pornography, they’ll wind up with a very distorted outlook.

Meat Loaf.  Not that I hold him to blame.

Unfortunately, most teens in the United States don’t have other opportunities to learn.  My school taught “sex ed” yearly, starting when I was in fifth grade.  I was taught that “the underwear zone” is dangerous unless you’re married.  In eighth grade sex ed, our gym teacher (later fired for making lewd remarks to & leering at his female students) had us watch & write an essay about Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights” music video.  I think my essay said sex was dangerous because you might have to marry someone you don’t like.

Not until my junior year of college was I given advice that wasn’t garbage.  A friend lent me Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart, and, oddly enough, this book taught me most of what I’d need to know.

The protagonist describes an incident from his college days when a woman he met on the train invited him to share her hotel room:

haruki murakamiI was nervous the first time we made love, which made things awkward.  I apologized to her.

“Aren’t we polite!” she said.  “No need to apologize for every little thing.”

After her shower she throw on a bathrobe, grabbed two cold beers from the fridge, and handed one to me.

“Are you a good driver?” she asked.

“I just got my license, so I wouldn’t say so.  Just average.”

She smiled.  “Same with me.  I think I’m pretty good, but my friends don’t agree.  Which makes me average, too, I suppose.  You must know a few people who think they’re great drivers, right?”

“Yeah, I guess I do.”

“And there must be some who aren’t very good.”

I nodded.  She took a quiet sip of beer and gave it some thought.

. . .

“OK, consider this.  Say you’re going to go on a long trip with someone by car.  And the two of you will take turns driving.  Which type of person would you choose?  One who’s a good driver but inattentive, or an attentive person who’s not such a good driver?”

“Probably the second one,” I said.

“Me too,” she replied.  “What we have here is very similar.  Good or bad, nimble or clumsy — those aren’t important.  What’s important is being attentive.  Staying calm, being alert to things around you.”

“Alert?” I asked.

She just smiled and didn’t say anything.

A while later we made love a second time, and this time it was a smooth, congenial ride.  Being alert — I think I was starting to get it.  For the first time I saw how a woman reacts in the throes of passion.

. . .

I was still young, certain that this kind of thrilling event happened all the time.  Later in life I realized how wrong I was.

As it happens, Orenstein sat in on a sexual education class in northern California where the students were given this same advice.  The instructor, Charis Denison, told them,

“There’s this useful thing around consent: Any good lover is a good listener.  And a bad listener is at best a bad lover and at worst a rapist.”

Blunt.  But true.  In Orenstein’s words,

There was no denying it: [Denison] was explaining how to have sex.  It was the worst nightmare of conservative policy makers realized.  Yet this is exactly the kind of discussion that, if Holland is any indication, is needed to combat pop porn culture, reduce regret, and improve teens’ satisfaction when they do choose to have sex (whenever that may be).

Giving young people access to real sexual education is an important step towards a better world.  But institutional policies won’t change everything.  As a parent, I thought that Orenstein’s analysis of the statistical differences between first sexual experience in the United States and Holland was the most valuable section of the book (seriously — if you’re a parent, pick up a copy and read her seventh chapter right away, “What If We Told Them the Truth”).

The most important thing I learned from Girls & Sex is: talk to your kids.  About everything.  Discuss what you want, explain why your household has the rules it does, and be willing to change your mind.  In Orenstein’s words:

It’s not just about sex, though — according to [sociologist Amy] Schalet, there’s a fundamental difference in [the U.S. versus Holland’s] conceptions of how teenagers become adults.  American parents consider adolescents to be innately rebellious, in thrall to their “raging hormones”.  We respond by cracking down on them, setting stringent limits, forbidding or restricting any behavior that might lead to sex or substance use.  We end up with a self-fulfilling prophecy: teens assert independence by breaking rules, rupturing their relationships with parents, separating from the family.  Sex, which typically involves sneaking around or straight-up lying, becomes a vehicle through which to do that.

Dutch teens, on the other hand, remain closely connected to parents, growing up in an atmosphere of gezelligheid, a word most Americans can’t even pronounce, but which Schalet translates loosely as “cozy togetherness.”  Parents and teens are expected to discuss the children’s psychological and emotional development, including their burgeoning sexual drives.

As individuals, we can’t fix everything.  Assault on campus?  It won’t vanish.  There are calculating serial offenders.  But even their actions are enabled by the inebriated hookup culture we’ve fueled with sex ed classes that teach people to be ashamed of desire.

We can make things better, though.  Especially as parents.  The way forward is clear.

We have to talk.  More importantly, we have to listen.

On paying teachers for value added.

On paying teachers for value added.

I loved standardized test days when I was in school.  Instead of sitting in class being lectured at until the teacher noticed I was doodling again and booted me to the office, we’d all sit in the cafeteria, spend maybe ten minutes filling in bubbles, then get to doodle in peace.

The tests themselves were dull, but my friends and I enlivened them with our “points per minute” game.  By jotting down the time we finished every section, we could compare ppm scores for bragging rights even when everyone flat-lined at the same perfect score.  And all those freshly sharpened #2 pencils balanced out the funky smell of the cafeteria carpet.

testBut I understand that, for students less recalcitrant than I was, the ones who might actually learn something during regular instructional days, standardized tests waste time.  And the current barrage of tests don’t even fulfill their purported goal.

You want to pay good teachers more for doing their jobs well?  Great idea!  Most schools currently use a payscale that only rewards teachers for the total number of years they’ve been in the business.  This is a cause of several problems, like older teachers having trouble finding new jobs because their salaries would be too high, and talented young people not wanting to go into education because their starting salaries would be so low.

BW teacher pay blog post_graph 1.JPG
This graph is from Brandon Wright’s excellent post about teacher pay.

Unfortunately, many otherwise reasonable people latched onto the mistaken idea that you could measure each teacher’s “value added” with a whole boatload of standardized tests.  This makes school worse for basically every kid who isn’t like me, since they’re stuck taking too many pointless tests instead of learning.  And, worse, the metric doesn’t even work.

I’m not sure everyone involved in this discussion even understands what “value added” means.  Here’s a quick definition: let’s say you have a product that’s worth 100 dollars.  Then you change it in some way.  If the product is now worth 110 dollars, you’ve added 10 dollars of value to it.

Simple enough, right?  If you’ve ever watched one of those cheesy TV shows about flipping houses, you’re probably an expert.

2972440288_bb9e17b32b_zThe example I like to start with is shipping.  Apples at an apple orchard might be worth two dollars a pound.  Anybody who wants an apple has to go to all the trouble of driving there.  But if someone loads them into a truck and brings them to a grocery store near people’s houses, the apples might be worth three dollars a pound.  Transporting apples from where they grow to where people eat adds value.

Another example is assembly.  Most companies that sell computers don’t manufacture their own components — maybe you’ve been stuck at a coffee shop with some hipster dude explaining that your Macintosh computer is full of Chinese parts that Apple raises the prices of.  But that’s a valid business model.  They buy pieces and put them together into a functional device.  Of course they charge more for the resulting computer than the aggregate cost of the components.  They’ve added value by assembling it, making it so that even relatively clueless people can buy a computer and know that it’ll work.

So, teaching?  A teacher has a set of students, and the hope is that these students change during the year.  They might gain factual knowledge, or critical thinking skills, or the ability to work with others, or the ability to sit quietly in uncomfortable chairs and follow directions like mindless drones.

That list is a good segue into the first problem with the way people talk about “value added” for teacher pay — the idea doesn’t mean much until you specify what, exactly, you value.  What’s the purpose of public education?  By attempting to measure “value added” with a standardized test, you’re asserting that we send kids to school to improve performance on standardized tests.

Given how infrequently most adults take standardized tests in their day-to-day lives, I imagine this isn’t what most people think the purpose of school should be.

6956509317_770512683b_zIf we don’t care about how well kids learn to fill in bubbles nice and dark with a #2 pencil, then what should we value?  Well, we might care about workforce productivity, in which case your “value added” metric should track students’ eventual salaries or lifetime earnings.  Maybe we want to make people into better citizens, in which case we should measure how often people volunteer, or how often they vote, or what percent of students stay out of jail.  Maybe we care about something as ethereal and hippy-dippy as happiness, in which case we could use surveys to assess well-being, or look at how many former students are married, or track how many commit suicide.

Or course, most of the metrics I’ve suggested can’t be measured immediately.  With a bubble test, you zip ‘em through the scantron and five minutes later know how well everybody did.  With happiness, or eventual salary, teachers would have to wait several years to know the whole amount of any “value added” bonus to their salary.  To my mind, that’s fine — I think more industries should use long-term performance rather than short-term gains to assess bonuses — but maybe that seems weird to you.

Those long-term metrics should also hint at the fact that “value added” calculations would be incredibly complex.  If you’re looking at somebody’s eventual salary, how do you know whether it was great work on the part of their third grade teacher, or their fifth, or their seventh, or their twelfth that gave them the skills they’d need?

It’s not an impossible math problem.  Just tricky.  This kind of multivariate regression isn’t feasible except when churned through by computers.

But I think it’s good that the math is so clearly difficult.  Because the idea that you could assess “value added” with a standardized test given to students at the beginning and the end of the school year is bizarre.  Among other problems, the “test at the beginning, test at the end, calculate the gains” idea ignores differences between students.

the-weeping-womanA student with learning disabilities will probably gain less than average each year, independent of teacher quality.  A gifted student will probably gain more than average, again independent of teacher quality.  The teachers do matter, of course.  If you gave both Pablo Picasso and me some crayons and a piece of construction paper, his drawing would probably be better than mine.  But he’d add less value to that piece of construction paper than he would’ve been able to add to a canvas, if you instead gave him a canvas and some oil paints.

A meaningful “value added” metric for teaching would ask, “How much did this student gain, compared to what he or she would’ve gained if taught by an average teacher instead of this particular teacher?”

Again, I want to stress that this is a very complicated math problem.  But not impossible, as long as you have a population of many teachers and many students to obtain data from.  You’d need to find some criteria to match students to one another.  That way you can say, “This type of student usually gains this much during third grade when given an average-quality teacher.”

231011361_4a4a257a60One difficulty in sorting people this way is determining what matters.  What attributes define a student’s type?  Do you include parental income as a variable? A near-meaningless childhood IQ test?  Do you sequence every student’s genome and include genetic factors (Good Lord I hope not — even including ethnicity seems politically suspect — but that’s the sort of thing you’d want to consider)?

Your data would also be best if each teacher had a range of student types.  This is very different from how most classes are currently organized.  When I was in school, all the special education students were tracked together and had one set of teachers, all the “gifted & talented” students were tracked together and had a different set of teachers.

Tracking would make an accurate calculation of “value added” more difficult.  Still not impossible, but less statistically robust.

Maybe that’s fine — it’s reasonable to assume that there are some teachers who’re good at working with gifted students, and can help them gain a lot, who might flounder if they worked with special education students.  I think the reverse is less likely to be true — because special education is harder, I bet most teachers who are good with special education students could do well by other students, too.

With a real “value added” measurement, I think you’d see that.  But if the powers that be cling to the mistaken notion that you can assess “value added” by measuring a difference in test scores between the beginning and end of the year, without considering that each student is unique, you’re instead going to conclude that all special education teachers are terrible.  Their students gain less!

You’ll guarantee that those teachers doing the hardest work are rewarded least.


As it happens, this exact same misconception about “value added” is making medicine worse, too.  If you’ve had your full dose of feeling dismal about what we’re doing to education, you should take a few minutes and read Saurabh Jha’s lovely post about this problem in medicine, “When a bad surgeon is the one you want.”

On proving that elections will make you miserable.

On proving that elections will make you miserable.

sphereIn economics,  proofs often begin with the words If we consider a ball of radius R centered at the point X in R n I wrote those words so many times.  Reading them now, they sound quite strange to me.

A math course called “real analysis” was a prerequisite for economics.  Presumably real analysis would’ve taught me to write proofs, perhaps well enough that I’d understand why I wrote the words I did.  But my university had recently implemented an online registration system, and its glitchiness meant I could skip pre-reqs, and that I was able to enroll in both economics and inorganic chemistry during the 10 am to 11:30 time slot.  I attended economics except when there was a chemistry exam.  And still don’t know for certain what “real analysis” entails.

As it happens, my wavelength was too small to actually be in both places at once … but Oncourse didn’t know that.

But I know that the word “ball,” in the world of mathematics, is a generic term for round things.  You have two dots in one dimension, a circle in two, a sphere in three, then a “ball” in four or more.

The number of dimensions is what the “n” stands for in “R n.”  In the world of economics proofs, you might have any number.  Of course, in our day to day lives, most of us are familiar with only two or three (yes, yes, physicists claim that we should understand four, because we move along three spatial axes and time.  But I can move forward and back, left and right, up and down.  I’ll continue to think of my world as three-dimensional until I learn to move with equal faculty into the future and the past).  But economists need more because they like to give each variable its own dimension.  Instead of “up and down,” a dimension in an economics proof might be the weather, the number of factories, the number of workers in a population.

Sliding along an axis can seem incredibly grim if you momentarily forget that a proof is supposed to be abstract.  It’s just an imaginary line projecting endlessly through space, but what does it mean?

A homeless man down and out in New York City. (Photo by lujoma ny)

For workers, sliding back toward zero means lives destroyed, people unemployed, hustling to pay rent, to keep the lights on, to feed their kids.  Or worse.  Alongside Primo Levi in the Buna concentration camp, the number of workers could be varied at will.  There seemed to be endless numbers of condemned to add, and each decrease meant another murdered man.

Luckily, in class we worked quickly enough that there was no time to think of that.  The professor would scrawl his solution upon the board, I’d copy it into my notes, struggling to keep up.

Or perhaps I lost you earlier.  Maybe you hadn’t realized that there even were proofs in economics.  I hadn’t, before I enrolled.  I expected only to draw crisscrossing lines, mark where they intersected, claim that should be your greeble’s price.  A “greeble” being, for some reason or other, the default name for an imaginary product for which the supply and demand can be used to determine a price.

I learned about these mythical “greebles” in high school, in an economics class that moved many-fold more slowly than the university class.  In high school there was more time to sit and wonder what a greeble was.  I drew pictures in my spiral notebook.  Most of these pictures made the greeble look like either a strange pet or a military weapon.  There were many vicious-looking weapons drawn in my high school notebooks.  I hated being there.  I wrote stories about blowing up the school.  Not that I was a violent kid.  I was already vegetarian because I hated hurting things.  But I certainly drew a lot of death and destruction.  Then, of course, the Columbine shootings happened and I had to stop drawing those pictures.  Writing those stories.  Murderous ideation was no longer safe.  Even once I’d stopped, they started sending me to the principle’s office about once a month.  That did not make me like school more.

fc old notebook cover009.jpg
One of my notebook covers from high school.  Maybe you get the idea.

From then on, at my school, even suicidal ideation was something you had to keep to yourself.  Luckily, I was a pretty happy kid.  I rarely thought about that sort of thing more than once a day.  Still don’t.

But, yes, in economics there are proofs.  One famous proof we reproduced was “Arrow’s impossibility theorem,” which states mathematically that if a population is trying to vote, they’re doomed.  There is no fair voting system that picks the most-preferred candidate out of a set of three or more.  Your options are a dictatorship or else electing some schmuck whom nobody really wants.


Maybe that sounds like an argument in favor of a two-party system.  But it isn’t, not really.  If you’re worried that from a set of options the best one won’t be picked, the best solution isn’t to offer only two of the crummier options from that set.  People still won’t get what they want.  All you’ve accomplished is to blast even their illusion of a fair choice.  In a two-party system people are still doomed, but they’re so clearly doomed that you don’t even need Kenneth Arrow’s fancy proof for them to know it.

As it happens, it’s election season again.  It so often is, because “election season” seems to run approximately two years out of each four-year presidential term, and sometimes a year or more for even two-year congressional terms, and huge numbers of people devote eighty, ninety, hundred hour work weeks toward their efforts to get this dude or that dude or (finally!) this lady elected.

Jason Pruett's small cartoons of each of the U.S. presidents.
Art by Jason Pruett.

Whenever I feel bad about how long I’ve spent working on a project, I remember the number of person hours that are guaranteed to be wasted each election cycle.  Because huge numbers of people work full-time to get their preferred candidate elected, and all but one won’t win.  Maybe they console themselves by thinking at least by running, we helped change the tenor of the national debate!  But, let’s be real.  Even when fewer than a third of the populace votes for a dude, he’ll refer only to the (bizarre!) electoral college numbers and claim to have received a clear mandate for action.

Nobody cares about the platform the losers were running on.  And most everybody is guaranteed to be a loser.  Even (especially?) the voters.


My personal political inclinations include taxation to assess the fair price of business externalities, free trade, open borders, lax enforcement against possession of tools for self-harm (drugs), strict enforcement against possession of tools for other-harm (guns, automobiles), progressive income taxes such that people pay (or are reimbursed) relative to what they’d likely lose or gain if we had anarchy instead of our current government.

If I were trying to be cheeky, I’d draw a parallel between my ideas about progressive income tax and the conceptual framework behind electric potential, the idea that the energy at each point is equal to the work that would’ve been done to drag a test charge there from infinitely far away.  Instead of a field-less void somewhere far off in the distance, I imagine people being launched into their current wealth or poverty from an undifferentiated state of Hobbesian anarchy.

Donald_Trump_September_3_2015_(cropped)But maybe the physics metaphor would seem too twee.  So (a la Trump, I’m not going to say they’re weak.  But they’re weak), I won’t subject you to it.

I’m pro-genetically modified foods, anti-pesticide.  Pro-vaccination, pro-childhood nutrition, against our current quantity of medical spending.  Most doctors think there needs to be a conversation about how much the government should pay for each quality-of-life-adjusted year.  I think even that is not enough.  We need a concurrent conversation about how long humans should live.  About what we as a people consider to be the meaning of life and the best way for our spending to reflect that.  Because any threshold for how much we’ll spend on each quality-of-life-adjusted year will result in untenable costs if medical advances keep allowing people to live longer.

19820235745_9ef17f2551_zAll of which means that, yup, as ever, no politician will (or should, honestly) care about what I stand for.  I’ll vote for the old hippie commie guy in the primary (if I get to vote.  I probably won’t get to, though.  My state’s primary is scheduled relatively late), and then throw away my vote in the general election (what with our electoral college, most people’s votes are submerged at that stage.  I think there’ll be something like eight states where the vote will be close enough that all people waiting in line for their turn in the booth can delude themselves into thinking that their votes matter).

Which, again, does sound awful.  Like, isn’t there a better way?

Well, yes.  There is a better way.  There are many better ways than the strange system our country has contrived.  But at least I had the experience of jotting out the full proof to know that there is no perfect way.

(Somehow I’d deluded myself into thinking that typing this essay would make me happy.  I see now that I was wrong.)

On the question of whom to blame for the paucity of women in science.

On the question of whom to blame for the paucity of women in science.

978-080704657-9I was super excited to read Eileen Pollack’s The Only Woman in the Room.  There are a lot of problems with academic science, and these have been getting better much more haltingly than one might expect.  And the problem isn’t just individuals with retrograde attitudes — although that’s clearly an issue — but also structural and cultural arrangements that bias against neurotypical females.

I’d hoped that the bulk of Pollack’s book would be devoted to documenting these problems and offering suggestions for corrective measures.  If we as a society value science enough that we want for the best and brightest of all genders, upbringings, personality types, etc., to participate in the field’s advancement, I think there’s a dire need for investigative journalism that’d produce that sort of book.

Pollack’s book is primarily a memoir, however.  This is useful, too.  There’s a reason why medical journals still publish narrative-driven case studies in addition to the charts detailing aggregate patient response and recovery rates.  Details can be presented in stories that might be overlooked or ignored when many people’s experiences are moshed together to make a statistic.  After all, if we want the statistics to change, it’s women’s experience, actual lived experience, that we need to fix.

si-sexisminscienceBut I felt displeased while reading Pollack’s book.  My major complaint is that most of the book castigates scientists for the paucity of women in STEM fields… but the narrative suggests clearly that, in this case, the biggest problem is the behavior of non-scientists.

I’ll get back to that point in a moment, but first I should make clear that I’m not writing from the standpoint of an apologist who thinks the current state of things is fine.

Where I studied, first-year Ph.D. students had weekly tea with the founder of the department.  These were advising / advice sessions.  Students could talk about their interests, ask questions about the history of the field, get input on their courses, their research, their search for an advisor whose interests and outlook matched their own.  All told, a valuable experience for budding scientists.  But the advisor, an elderly male, invariably asked a female student to serve tea to everyone else in the room.  Even if he believed that the advice he dispensed next was gender neutral, that initial request (reasonable enough at the first meeting, because someone has to pour tea, and even at the second, but disheartening by the nth time the same young woman is asked to serve her classmates) discolored everything he said next.

Or there were the monthly lunchtime research talks.  A modestly-dressed fourth-year student gave a presentation on her research, fecal analysis of mothers and infants to learn when and with what species a newborn human’s intestinal track is colonized, and after the talk a female faculty member said to her, “That was a nice talk, but your breasts were very distracting.”

Individuals with that sort of retrograde attitude make science worse.  And it’s not just elderly professors who’re like that.  The individual from the tea incident, for instance, has since been retired by the reaper (the prevailing mood in the department was very somber after he passed.  For most, but not all.  When we rode in the elevator together, a UPS deliveryman told me, “You know, I’d feel bad too, except the old guy yelled at me just last week.”).  But it’s not as though there’ve been no young misogynists to replace the retiring ones.


And there are structural problems.  There’s a particular way that advisors expect scientists to talk about their research — brash, confident, competitive, as though it is magnitudes more important than anything else — that seems to come easier to the average male than the average female.  People who don’t have that sort of competitive attitude, whether male or female, can be marginalized… but for a host of both biological and cultural reasons, men in this country are more likely to have that sort of attitude than women.

Maybe this would be fine if brash, stereotypically masculine behavior resulted in better science.  It doesn’t.  Good science is intensely collaborative.  Competitive attitudes, like the race aspect of modern academic science to publish findings first before someone else “scoops” your work, diminish the quality and quantity of data that everyone has to work with.  And contributes to the irreproducibility of modern science, because researchers are pressured to specialize in niche techniques that are used on a particular problem in only one laboratory.

Of course, individual scientists don’t have the freedom to rebel from this system … if only because granting agencies are set up to fund only researchers who conform.  If one researcher decided to behave more collaboratively, the lab would probably run out of money and die.

Academic science could be changed in ways that would make it more inviting to women and would result in better science.  And those are changes that I think scientists will need to make.

Whereas Pollack’s book, despite castigating scientists, felt quite short on recommendations for changes that scientists should make to their behavior.  (I.e., changes to the behavior of a scientist who isn’t explicitly prejudiced against women, but has simply absorbed the cultural norms of modern academia.)

The most important corrective that Pollack offers is that scientists should be more emotive in complimenting students on work they’ve done well.  This is probably true.  In K.’s science class, for instance, she makes a conscious effort to praise students for their successes.  Praise them with words, not just a high score marked at the top of an exam.

Reading Pollack’s narrative, for instance, we learn that after a successful physics internship, the professor said only, “We’d like to have you back next year.”  After a successful research project in mathematics, her advisor didn’t praise her — a stark contrast to the lavish praise articulated by her writing professor.


But I think it’s worth considering a possible reason why Pollack’s physics professors may have been less effusive than her humanities professors.  While working in physics, the primary language is mathematics.  Quite a bit of physics doesn’t make much sense when expressed in a metaphorical language like English — the language most of us use to express our feelings, or to praise people, is simply maladapted to conveying a clear understanding of the universe.  So the practice of physics enriches for people much more adept with numbers than words.

Whereas humanities professors work with words full-time.  They really ought to be able to praise people with words more effectively than scientists can.

But the problem isn’t just that evaluating their competence for verbal praise is like judging both a carpenter and a welder on their skill with a blowtorch — is it fair to blame someone for relative inexperience compared to a full-time user? — it’s that many scientists have narrative experiences of their own that train them not to be effusive.

In part because the language of science is mathematics, science enriches for people who’re vaguely on the autism spectrum (I’d much rather use the term “Asperger’s” here, but that’s a topic for another post).  And many of those people experienced bewildering derision in response to their attempts to compliment people while growing up.  There are numerous examples of this in Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes, and I certainly have stories of my own.  I learned that it was safe to state facts (akin to the physics professor’s “We’d like to have you back next year”) but that emotional content often led to mockery.

2981Indeed, much of Pollack’s book is devoted to frustration that so few people wanted to date or have sex with her.  The book is sprinkled with lines like, “The only reason I could see that I wasn’t datable was that I was majoring in a subject they saw as threatening,” or a description of a woman who “hated when her sister introduced her as an astrophysics major, because the boys would turn away.

A big reason why women and minorities need to be praised to keep them excited about STEM fields is that stigma from the outside world.  But that’s not scientists’ fault!  I felt sad, reading the book, because so much of it seemed to blame scientists and praise humanities people, yet those same humanities people create the problems that weigh most heavily on Pollack’s mind.  Yes, it’s crummy that most boys at parties considered her not date-able.  But those boys were by and large humanities majors.  Because non-scientists were mean to her, Pollack needed for scientists to give her more praise.

Sure, it’s a big problem that scientists didn’t work hard enough to retain her in the field.  But it’s a bigger problem that non-scientists were so mean that, by the time she arrived at college, those science professors needed to work to retain the two (!) female students who enrolled in the introductory physics lecture instead of trusting that a reasonable fraction of 60 female enrollees (her lecture had 120 students) would stay in the field.

I was sad that this wasn’t stated explicitly until page 254 of a 257-page book, and even then in only two sentences in the middle of a paragraph:

It’s the larger society that needs to change.  No American of either gender will want to become a scientist if studying science or math makes a middle schooler so nerdy he or she becomes undatable, or if science and math are taught in a way as to seem boring or irrelevant.

On Jon Krakauer’s Missoula

MISSOULA-3DI am obviously thrilled that Jon Krakauer’s Missoula has been getting so much press.  There are still a wide variety of pernicious misperceptions out there, and Krakauer does an excellent job of addressing them in a very accessible format.  I hope lots of people read his book, and, like Nicholas Kristof, encourage their friends and family to read it too.

Until I read Kristof’s editorial, I intended to write an essay highlighting some of David Lisak’s research; one of the most compelling segments of Missoula is where Krakauer describes these findings and the Montana defense attorneys’ attempts to discredit them ad hominem by portraying Lisak as an effete outsider, not to be trusted.  Plus, the re-enactment video that Krakauer and then Kristof in turn call attention to (sadly it’s known as “the Frank tape,” after the pseudonym of the interviewee) is indeed unsettling.

The DVD is entitled “The Undetected Rapist,” and despite being only seven minutes long, depicting Lisak mock interviewing an actor who mimics the lines and delivery of a prior videotaped research subject (obviously it would be unethical for Lisak to release that actual research footage), it comes on its own disc, in its own case, accompanied by a pamphlet emblazoned with large-font warnings on every page: “[This] is a powerful and disturbing DVD which may be triggering for viewers.  Do not watch it alone, and do not show it without a skilled facilitator.”

I watched it alone.  Sans facilitator.  But that warning wasn’t meant for me.  I’m lucky in that I don’t have these particular horrors lodged in my brain for memory to dredge up.  And I’ve already done so much awful research that whatever misery might be sown by the disc has presumably already taken root.  Yes, it’s powerful to see and hear the actor depicting this type of rapist’s doublethink — things like stressing that he targeted extremely naive, inexperienced women, but when describing the culmination of his “conquest” he justifies his actions by saying she’d probably done this thousands of times before, etc. — but that was something I expected.  These people don’t think of themselves as evil.  There is always some justification, some story they can spin to rationalize what they’ve done, if only to themselves.

b88d3b232eac40c38bf6b132cb51865bGiven that I’ve written several essays about research practices and scientific essays, though, I’d like to draw attention to one quote from the pamphlet that accompanied the DVD.  The pamphlet was prepared by the National Judicial Education Program and includes a question and answer section near the end:

“Q: Did the researcher who conducted the interview tell Frank that he had committed rape?

A: No.  The same federal laws governing the treatment of human subjects in research prohibit a researcher from saying anything to a subject that might significantly change that subject’s view of himself.  In this case, telling Frank that he was a rapist would clearly have been prohibited.”

To me, this is slightly strange.  Not the idea that it’s worth protecting research subjects — that’s vital, and it’s awful, as a scientist, to read about cases where that wasn’t done (one such story you may have heard about is Carl Elliott’s arduous, ongoing struggle to change the University of Minnesota’s research practices, and although Dan Markingson’s death came about due to particularly egregious policies, these problems are definitely not isolated to that university).

Personally, I think the research subject should have been informed.  I can imagine ways that such information could be delivered gently and even therapeutically, with the intent of improving the subject’s future quality of life.  And, to me, it seems like it would be much more devastating for that individual to be shaken of his illusions about his actions by reading a popular press report about that re-enactment video.

Wouldn’t all this press about that re-enactment trigger some recollection for someone who had been interviewed by that David Lisak fellow?  Maybe the doublethink depicted in the video would still prevent the former interviewees from really understanding the ramifications of their actions — there are many new excuses to give, especially excuses involving alcohol, or someone’s mood on one particular night, or an ambiguous relationship with one particular person — but I still think that, if a study’s publicity might convey psychologically unsettling truths, it’s worth the researchers attempting to deliver that information in a therapeutic setting first.

It’s possible that Lisak was unaware that his study would draw so much publicity.  After all, his study was published over a decade now and it wasn’t until I’d read Krakaeur’s book that I walked to the library to borrow that re-enactment DVD.

Which, right, that’s precisely why I’m so thrilled about the existence of Krakaeur’s book and all the press it’s getting.  Because resolving these problems requires so many people’s behavior to change (leaving aside the ideal solution where only one class of people’s behavior changes, i.e. the rapists’): friends, parents, police, district attorneys, juries.  The more people read these books, the more likely we are to have that change.

Honestly, the only complaint I had about Krakaeur’s book was the title.  It seemed to imply that these problems were particular to the named city… but even this complaint was addressed before the end:

“It should be reiterated, moreover, that the deficiencies at the heart of the Missoula imbroglio were not unique to western Montana.  The DOJ investigation identified 350 sexual assaults of women that were reported to the Missoula police during the fifty-two months from January 2008 to May 2012.  The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that in 2010, the annual rate of sexual assaults of women in cities with populations under 100,000 was 0.27 percent, which for Missoula equates to 90 female victims per year, or 390 over a period of fifty-two months.  This suggests that, rather than being the nation’s rape capital, Missoula had an incidence of sexual assault that was in fact slightly less than the national average.  That’s the real scandal.”