June 28th, 2011

We're Baaaacckkk!

We went north to visit Storyland and Santa's Village for the last few days, leaving on Friday and returning around noon today, hence the lack of posts. I have discovered that the only real reason I watch TV is because we have a Tivo. No Tivo and I read a lot more.

Also, I forgot the cord for my laptop, so I was only using the tablet and phone and thus not consuming news and commenting on it. In case you miss that sort of thing, here's the better coverage of the Stephen Duffy study of mammography in Sweden:


Coverage of the study at places like ABC is so bad it's actually a little shocking.

I can't help but feel that if you have to track people for over a decade, and only 1 person benefits per 500 (and more than 1 per 500 probably got some form of overtreatment with all the risks attendant thereon), you could well be looking at a statistical artifact. But hey, that's just the kind of person I am. The author at the LA Times is more balanced than me.

_The Company He Keeps_, Nicholas Syrett (kindle)

Published by University of North Carolina Press

I bought this very recently, possibly based on an Amazon recommendation but it's also possible I was fishing around for a history of fraternities specifically.

I went to a large state university (University of Washington, class of 1991). Greek Life was something that involved a couple of off-campus blocks that people avoided on weekends because you just never knew what was going to come flying off one of the houses and into the street. There was also the incident involving sheep:


that led to the Theta Xi chapter to go away and not come back for several years. That article is actually mostly about a DKE pledge death during Hell Week.

I was a Jehovah's Witness while I attended the UW (yes, improbable, and no, this was not during a time period in which it was OK for JWs to go to college) and getting a degree in Computer Science. To the extent I had an opinion of Greeks it was that they were drunken idiots who treated women badly -- but I didn't have much of an opinion about them because I was a commuter student and not involved in college social life at all. (<-- This is an understatement. I barely participated in study groups because I wasn't supposed to have any social connection to students at all.)

A few years ago (maybe 2005-6), I read a book about sororities, which did very little to change my opinions of Greeks (drunken idiots, etc.), altho it was a little amazing to read that and realize just how crowded those houses seemed to be. But the book was sort of a journalist-view of contemporary women with no real sense of history.

Syrett's subtitle: A History of White College Fraternities. He means it. Only very occasionally are Jewish, Catholic, Black Fraternities or Sororities of any form mentioned, and only to the degree that they are interacting with White Fraternities. He starts well before the Civil War (1820sish), calling that the "antebellum" period. The Civil War period is handled as sort of a special case, then there's the 1920s, the financial crises of the 1930s, World War 2, then postwar recovery and expansion and how that worked with the GI bill, gays, rating-and-dating, and finally, the aggressive enactment of violent heterosexuality (don't think "date rape" here; think "gang rape of mentally ill outpatient picked up at the bus stop", because that's more what he's talking about), which is what prompted Syrett to pick this topic in the first place.

I was a little startled to read that fraternity gang-bangs were showing up as early as the 1920-30s, at least if you're prepared to read _My Son Is an Excellent Driver_ by William Inge as autobiographical and this author is.

Syrett does a decent job of documenting the evolution of "college man" as epitomized by a fraternity brother, from the early nineteenth century to today. Starting with the I'm-not-going-into-the-ministry students and their literary societies, through the I'm-going-into-business students and their athletic prowess, and then sliding downhill as they responded negatively to the increasing presence in their WASP schools of women and people of color. He does a good job as well of describing the social and economic mechanisms by which alumni influenced the choices available to contemporary chapters.

I was not tremendously impressed by the way he chose to analyze many of the passages he included. I felt like he was attributing things to college life as a whole that the evidence he presented showed to be disproportionately the result of fraternity actions. I also felt that many of the passages showed that certain national fraternities led the way pretty consistently, and that not all nationals, much less all locals, followed along, and to the extent they did, they felt that their choices were constrained by what the leaders were doing. I can sort of see where he was going with this: these are voluntary organizations that require some effort and sacrifice to join, and they heavily emphasize conformity. Distinguishing between one and another may well be quite pointless.

Syrett's book did not necessarily change my mind about fraternities (drunken idiots who treat women badly still strikes me as about right), and it did adjust the framework I had for understanding sororities from that other book (title escapes me at the moment; may add it later ETA: _Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities_, Alexandra Robbins). The description of the evolution of stance towards women is particularly good (refuse to have anything to do with college women; then refuse to have anything to do with women at one's own college; then refuse to have anything to do with women at one's own college who are not themselves Greeks. Also, the evolution from rating-and-dating to however one might summarize what Greeks do now).

While Syrett talks about gays and fraternities (including early incidents at Dartmouth and on through publication), I can't help but feel that we won't have a good perspective on what exactly young men are getting out of fraternities as long as young, conservative men feel so compelled to be closeted, sometimes even to themselves. The rationales given by closeted men for participating in gang-bangs (and gang-rapes, to the extent that those are different) make me awful suspicious of the stated orientation of everyone involved in these organizations. And I don't see young, conservative men hanging out in same-sex, er, groups treating women better until someone addresses the underlying issue. Once upon a time, men in college didn't have access to women, and when, in the 1950s, they had access to same-class women at school, they were marrying super young. When that changed -- when the age of first marriage moved up and up and up -- a "correct" relationships (isn't that what conformists want to know?) to women for "heterosexual" men living with other men became impossibly ambiguous.

A bunch of fraternities, when confronted with exactly this issue in the 1970s, did something sensible: they became co-ed (some, but not all, lost their national as a result). Judging by how long it is taking churches to adjust to a lot of differences in the way we live our lives, I would not be optimistic about fraternities as a group behaving better any time soon.

What I _am_ optimistic about is the possibility of prosecuting criminal behavior engaged in by fraternities -- or at least returning the groups to their unofficial/sub-rosa status that they enjoyed in the early days of their existence.

ETA: It looks like in the years since I read _Pledged_, Ms. Robbins has become sort of a one-woman genre on the subject of sororities, fraternities, college life, etc., with a focus on elite institutions, cliques, and how that works and doesn't work for people. I'm not sure what I think of this, other than that I'm in no hurry to read more of her books. If anyone is a fan, and thinks they are worth reading, I'd be interested in hearing details.

ETAYA: A superficial search of Amazon turns up a subgenre devoted to exposing the secrets of Yale's Skull & Bones (which Robbins contributed an entry to). However, my efforts to find books _specifically_ about sororities that might be somewhat like Syrett's about fraternities was a total failure. There are other books about fraternities and sororities, including several specifically about black/African-American fraternities and sororities. There is Robbins' oeuvre (which isn't precisely what I'm looking for, anyway, and to the degree is i is, I already read _Pledged_.). It's a puzzler.

ETA Still More:

I'm going to post something about googling Greek crap because I feel like what I have read so far in book form has not really captured the story currently developing.

A Bit More About Greeks

That is, fraternities and sororities. I am aware that my summation of fraternities (drunken idiots who treat women badly) is a stereotype and thus Not Fair. Part of this post is to counter or at least supplement that assessment.

I've been doing some googling, and I'm not going to reproduce it all here, but rather stick to a few selections.

(1) Some nationals have really solid anti-hazing and/or obey-alcohol-laws policies and enforce them.
(2) Other nationals produce anti-hazing "videos". I suspect their chapters use these as material for mockery while getting drunk and throwing up in their basements. That may be overestimating their intellectual capacity, however.
(3) Fraternities seem more likely to generate pledge deaths than sororities, but it is not just a fraternity problem nor is it exclusively a white problem (it's not even limited to whites and blacks. Googling "asian fraternity pledge death" produces relevant, recent results).
(4) Certain schools take their enforcement seriously. It turns out my alma mater is one of them:


A 1998 incident led to a wrongful death lawsuit that exposed hazing practices that _included alumni_, including _alumni on the DKE alumni board_. In 2001, the IFC booted them and reaffirmed that in 2004 at the time that article was published, meaning the earlier they could have become official again would have been 2009, which appears not to have happened. As with the DKE's at Yale, the group is still there and operating a house, but without recognition and the benefits that go with that. The university took it a little further, apparently:

"As the only unrecognized fraternity, DKE is singled out in letters to incoming students that discourage new students from joining the fraternity."

Other fraternities that have gotten into trouble at UW have shut down and "recolonized".

(5) In addition to a wide variety of ethnicity/religion specific fraternities and sororities (and multicultural and/or co-ed organization), there are explicitly LGBT or some fraction thereof ones as well.

(6) For all the problems that creepy alumni (a la DKE, see above) can cause, _not_ having an alumni run/influenced/sponsored/funded/whatever national can cause its own problems.


I'm trying to figure out how far I want to pursue this. I think I'm about done, but if anyone thinks I'm being unfair, or missing out on a big part of the story, I'm curious. I did stumble across this:

(7) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_LGBT_and_LGBT-friendly_fraternities_and_sororities


(8) A great "stop hazing" item from Texas A&M, aimed at consciousness raising for alumni/parents:


They stay on message:

"We did it, you do it, but we realize now that it is wrong and has to stop."

Library e-books

From Seattle:


A nice summary, showing the popularity, the variety of devices, difficulties in making the connections work both from a technical perspective and from an educate-the-user perspective. Some numbers included showing a big recent spike in checkouts, surpassing audiobooks through OverDrive. Repeated favorable mention of BlueFire.

From Minnesota:


Towards the end, a comment that romance is quite popular in e-book form and that is somehow surprising. Yeah. Sort of like the popularity of country music. People who ran shops that sold music didn't like country so they didn't stock it so it didn't sell. When there was a more accurate way of keeping track of music that sold in all venues, suddenly, country music was "surprisingly" popular. Same with romance. It's okay to dislike or even feel contempt for something, but please don't say you're "surprised" to find out that other people like it. This is pretty obvious stuff.

[ETA: h/t Nate Hoffelder at The Digital Reader:


Lots of ways to interpret this, including that HQN is a little concerned about losing authors to indie, say, at Amazon.


The article as a whole is somewhat interesting, altho some of the quotes are risible:

""It's super easy," said Jeff Shelman of Golden Valley, who checks out e-books from the Hennepin County Library. "I would never go to the library and check out a book, but I like the e-books.""

This is particularly humorous in view of the discussion of how much of the calls for assistance involve difficulty in this "super easy" process, in the first article listed above. This quote should not have been included without additional commentary. It is misleading.

Ereaders v. Tablets: Know Your Source


Pew runs a solid operation. Of course they suffer from all the problems that phone surveys suffer from, but they work hard and they do good work.

Try reconciling their results with this:


I'm not familiar with In-Stat, altho I will note they had a substantially smaller sample size.

I may re-edit this if I find out more about In-Stat.

ETA: I do not understand this. I'm having two separate and probably unrelated definitional issues.

(1) What the hell is "end-user research"? It appears to be some form of market research, but I don't understand how they are picking their sample. It is not population wide, which Pew's is. It seems that InStat's selection of a universe is oversampling for tablets. This is possibly driven by the kind of insight they have into the tablet supply chain vs. the kind of insight they (don't) have into the ereader supply chain. However,

(2) I'm not sure how people are categorizing the Nook Color. If the Nook Color is selling a lot (I'm having trouble answering this question), I could imagine a scenario in which Pew's number might be skewed because some of the respondents bought Nook Colors and think it is one or the other or possibly both. The question does not appear to help answer which it is.

I think what is happening is that InStat is looking at the massive volume of cheap tablets being dumped on a largely uninterested market, leading to this prediction: "As a result, In-Stat (www.in-stat.com) is forecasting that tablet shipments will outpace e-reader shipments by the end of this year." If I were a business, I would NOT find this Helpful. I certainly would not conclude, "“Of the two, the tablet market is the stronger and more sustainable opportunity,” says Stephanie Ethier, Senior Analyst."

Especially not in the face of the Pew numbers, which show slower growth and fewer buyers of tablets vs. ereaders.