Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

30 November, 2009

Harlan Ellison to Head MadCon 2010

Sci-fi legend Harlan Ellison will be the guest of honor at MadCon 2010. And - woo hoo! - Sophie Aldred is scheduled to be here as well. I can get her to autograph my copy of Night Thoughts which will give me an excuse to go to a con where Sylvester McCoy is appearing.
|| Palmer, 4:15 PM || link || (4) comments |

I Lost My Love to Paul McGann

Psst. Do you want to know a secret? One of the managers at the Ocean Grill just off the Square is a geek. I saw him at Chicago TARDIS dressed as The Doctor in "Voyage of the Damned" while his lady friend was all gussied up in a maid's outfit just like Astrid. Next time you stop in, be sure to give him grief.

The con went by all too fast. It was a fun weekend of costumes, dorky panel discussions, listening to actors/producers talk about DW, and The Dulcinea giving her heart to Paul McGann. Seriously. She reiterated to me just how sexy his voice is multiple times. At one point he walked by us in the lobby and she just about melted into a puddle then and there.

As you can tell, the theme this year was the Eighth Doctor – both the 1996 movie and Big Finish audio dramas – which meant that, in addition to McGann, we were treated to Daphne Ashbrook, Yee Jee Tso, and India Fisher. Plus Nicholas Briggs, Jason Haigh-Ellery, Rob Shearman, and Gary Russell of Big Finish fame were on hand as well.

This being the case, I chose as my mission to get the liner notes to the audio drama The Chimes of Midnight signed by everyone. It is one of my favorite stories with its minimalist approach of repetition with slight variation. That and it's darn creepy. In my pursuit, I got a chance to at least meet all these folks and they were all very friendly down to the last person.

India and Daphne were total sweethearts. Paul was a hoot. Very funny man with a droll sense of humor. He seemed very excited when I asked about one of his upcoming projects, a TV show called Luther with Idris Elba who starred in The Wire. The Big Finish guys were quite funny and charming as well. Nick Briggs is definitely on the goofy side (but in a nice way) and Haigh-Ellery and/or Shearman played the straight guy (or straighter, anyway) during the sessions. They explained how Big Finish worked, what is on tap, and told lots of funny stories. For instance, after recording the final dialogue of an episode, McGann will launch into the Doctor Who theme. Although we asked, it seems unlikely that a CD of these impromptu themes will be released.

I attended a few seminars which were a lot of fun because I don't often get the chance to hang around hard-core Doctor Who nerds. The first was "Regeneration Blues" which discussed how unique the program is in having the actor playing the hero change from time to time. Plus fans reminisced about regeneration scenes from the past. At the "Can The Doctor Ever Be Female?" panel, everyone agreed that there was no good reason why not. One participant (I think it was Christa Dickson from Mad Norwegian Press) noted that the biggest impediment to a female Doctor was that action figures and other such things featuring women don't sell as well as those of men. Hence there is a financial incentive for the BBC to keep The Doctor male.

In the panel discussion about spoilers, I ended up calling Tammy Garrison a hypocrite. There was just something about her that rubbed me the wrong way. She loves Doctor Who spoilers so I asked her how she would feel if someone had leaked some of her creative work ("Torchwood Babiez") and she replied that she would indeed be angry. So I said, "Then you're a hypocrite because if you do it to someone else, it's OK; but if it's done to you, then there's hell to pay." I think Lars Pearson of Mad Norwegian Press and Tammy's co-panelist was taken by surprise by my accusation. Regardless, it was a fun, spirited conversation.

No con is complete without costumes. Most of my pics turned out for shite but a few are OK. There were two Sixth Doctor outfits, including the one above. I contemplated slipping them a Mickey Finn and stealing their costumes because, as we all know, the Sixth Doctor outfit is the best of all and I just gotta get me one. The Dulcinea says that, if I do get one, she will not be seen in public with me while I'm wearing it.

There were many more but my camera work was too poor. That and I missed the guy wearing a killer First Doctor outfit on Sunday. During the masquerade, a woman came onstage dressed as Harriet Jones. She pulled out an ID card and introduced herself whereupon the entire room shouted, "Yes, we know." Classic.

I generally don't think of Lombard as being a center of culinary delight but it is a part of Chicagoland. Ergo I indulged my addiction to Italian beef down the street from the hotel at Portillo's.

Come Sunday, The D wanted nothing to do with Italian beef.

The life-sized TARDIS and Dalek were really neat. A couple guys from up nort in Oconto built the Dalek – Dalek Sec, that is. The casing even opened up. Very slick.

I spent too much lucre in the dealers room. I got a Rose & K9 action figure set for Miss Regan's birthday, some Big Finish dramas, and, perhaps most prized of all, the three Missing Episodes novelizations: The Nightmare Fair, The Ultimate Evil, and Mission to Magnus. These were all stories that were being groomed for the show before it was cancelled in 1985 and the scripts were far enough along to be made into novels.

Ooh! I can't forget Mysterious Theater 337 which is a cross between DW and MST3K. They did "The Android Invasion", an early Tom Baker story. It was quite funny. And Elisabeth Sladen was such a hottie!

Final thoughts:

1) Lots of younger folk were in attendance, many of whom dressed as the Tenth Doctor. It was good to see the next generation of fans out there. There was even a boy who must have been about 10 that had a Cyberman helmet. He had about a million questions for Nicholas Briggs.

2) All the guests were wonderful. You had more time with the Big Finish guys and they were happy to chat and autograph whatever you put in front of them.

3) I didn't attend any events with Naoko Mori (a.k.a. - Tosh) from Torchwood though I heard that she too was a sweetheart.

4) As Nick Briggs reminded us time and again, Big Finish subscribers get extra content!

|| Palmer, 2:26 PM || link || (0) comments |

Death in the Archives?

I am being told that someone just tried to kill himself at the Historical Society. Could it be the same guy who tried several years ago and failed?

UPDATE: OK, I guess some guy jumped off the 4th floor 20 years ago, not simply several.

Having heard more details all I can say is...yikes! Poor guy. Must've been in a very bad place. Some employees are very shaken up, understandably.
|| Palmer, 12:25 PM || link || (0) comments |

28 November, 2009

Caveat McGann

We went to Portillo's last night for dinner where I got my fill of Italian beef. The Dulcinea was feeling a bit under the weather so she relaxed in the room upon our return while I hit a couple seminars.

One of them was about non-heterosexuality in Doctor Who and Torchwood which featured a panel of very frisky ladies who made me fear for Paul McGann's safety. His handlers had better be on the look out today otherwise he is going to mobbed by a roving band of female fans. One admitted last night that they've written slash about the first Doctor and Jack getting it on. So you know they've done at least one story about the eighth and Grace and Chang and The Master in a Gallifreyan orgy where they all do naughty things to each other atop the Eye of Harmony.
|| Palmer, 6:44 AM || link || (0) comments |

27 November, 2009

I Am A Fanboy

So here I am at Chicago TARDIS and I just did a total fanboy with Rob Shearman, he being the writer of the Doctor Who audio drama Chimes of Midnight.

"It's one of my favorite audio dramas Doctor Who or not," I gushed. He looked at me politely as all Englishmen do. "My girlfriend loves it too. It's one of her favorites as well."

I'm getting the liner notes of Chimes autographed at the con. Five down, two to go including Paul McGann, who The Dulcinea will fawn over. Perhaps melt at his gaze. I'll never hear the end of it. "I'll never wash this hand again..."

It's been 22 years since I've been to any kind of Doctor Who gathering, the last having been seeing Sylvester McCoy in La Crosse(?!) back in 1987, so I'm still adjusting to all the Tom Baker scarves as I am, to the best of my knowledge, the lone owner of one in Madison. (Surely someone else has one...) A fair number of second Doctor outfits as well. And I wanna get a photo of the person dressed as the clockwork robot hoolie from "Girl in the Fireplace".

Well, off to a Big Finish seminar and then it's Italian beef for dinner. After that we'll probably watch some fan flicks.

Uh oh. A wedding party just walked in. I can only imagine being the blushing bride and seeing all the dorks with long scarves and black t-shirts and wondering just who the hell these people are.
|| Palmer, 4:31 PM || link || (0) comments |

25 November, 2009

Polish Film Festival 2009 - Wojna polsko-ruska (Snow White and Russian Red)

If How Much Does the Trojan Horse Weigh? was too saccharine for my taste, then Wojna polsko-ruska (Snow White and Russian Red) certainly satiated my hunger for some challenging cinema. The tale started life as a novel in 2002 by the then teenaged Dorota Masłowska but was recently turned into a film which was the second (and last) I saw at last weekend's Polish Film Festival here in Madison.

I knew it was going to be a difficult movie from the get-go as the bald, muscle-bound Silny (referred to as "Yobbo" for reasons unknown) sits in a bar and is informed by the bartender that not only is there a war on between the Russkies and the Poles, but also that his girlfriend, Magda, has dumped him. Some of the bartender's lines are delivered by a voice off-screen who we later learn is a teenage girl, presumably the film's version of Masłowska. Infuriated, Silny descends into roid rage and grabs the bartender who is then hurled against a wall Matrix style. I have to admit that I was not expecting wire work.

The story barrels ahead stream of consciousness, dark humor, and all. Silny brings home a goth chick, Andzela, who, he discovers is a virgin. At one point they snort some cocaine and later the next morning a manic acquaintance of Silny's bursts in demanding to know where the drugs are. Her mission of searching soon gets the destroy mandate as well and she proceeds to demolish the kitchen before snorting a rather large line of purple powder which I think was Kool-Aid.

It doesn't take too long to figure out that Silny & Company are the product of the teenage girl's imagination but her role in a larger thematic sense isn't very clear. We get brief scenes of her at home with an occasional POV shot, such as when she is vacuuming the house. But these shots are tinted red and have a slightly murky, out of focus quality to them as if the thinnest layer of Vaseline were smeared on the lens.

Walking out of the theatre I felt both confused and exhilarated. I couldn't help but think that perhaps something got lost in translation or that even just a smidgeon of understanding about modern urban life in Poland might have led to revelation. As it stands, the film deserves a second viewing because there's much to be pieced together. I presume the Russian gangster represents Poland under communism but exactly how it fits into the film's urban malaise (and also perhaps the sub-culture the book chronicled) is beyond me at this point. Plus there's the whole idea of authorship. The teenage girl is the "author" of Silny and the people in his life so am I supposed to infer something about the author, i.e. – director, of the film?

I'm not sure if the film is lacking in its development of themes, I need to pay strict attention at a second viewing, or if what I listed above are just red herrings.

|| Palmer, 1:31 PM || link || (0) comments |

23 November, 2009

The Bane of the Blue TARDIS

Michael Moorcock has agreed to write a Doctor Who novel.

Now the vast potential of what I can write is beginning to dawn on me. Far from thinking in terms of fun I've become a little scared. All time and space is open to me. I have to mix comedy and melodrama while telling an epic adventure story featuring a complex protagonist capable of ranging across the entire multiverse. I'm increasingly overawed as I consider what I must live up to. Hardcore fans are already questioning my qualifications. I can only hope I'm equal to the job.

Perhaps he'll write a story that takes as his final regeneration comes to a close with a weak, albino Doctor who uses his sonic screwdriver to suck down souls to keep himself alive. At the end, he'll kill Rose and the screwdriver will float away saying, "I was a thousand times more clever than thou!"
|| Palmer, 3:58 PM || link || (0) comments |

Pro-Rail Conservatives

Nobody tell Madison-area horseless carriage advocate Bill Richardson but there are pro-rail conservatives out there.

|| Palmer, 3:50 PM || link || (0) comments |

Polish Film Festival - How Much Does the Trojan Horse Weigh? (Ile wazy kon trojanski?)

I caught the two films at the Polish Film Festival on Friday night but was unable to attend on Saturday and Sunday.

The first was Ile wazy kon trojanski? (How Much Does the Trojan Horse Weigh?). It was romantic comedy led by Zosia, newly turned 40. She is happily married to Kuba, her second husband, and things are going so well for them, that it seems that the only downer comes when they must deal with Darek, father to Zosia's daughter. It is New Year's Eve 1999 and our protagonist is mysteriously transported back to 1987 where she seeks out Kuba, is once again able to spend time with her dearly departed grandmother, and hesitatingly fulfills her destiny with Darek.

When Ile wazy kon trojanski? isn't doing its best to be interminably light-hearted, it is drowning in sentimentality. Sure, there are some fun scenes which poke fun at life under communism, but, for the most part, the film is simply a cutesy feel-good cliché. Upon returning to her own time, Zosia finds that her grandmother has been resurrected from the dead. Puh-lease! Most children's books don't even pull that kind of stunt.

To make matters worse, the film took the Forrest Gump route when it came to serious subject matter. In this case, the issue was spousal abuse. Instead of treating it with the gravity it deserves, the horrible situation is thrown in off-handedly and is reduced to a mere ploy who sole function is to show what a virtuous, wonderful person our hero is.

Despite a few laughs, Ile wazy kon trojanski? is pablum of the same order as My Big, Fat Greek Wedding and Little Miss Sunshine.

|| Palmer, 2:39 PM || link || (0) comments |

19 November, 2009


A couple weeks ago I sent a link to a friend of mine about a new documentary called You Don't Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story. My buddy, Gene, is a Chinese American and we've known each other for ages – 32 years (!!). As kids, we were both fans of Barney Miller and Jack Soo played Nick Yemana. Several years ago Gene decided to try his hand at acting and now he does ads here and gets bit parts there. He appeared briefly on an episode of "The Beast", Patrick Swayze's last gig, and was an extra for Baby On Board. (Gene tells me that Lara Flynn Boyle is a really funny lady.)

And so, when I heard about the Jack Soo documentary, I sent Gene the link. In his reply, he thanked me as he found Soo's story to be very poignant. He complained that there are precious few roles for Asian actors and that most of the ones available are pure stereotypes. He illustrated this last point by telling me about a seminar he attended the topic of which was getting started in the acting business. One of the speakers was a talent agent who demonstrated her ability to peg attendees for different roles.

The blonde white chick would be cast for scenes requiring a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship. The black guy with braids would be relegated to hip-hop artist or gansta rapper roles. And Gene was told that his lot in the acting world would be for "ethnic characters".

This irritated my friend. He wondered why do epicanthic folds = "ethnic" roles? Why can't people see him in a boyfriend/girlfriend scene? Apparently the black gentleman said aloud that he hated being typecast as a rapper, so why pigeonhole him in that way?

Post-racial society, my ass.

Stereotypes hit home again last Friday when The Dulcinea, Miles, and I were out at a pizza joint. As we were eating, a group of black teenagers came in to grab some food or a soda. To me, they looked like, well, teenagers. On the way home, Miles admitted that he thought they could have been dangerous. Now why would a 10 year-old look at a group of teens and think them a threat?

As near as I can tell, it's because they had baggy pants that could have used the help of a belt. In other words, that fashion trend is linked in Miles' mind with rappers who are, in turn, linked with the gangsta lifestyle, i.e. – guns, bitches, bling, etc. That's the theory, anyway. It got even stranger as the conversation wore on. Miles wanted ice cream and the conversation got to the point where I told him that it wasn't necessary to drive to the store when it could easily be gotten to on foot. His response was that, after dark, paedophiles were lurking in the shadows and so it was unsafe for him to walk to the grocer. This conversation came after one a few weeks ago when he expressed his desire to have curtains placed on our front and kitchen doors as there are none now and people could peer inside our home. And before that he was out bicycling one day and called home to say that he thought someone was following him.

For a 10 year-old, Miles sure seems to view the world as an incredibly dangerous place. For him, people have nothing better to do than stand on our porches and peer into our windows, people who wear baggy pants are all violent, and the landscape is littered with paedophiles on the prowl after dark. Should we be worried? Should we do something to disabuse him of these views?

I suspect that his things about bare windows and nocturnal paedophiles will disappear as he gets older as they're more general anxieties. However, fear of black kids in baggy pants is very specific and a stereotype, hence more troubling.

I'm not sure if anything needs to be done or can be done. (Will he freak out when we take him to Chicago next month?) Regardless, Miles is now disallowed from watching the news when he's at our house. And I suppose it wouldn't hurt to drag him out into the world a bit more.
|| Palmer, 2:29 PM || link || (0) comments |

18 November, 2009

Sundance Lament

Tomorrow is the last day that Lars von Trier's Antichrist will be playing at The Music Box is Chicago. I really, really, really want to see it and am considering making a run down tomorrow night. To avert this situation, I e-mailed Sundance Cinemas last week asking if they were considering bringing it here and was told that it wasn't on their booking calendar. Whoever answered my inquiry was kind enough to pass along my request to the film buyer. (Or so I was told.) Since the person was so accommodating, I also asked that Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans be added to my wish list while also thanking them for booking Precious.

I thought it rather odd that Antichrist was not scheduled as von Trier isn't exactly a nobody. He co-founded the Dogme95 movement and has won the Grand Prix and Palme d'Or at Cannes. The first two installments of his "U.S. trilogy" - Dogville and Manderlay were shown here. Furthermore, Antichrist stars Willem Dafoe, a Cheesehead, and caused a shit storm at Cannes earlier this year with accusations of misogyny leveled at von Trier and some audience members finding themselves suffering from melancholia after leaving the theatre.

Antichrist is not an obscure film by an even more obscure director so, especially considering all the hoopla around it, why didn't the film buyer at Sundance jump at it? Is there something about Madison audiences that would lead him/her to think that we'd avoid it like the plague?

A similar situation exists for Herzog's treatment of Bad Lieutenant. Herzog is fairly well-known and the film stars Nicholas Cage. It opens at Sundance Kabuki in San Francisco tomorrow yet the film buyer for Sundance here in Madison didn't have it on the list.

I see the new Twilight movie is coming soon as is Fantastic Mr. Fox and Sherlock. And Lord help us all, Did You Hear About the Morgans?, directed and written by Marc Lawrence who you may remember as the writer for many episodes of Family Ties and the classic Miss Congeniality 2: Armed & Fabulous. This is a "quality selection from a major distributor"?

I fear that the films that I am looking forward to such as Antichrist, Bad Lieutenant, John Woo's Red Cliff, and Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus will pass Madison right by. (OK, Parnassus has a good chance of being picked up by even Point or Eastgate since Heath Ledger is in it.) Terrence Malik's Tree of Life - will that bypass us as well? A Town Called Panic was nominated for an Oscar but what are the chances of it being screened here?

(On a side note, did Jim Jarmusch's last film, The Limits of Control, play here in Madison?)

I had high hopes when Sundance opened that it would actually be an arthouse. Unfortunately it has turned out to really be just a high class multiplex.
|| Palmer, 3:51 PM || link || (3) comments |

17 November, 2009

New Russian Deli in Town?

A couple weeks ago a friend Marv told me that a friend of his had spotted a Russian deli in town. He said it was over by Knoche's on Old Middleton Road, two or three doors down from the Oakcrest. A friend of mine is heading over there now. (That's what meat lovers do on their day off from work.)

Anyone know anything about this place?

UPDATE: The store opened about 3 months ago and is owned by a Russian family from New York. I am told that the vast majority of items are Russian with a smattering of Polish and German breads. No fresh meat - smoked sausage, frozen stuff, and dry goods instead and things tend to be sourced from Chicago and New York. Most items are labeled in Russian only. Good selection of dumplings (apparently not pelmeni) - heavy on the veal. They carry 2 brands of kvas!
|| Palmer, 2:14 PM || link || (0) comments |

13 November, 2009

Horns For Halos: Dan Ariely @ the Union Theatre

(Photo lovingly horked from The Badger Herald.)

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely spoke at the Union Theatre earlier this week and I find it rather odd how well the whole experience complements Umberto Eco's Baudolino, which I am currently in the middle of. In the book, the titular protagonist claims to have had visions, tells tall tales, and literally erases history and supplants it with his own. Baudolino is a most unreliable narrator and it is not altogether certain just how much of his own story he really believes himself. Although not directly referenced by Ariely, it is this last part which plays into the lecture.

Ariely was in town to promote his latest book, Predictably Irrational and his talk began with a story of how he became interested in irrational behavior. At some point Ariely was badly burned over much of his body and he described having his bandages ripped off by nurses. Despite the intense pain and his pleas for a less painful approach, the nurses thought they knew best and that meant quick, very painful removal vs. a slower approach in which the pain was meted out in smaller doses. The nurses, he maintained, didn't understand that people generally find intensity of pain a more important factor than duration. During the rest of his lecture he detailed his research into how people don't always act reasonably.

To begin, he showed us a trio of visual illusions including this one:

Which table is longer? Most people answer that the one on the left is but, in fact, they are equal in length. The shorter width throws us off. Ariely went on to show that often times our decision making abilities are similarly hamstrung.

For instance, European countries with high rates of organ donation make citizens check a box to opt out of the act rather than to opt in. Ariely noted that we like to think of ourselves as autonomous agents but the environment in which we make decisions has a large role. Another factor was complexity. As more options were placed on the table to be considered, the more likely we are to just punt. This was shown by the results of a jam tasting stand at a store. When the stand had 6 jams to sample and coupons were given away for a discount on the product, 30% of people went on to buy jam. However, when a whopping 24 samples were available, shoppers hit jam overload and only 3% took advantage of the coupons to fill their larders.

Ariely also noted that experiments show that it is very difficult to motivate people about long-term things. When it came to current events, he explained the fallacy of executive compensation, namely, that exorbitant pay yields the best results. Not so, said Ariely. As the amount of money at stake increases, it goes from being a motivator to a stressor.

Cheating was another topic that Ariely broached and it perhaps hit close to home for much of the audience which was mostly comprised of students. Experiments with students doing a series of math problems revealed that we generally tend to cheat a little bit. When the tests were graded, they got an average of 4 problems correct. However, when students were asked to self-report the results, the average got bumped up to 6 problems correct. We engage in a modicum of cheating to advance ourselves but not so much that we feel bad about it. But environment has its say as well. People cheat more when someone from an "in group" cheats while they cheat less when it is someone from an "out group" that does the deed.

This was the area where I thought of Baudolino and was surprised that Ariely didn't delve into it a bit more. It also relates back to some things Steven Pinker noted a couple weeks earlier when he was in town. And this is how we want to project ourselves to others – how we want others to see us and what we want them to know about us.

Ariely said that people cheat more when they see others from an in group cheating. To me, this is about people modifying their behavior in order to be seen in a good light by others. But when we were told that people tend to cheat enough to gain advantage but not enough to feel bad about ourselves, I got the impression that Ariely was making this out to be an exclusively egotistical move, i.e. – to trigger guilt or not. I wonder if he thinks fear of getting caught is a factor. By this I mean that, when we are caught cheating or caught taking advantage of something to the detriment of others, the opinions our peers have of us turn sour. We are relegated to an out group. One can argue that this fear is somehow wrapped up in feelings of guilt, but Ariely mostly spoke in terms of exclusive feelings and inner cognitive mechanisms which get reset under certain circumstances.

For instance, he related the results of an experiment where people would not cheat when it came to recalling the 10 Commandments. Similarly, people tend to (temporarily) cheat less after having confessed to a priest. Are these to be explained merely by reverence for the sacred and having a mental mechanism reset, respectively? Or is it possible that these results reflect individuals taking into account their place in a larger group? In the first example, might people be thinking that "God is watching" or something similar? For the second, I think it's less the opening of a cognitive pressure relief valve and more that they walk out of confession thinking of themselves as being a part of a particular group, i.e. – those cleaned of sin – where certain standards of behavior are expected of members. After all, the farther away in proximity and the further in time people get from confession, the more likely they are to resume cheating. Perhaps they tend to think of themselves as having joined another group yet again which is concerned with more earthly matters.

This is all speculation and I readily admit that I've not read Ariely's book but I still feel that he gave short shrift to the notion that navigating a social world where our place in it is significantly derived from how others view us can help explain irrational behavior. Baudolino told tales which portrayed himself as a prime mover in history. (E.g. - you know how Frederick Barbarossa drowned? Well, that's not quite how Baudolino tells it.) While we don’t go around in everyday life telling people that we are the lynch pin of America, very few of us apply the maxim "honesty is the best policy" all the time. We fudge things and we make exaggerations, however slight, so that people will look upon us favorably.

Two final thoughts:

1) Ariely said his experiments were mostly done on college students. Would we get the same results experimenting on people middle aged and older? How about people in Japan, a drastically different culture from our own?

2) At the end of his talk, Ariely asked if we were Superman or Homer Simpson. He thought we were somewhere in the middle and reminded us that human beings are endowed with many irrationalities and that by studying them, we have a chance to overcome them.

I felt a bit ambivalent when he said these things. Maybe it's because I've read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy too many times ("Thank you the marketing division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation.") but, regardless, Ariely came across as slightly utopian to me. That is, he seemed to think that his research would help fight global warming, increase organ donation, etc. But after having seen him introduced by a UW marketing professor, I couldn't help but think that Ariely's research was being co-opted by marketers in New York City drooling over its potential to get people to buy Tide and Pepsi.
|| Palmer, 1:31 PM || link || (0) comments |

04 November, 2009

Charter Gets Aggressive

Some Charter Communications salesperson would not take no for an answer.

McGuire said her phone problems started with an unexpected knock at the door from Charter.

"(The salesperson) was willing to sell me telephone service because I already have Charter cable and TV."

McGuire wasn't interested. The salesperson left her with an application, but she said the pitch didn't end there.

The next day, and the day after that, McGuire said she got the same automated calls referencing the FCC requirement. McGuire said about six or seven calls came in a span of about a week.

I received a call from a Charter salesman about two weeks ago who also would not take no for an answer. Fortunately I wasn't harassed like Ms. McGuire.

However, I did receive a notice from Charter yesterday that my Internet bill is going to go up $7/month starting in December. Presumably that whole Chapter 11 bankruptcy thing isn't going well for them. Either that or they're preparing to be sued after the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement is adopted. I looked into AT&T's U-Verse service but found that you can't get Internet access alone. Instead, it comes bundled with their TV service, which I don't want.
|| Palmer, 9:22 AM || link || (8) comments |

02 November, 2009

Portals to Lovecraft

The latest installment of the Onion AV Club's Gateway to Geekery concerns H.P. Lovecraft.

One thing that surprised me was that the author of the piece, Jason Heller, avoided talking about the man's writing style. If you want to know why Lovecraft's work is daunting, just try reading a paragraph – any paragraph – from his oeuvre. Heller described “At The Mountains Of Madness” as having "rich prose". One man's rich prose is another man's dense, impenetrable prose.

Lovecraft wrote in a very flowery, byzantine style that would draw lots of red marks if used for a term paper today. I think that people would love to know what lays beyond the wall of sleep but have problems getting past lines like this one:

One day near noon, after a profound sleep begun in a whiskey debauch at about five of the previous afternoon, the man had roused himself most suddenly, with ululations so horrible and unearthly that they brought several neighbors to his cabin--a filthy sty where he dwelt with a family as indescribable as himself.

Before you can learn about mad Arabs and the fate of the Starkweather-Moore expedition, you've got to wade through the passive voice, objects appearing in sentences where we're not accustomed to seeing them, eldritch adjectives, and all manner of things unfamiliar to contemporary readers.

For those wanting to ease into Lovecraft, let me make a couple suggestions.

First is Graphic Classics: H.P. Lovecraft. This features some of Lovecraft's stories lovingly ported to the graphic novel medium. And for my fellow Madisonians, it's locally-sourced too as the publisher is in Mt. Horeb.

Another route to go is to listen to some adaptations of Lovecraft's work by the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company. The best part is that you don't even have to sink any money into this venture because their podcast allows you to hear some stories for free. So far, they've given away "The Colour Out of Space", "The Shadow Over Innsmouth", and the first of two parts of "The Call of Cthulhu".
|| Palmer, 3:15 PM || link || (0) comments |

Steven Pinker and the Abandonment of Audio Books

Harvard professor of psychology Steven Pinker is indirectly responsible for ending my brief flirtation with audio books. I grabbed the audio book of his latest, The Stuff of Thought: Language As A Window Into Human Nature, when it came out and began listening. It took me all of about one chapter to decide that people who listen to books instead of reading them probably aren't particularly serious about acquiring knowledge. While I'm sure that listening to Jim Dale or Stephen Fry reading a Harry Potter novel is fun, listening to non-fiction and actually understanding things is best left to only those with the best of memories because trying to back track in an audio book is a pointless endeavor. Instead of skipping tracks and rewinding, I'd much rather be flipping pages in order to find a passage in need of being reread. I never did pick up The Stuff of Thought but am making it a priority having seen and heard Pinker speak last night.

(Photo shamelessly horked from The Badger Herald.)

For over an hour, he gave a fascinating talk in which he plumbed the depths of language to reveal how we humans conceptualize reality, organize our emotions, as well as how language reflects the intentions and intuitions we have of others. Throughout his talk, Pinker dropped in pop culture references and had a PowerPoint presentation going which outlined his topic so that no one got lost. In addition, the technology gave him the chance to engage in a bit of audience participation. Although he went rather quickly at times, he was able to grab the audience's attention and hold it while he explored complex ideas in a manner designed for the layperson.

Pinker began by explaining how grammar provides a way to examine how the brain thinks about spatial and temporal matters. For example, he quoted the book Crazy English by Richard Lederer which noted, amongst other oddities, how things which we say are underground or underwater are really surrounded by earth or water and not really under these things. Language, we were told, conceptualizes space in a certain mode and our minds like to describe objects in binary ways (e.g. – near vs. far) and in relation to places. Because of the peculiar laws of physics embedded in our heads, borders become places or objects instead of simple one dimensional conceptions. Hence the border between dirt and air is a concrete thing to our line of thinking and stuff below this border is "under" the ground as opposed to being surrounded by it.

If learning about our brains' preferences when it comes to organizing space and time makes you self-conscious about your choice of prepositions, then the second part of the lecture would no doubt have left you eager to improve your ability to use profanity. Here Pinker explored swearing as a window to our emotions and began with Bono's infamous dropping of the f-bomb on television during an awards ceremony several years ago. He explained how profanity activates areas of our brains that are associated with negative emotions – the right hemisphere, the basal ganglia, and the amygdala. (This was as far as he went into non-profane anatomy during the whole lecture.) These taboo words are processed involuntarily, which is to say that our brains automatically comprehend their meaning. To demonstrate this, Pinker and his PowerPoint turned to the Stroop Test in which the audience was to say aloud the color a word appeared in as quickly as possible. The first round saw the word "red" in red, the word "green" in green, and so on. Round two had these same words but they were in a color different than that which they denote. So the word "red" appeared on the screen in the color white, for instance. The last round was a list of taboo words such as "fuck" and "cunt" in a rainbow of colors and the audience had a remarkably difficult time noting the color of the words as had proven so easy in the first go-round. (You can take a Stroop Test here.)

Pinker categorized the content of taboo words as well as how they are used to invoke negative emotions in others. For example, bodily effluvia evoke disgust and so "shit" is taboo. When discussing how taboo words are used, he noted 34 euphemisms for feces. This is to be contrasted with dysphemisms, for those times when we want to be literal instead of evasive. And there are times when we swear just to be abusive. Indeed, Pinker put swearing into five different categories. He also tried to revive an old bit of abuse by noting the bestial implications of the insult "Kiss the cunt of a cow" which was last used in 1585. Quite appropriate for Wisconsin, methinks.

His last topic, the use of innuendo, started with a line from Fargo, specifically, a scene in which Carl tries to get out of ticket by saying to the police officer, "I was thinking that maybe the best thing would be to take care of it here in Brainerd." Why do we veil bribes in this manner and, likewise, why do we ask for sex by inviting someone up to see our etchings?

To answer this, Pinker divided relationships into various types and showed how we guide them using the logic of ideas such as plausible deniability and mutual knowledge. And so in Fargo, Carl doesn't know the cop's disposition so he can veil his offer and deny it was a bribe if the offer isn't accepted. Veiling the bribe means that the worst outcome would be a traffic ticket while an unveiled bribe could result in a ticket and an arrest for bribery. In another example culled from real life, Pinker pointed out that a writer for Gourmet magazine wrote an article about bribing the maitre d's at posh Manhattan restaurants to see if he could get a table quicker. As it turned out, they were all receptive to his veiled offers and he got seated much quicker than had he not offered a little green.

Pinker, as the subtitle of his latest indicates, is a firm proponent of the idea that human beings come hardwired with a selection of traits, i.e. – there is such a thing as human nature. His previous book, The Blank Slate, was his manifesto in this area and it proved to be the source of much contention. Many were highly unamused at his postulating that rape has a basis in sexual selection instead of merely being a power play, a view inculcated in incoming freshman here at the UW. (Or at least that was the case when I came here.) The Stuff of Thought is much more focused and seems much less contentious, to the layperson, at least. I'm sure there are linguists who would take issue with some of Pinker's claims.

For my part, I left wondering if any criticisms from linguists undermine Pinker's notion of human nature or whether they are minor disagreements over certain mechanisms in our cognitive apparatus. On a slightly less grand level, I also had questions such as whether taboo words can ever lose their taboo status.

So, while it was a fascinating talk, it was also just a teaser which left me with much reading to do.

For a taste of Pinker's lecture, here's part of his talk on swearing that he gave last year.

|| Palmer, 2:02 PM || link || (3) comments |