Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Technology and Me

I have a bad habit: my attention wanders when I'm reading. It's especially a problem if I'm reading off a computer screen, and that computer happens to be connected to the Internet. Hello, Source of All Distractions! This is the main reason why I dislike reading long articles or stories off a computer, and I couldn't even begin to imagine reading a novel that way. In the past, when there was a nice long chunk of Internet-based writing I wanted to read, I would go so far as to print it out so that I could peruse it later, when the distraction of the whole world wasn't just a mouse-click away.

Another bad habit I have goes back to the days before I knew the Internet existed. I tend to get impatient when I'm reading, even if it's a piece of fiction that's really sunk its barbs into me. My eyes insist on skipping ahead a few paragraphs; my fingers insist on flipping ahead a few pages, just to get a glimpse of what's going to happen. It's incredibly distracting.

Technology to the rescue! I own an iPod Touch now. It's got WiFi but not 3G/4G; its screen is big enough to display one or two paragraphs of text but not more. I think it may be my saviour.

Even when I'm in a place with free wi-fi, the Touch interface (the same as the iPhone interface) makes it awkward to have several windows open at once, which I view as a feature, not a bug. It reduces the temptation to go check Facebook when in the middle of an eight-thousand-word article. And the screen size focuses my attention on the current paragraph or two of text.

I've already downloaded the Instapaper app (well worth the five bucks) which saves online articles locally on your device. Only caveats are that it sometimes does minor odd things to the formatting (for example, section headings might become indistinguishable from ordinary text), and occasionally I've accidentally saved only a fragment of a long article rather than the entire thing (you gotta be careful about sites breaking an article across several pages for the supposed convenience of the reader). Otherwise it's been a fine little investment for me. Instapaper plus Longreads equals Good.

Now to await my check from Instapaper in return for shilling their product.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Dust Has Cleared

So what actually happened in those Taiwan municipal elections?

BEFORE THE ELECTION, I believed Su Tseng-chang had a real shot of knocking off Taipei mayor Hau Lung-bin, and in any event the race would be close.

WRONG. Hau demolished Su by 12 percentage points. There are rumors that Su's unexpectedly large loss has ended any realistic shot he may have at winning the DPP presidential nomination in 2012, though I think it's a bit too early to tell.

BEFORE THE ELECTION, I thought the KMT would achieve a better performance in Sinbei than in Taipei. I thought Tsai Ing-wen could only hope to win election if she rode a nationwide DPP wave.

MOSTLY WRONG. Tsai lost, but she made it close, winning a greater percentage of the vote than Su.

BEFORE THE ELECTION, I thought the Taichung, Tainan, and Kaohsiung mayoral races would not even be close, with the KMT winning easily in Taichung and the DPP taking the other two.

PARTLY WRONG. Tainan and Kaohsiung voted pretty much the way everyone expected them to, but Taichung mayor Jason Hu got a real scare on Election Day when his opponent, Su Jia-chyuan, came very close to unseating him. Now Su's getting a lot of praise in the DPP and people are talking about him as a real 2012 presidential contender.

The day before the election, people told me they expected something surprising to happen on Election Eve. Sure enough, that evening a prominent KMT politician (not a candidate for anything, but a famous face), Sean Lien, was shot and wounded in an assassination attempt in Yonghe, not far as the crow flies from our apartment. Lots of famous and non-famous people have theorized that the KMT got a good deal of sympathy vote as a result, which may well have denied Tsai Ing-wen and Su Jia-chyuan victories in their respective cities.

As a result, of course, we're already hearing the conspiracy theories.

The sad thing is, unsuccessful attempts to assassinate politicians the day before elections, causing people to argue over whether it skewed the results, is something of a tradition in Taiwan. Hopefully it won't happen in 2012.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Taiwan Election 2010!

I have Taiwan Election 2010 Pictures!

Also see Jenna's election coverage here.

Elections are Saturday, November 27 for the mayorships of Taiwan's five biggest municipalities, as well as a host of lesser offices. Taipei is now absolutely covered with signs for various candidates, and the streets are full of campaign workers distributing flyers to passers-by as if to say, "Here, you throw this away".

Little cartoon avatars of the candidate are pretty common, as you can see with Popeye here. If it's common in Taipei it seems to be even more common in Kaohsiung, which is full of cute little Chen Chu cartoons.

In Kaohsiung, Tainan, and Taichung the mayoral races are not expected to be especially close. DPP candidates are generally expected to win election in Kaohsiung and Tainan, and the KMT mayor is expected to be re-elected in Taichung.

That leaves Taipei and Sinbei, the latter of which is not, properly speaking, a "city", but rather the suburbs of Taipei packaged together and newly incorporated to form the new largest municipality in Taiwan.

The incumbent mayor of Taipei is Hau Long-bin, seen here in improbable clothing on the side of a Taipei City bus (if I'm reading the Chinese correctly, it's about Hau's tireless efforts to prevent flooding).

Here's Hau with a local City Council candidate. It's common on election posters for local, lesser-known candidates to pose with a much more prominent member of the same party.

Hau's opponent is Su Tseng-chang of the DPP. It's universally believed that Su's real goal is to be elected president (he unsuccessfully campaigned for the DPP's presidential nomination in 2008), and many go so far as to say he entered the Taipei mayoral race expecting to lose, hoping the publicity and campaign organization would give him a stronger platform from which to challenge Ma in 2012.

If that's so, it looks likely to backfire for him. A year ago, nobody thought Hau's numbers would be as weak as they are now. Su looks very likely to actually topple Hau, which will put him in the position of either having to scuttle his 2012 ambitions or going back on his promise to serve out his term if elected. (I'm not certain, but I believe he'd be legally obligated to resign as mayor if he ran for president.)

Local candidate Zhou Ni-an's truck there has lots of political imagery. That's not only Su Tseng-chang in the right background, but former president Lee Teng-hui on the left. He's the former KMT president who has since turned his back on his former party and actively campaigns against it every time election season rolls around. On the right there's a pun, which is pretty common on election posters; it says something like "Wishing you well," which sounds like Zhou's name.

I don't live in the not-yet-existing Sinbei City, but as it comprises most of Taipei's suburbs, plenty of Taipei city buses whose routes are partly in Sinbei are festooned with Sinbei campaign advertising.

On the left is Sinbei mayoral candidate Chu Li-luan; on the right is a local candidate for, I believe, city councilor. They're trying so hard to convince us that they're cool, with their "MiB" getup.

Chu, universally referred to in the English-language media by his Anglo name Eric, is considered the KMT young handsome rising star right now. If you asked Taiwanese people to predict the likely KMT presidential nominee in 2016, you'd hear Chu's name more than any other.

Tsai Ing-wen is the chairwoman of the DPP and Chu's opponent for mayor of Sinbei. She's also generally thought to be planning to challenge Ma in the 2012 election, which means the DPP will be in an interesting position if Tsai and Su both win their respective elections.

I'll probably make another election-themed post in a couple of days once we know more of the fate of Mr. Hau, Mr. Su, Mr. Chu, and Ms. Tsai.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The DC Metro

From the Washington Post: Commuter describes harrowing climb on Metro escalator, as he found himself climbing up a stopped escalator as the only way to exit Tenleytown station:

Murphy, 51, arrived on a train from his job downtown with the American Sociological Association about 4:10 p.m. and found that two of the three escalators at the Tenleytown exit were out of service. The only functioning escalator was carrying customers down.

A bit miffed but not surprised, Murphy, together with at least four other people, selected his route - the closest halted escalator - and started trudging up the long metal path. There were no warning signs or barricades at the bottom, and as a result they decided not to rope together for the climb.

Huffing and puffing, they neared the top, Murphy recalled, only to be horrified at the obstacle that lay ahead.

"Imagine our shock to find a giant HOLE where several steps should have been!" Murphy wrote in an e-mail.
It gets better:

Once over the crevasse, the group huddled, catching their breath, and a Metro employee approached.

Murphy and other customers told her of their ordeal, but she was cold and unsympathetic, he said. "All she really said is, 'You shouldn't be there.' She said it over and over," Murphy said. The businessman also tried to get through to her, but the Metro employee appeared unfazed. "She had her line and she kept repeating it," Murphy said.

I've spent about six years of my life, total, living car-less in DC and taking the Metro on a near-daily basis. Sadly, there's nothing in this article that I find difficult to believe.

To leave the station, one either had to take a cramped elevator (which might well have been out of service) or climb up a stopped escalator? Unfortunately, that's just about par for the course. Taking the Metro regularly gave me countless chances to thank Fate I was healthy and able-bodied.

The stalled escalator turned out to have a great big HOLE in it that was invisible from the lower level? That never happened to me, but really I can't say I'm terribly surprised.

But, for me, the real gem of this story, the icing on the cake, the final indignity for these commuters, was the attitude of the station staff after the commuters had nearly gotten themselves killed trying to get the hell out of the station.

I could deal better with a subway system that suffered from frequent delays, broken escalators, broken elevators, and various other annoyances if it were staffed by personnel who displayed even the slightest understanding that the people who rode their trains were actual human beings.

I feel like sympathy and empathy are sucked out of Metro employees as an administrative policy. My mother says she was in a DC Metro station once and she saw a bunch of tourists ask a janitor for directions. The janitor was friendly and he helped them out, only to then be chastised by an actual Metro employee. Apparently, as a janitor, he was not supposed to interact with the Metro riders.

My own favorite Metro employee experience came when I lived on Columbia Pike. One cold evening I was waiting for a bus at the bus stop adjacent to Pentagon station. A woman asked an employee about the bus schedules. She sounded a bit peeved; apparently she'd been waiting for over half an hour for a bus up Columbia Pike. The employee spoke to her in a soothing voice. Clearly he knew how to deal with an irate customer. In a tone that said he knew she was exaggerating but he understood her feelings anyway, he reminded her that buses up Columbia Pike departed every fifteen minutes, and this evening was no exception.

I'd been there for longer than the woman. I'd been there for about forty-five minutes. THERE HADN'T BEEN ANY GODDAMNED BUS.

The woman didn't pursue the matter any further. I still regret that I didn't confront the station employee; chalk it up to my own non-confrontational nature.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Republican Party Loses in 2010 Elections

WASHINGTON - Democrats expressed joy and relief this morning as they emerged from their bunkers in the nation's capital to realize that the long-feared Republican offensive of November 2, 2010 had failed completely.

The numbers hinted at the full extent of the Democrats' victory: in the 435-member House, it was estimated that possibly as many as 195 Democrats, enough to fill between one third and one half of the chamber, were still in power. Even more impressively, subsequent investigations revealed that all of the several dozen Democrats who had held seats in Congress, but were dislodged from it on November 2, were still alive.

The party confirmed late Wednesday morning that not a single Democrat had perished. Tears of relief were observed among party faithful who had been terrified by Republican promises to exterminate Congressional Democrats and sterilize their children, bringing an end to each of the 255 individual genetic lineages among the Democrats of the 111th House.

Efforts to name Rand Paul as Most Honored Philosopher-Mentor failed; Mr. Paul found himself unable to secure anything more than a Senate seat. Similarly, Pat Toomey was unable to install himself as His Excellency the Keeper of the Grand Treasury, which would have entitled him to stroll about central Washington wearing a suit of pure woven gold. Instead, he will also have to content himself with a simple Senate seat.

Threats to catapult Russ Feingold into the searing heat of the Sun came to nought, as did pledges to reduce Blanche Lincoln to a slowly expanding cloud of elementary particles in interstellar space. Both politicians were, in fact, still alive as of Wednesday morning.

Republican Chairman Michael Steele gamely tried to put a positive spin on his party's losses, but general opinion was that his message was diluted as a result of the the scene that immediately followed, in which furious Tea Party chief Sarah Palin hurled henchwomen Christine O'Donnell and Sharron Angle into a shark tank. They were both torn to shreds in a bloody feeding frenzy as punishment for their failures. Another minion, Joe Miller, is confined to a tiny metal cage in a remote part of Alaska. Senior officials are said to be carefully reviewing his recent performance; if they judge him a failure, he will be fed to polar bears.

President Barack Obama emerged from his bunker seventeen miles below Washington DC at about nine o'clock Wednesday morning. "We ceded some ground," he said, blinking in the sunlight as he addressed reporters. "Our party does not control as many seats in Congress as it did last week. But in the future, when times may be dark for our party, we will look back on November 2, 2010. And we will remember it fondly as the day when our opponents, the Republicans, sought a glorious victory but instead met only spectacular failure."

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Civility: Some Rambling Thoughts

So I’m at a loss about what we’re supposed to do in the world according to Jon Stewart. Hey, all you people working for gay and lesbian equality, all you women asking for equal pay, all you workers trying to unionize, all you peaceniks trying to end the war in Afghanistan, all you nurses and doctors and clinic workers trying to maintain reproductive freedom and keep women alive, all you teachers trying to teach science and history without censorship, all you citizens trying to build a rational health care policy, all you scientists and doctors who want our country to progress in medical research, all you damned secularists who want to keep religion out of our schools and government, hey, hey, HEY, you! Tone it down. Quit making such a fuss. You’re too loud. Shush. You’re as crazy as the teabaggers if you think your principles are worth fighting for.
That's Pharyngula on the message of the Stewart/Colbert rally. Zunguzungu has similar thoughts here and here.

I agree ninety percent, but I think I half-disagree as well. That implies a total of a hundred and forty percent. I'm weird like that.

What am I trying to say? Well, let's look at the Tea Party brand. I don't agree with what the Tea Party stands for, but I don't think it's necessarily racist at its heart either. But it's impossible to deny a lot of loud people in the movement say a lot of really, truly racist things.

In the past I've wondered why the most prominent promoters of the Tea Party brand haven't loudly spoken out against this kind of moronic tomfoolery. Wouldn't that be leadership? But then (this is going to sound a little conspiracy theory-esque) I realized to just what extent the Tea Party brand was promoting the idea among Tea Partiers that they're looked down upon by elitist snobs. Tea Partiers are condescended to. Not understood. Not listened to. Oppressed. So it makes sense to get liberals to believe that Tea Partiers = Bigots and Morons. The better to encourage Tea Partiers to go into defensive formation and support Tea Party candidates all the harder.

If I had to summarize that on a bumper sticker or protest sign:

If you think your political opponents condescend to you, you'll enter a defensive formation. Defensive formations cause echo chambers. Echo chambers cause whacked-out beliefs. I wonder if climate change denialism would be so popular in the United States if not for the fact that it's big dumb liberals who are telling denialists climate change is something they need to be concerned about. Some people believe what they believe chiefly to differentiate themselves from segments of the population, real or imagined, that they hate and don't want to identify with.

I'm not an idealist. I don't want us all to join hands and sing Kumbaya. I like to think I'm pragmatic. And getting people to calm the hell down and talk in civil voices to each other is a big part of that pragmatism.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Voter Apathy

I never got an absentee ballot this year; I take full responsibility for that. I'm kind of peeved at myself. I haven't missed an even-numbered election year since I turned eighteen.

I can take solace that Maine District 2 isn't exactly the epicenter of the 2010 midterms. We don't have a Senate race this year. Our Democratic Congressman, Mike Michaud, is going to cruise to another relatively easy re-election. I can't say I'm a big fan, but I would have voted for him anyway to do my part to keep the Republican landslide from being too big. It doesn't look like he'll need my help.

The big Maine news is the gubernatorial election, where our Democratic governor, John Baldacci, is retiring and Republican Paul LePage looks likely to replace him. I wouldn't be likely to vote for LePage, and I'm sure if I really looked I'd find some Republican boilerplate on his campaign website that I'd disapprove of. But LePage isn't not the kind of Republican who really offends me, and I've made my peace with the idea of him managing our state for the next four years.

So that's where I stand with voting this year. If LePage ends up winning by one vote I'll feel terrible, but otherwise I can't bring myself to care too much that I've wrecked my voting streak. And I'm the kind of person who checks FiveThirtyEight several times a day. Is something wrong with me?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Uninterrupted Pipeline

James Fallows is peeved, and rightly so. He had a post up about how 15 past winners of the Nobel Peace Prize had protested the continuing detention of 2010 winner Liu Xiaobo by writing an open letter to the G20 heads of state, and he asked why some previous Peace Prize laureates had failed to sign it -- Al Gore, for instance, and Nelson Mandela.

And very very quickly, about a bazillion people wrote him pointing out that Barack Obama, 2009 Peace Prize winner, had also failed to sign.

Now, it's true that he didn't sign, but as Fallows points out, it would have been rather odd if he had signed, as the letter is addressed to all G20 heads of state, and Obama is a G20 head of state. And Presidents of the United States don't generally go around signing open letters.

But what really bugs Fallows is that many of these letters imply - or say outright - that Obama had failed to condemn Liu's imprisonment at all. And this is simply not true, as 2 seconds on Google would show anyone who cared to look. He called on China to release Liu on the very day Liu won the prize.

Fallows calls this a "combination of ignorance, lack of curiosity, and certitude". Personally, I think it's the same mindset that causes people to:

- say made-up facts about some aspect of the world when making conversation at parties and other social events, when in some dark corner of their minds they must be aware that someone who actually knows something about the topic might be listening. Of course, if you correct them, you're being rude.

- spout complete nonsense to a reporter when interviewed at a political rally, and then give the reporter their real name, when in some way they must realize that if that quote gets published, then it's going to be linked to their name on the Internet forever and ever and ever until the Sun becomes a red giant and swallows up the Earth in several billion years. Of course, if they say the same thing to your face and you correct them, you're a pedantic nerd.

It's not that these people are ignorant or misinformed. All human beings are; that's not the point. It's that they believe in having a direct and unimpeded pipeline between their reptilian hindbrain and their mouth. Any odd thought that occurs to them and makes them feel good (for example, because it picks on a public figure they don't like) gets vocalized.

And who are you to hinder their freedom of expression? What, are you trying to censor them?

I'm not saying I agree with this mindset -- I'm just trying to describe how it looks to me.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

2010 Politics

Two bits of opinionizing on American politics in the year 2010:

1. The Tea Party.

A couple of years down the road, we're going to look back and see the Tea Party as a massively over-hyped phenomenon, enabled by the very same mainstream media that its more vocal members pretend to hate.

The Tea Party is not a political party. That's not a value judgement, it's a fact. The Tea Party is a brand, and it's a brand that nobody owns. You hear about "Tea Party-endorsed" candidates, but all that means is that they have the Palin or Angle seal of approval. I could run for Congress on a platform of increasing the national debt to one hundred trillion dollars and requiring all U.S. citizens to work for the federal government and I could call myself a Tea Party candidate. No one could stop me.

We're talking about a brand that covers such a varied group of individuals and beliefs that it's difficult to make sweeping statements about its followers. It seems to come down to a belief in lower taxes, less government spending, and smaller government. That's all. Say any more, get into immigration or cultural issues, and already you're painting with too broad a brush.

Now, I'm no Libertarian. Heck, I can think of lots of places where the government ought to be funneling more money. But let's be honest - there is nothing new in the core of the Tea Party platform. Their economic attitudes have been prevalent in American society for decades and will continue to be prevalent for decades more.

Frankly, I can respect people with right-wing economic views far more than I can respect people who think, if they don't like the President, it's mature and appropriate to imply he's really from Africa. Or people who like to pretend that liberals want to build a mosque right where the Twin Towers used to be.

The substance of the Tea Party is nothing new. It's a bunch of attitudes that have been in American politics for a long time, only re-packaged and with razzle-dazzle added. The substance isn't going anywhere, but I don't see the razzle-dazzle lasting long. The Tea Party brand might well be old news by 2012. Alternatively, I could see the Tea Party coalesce into something resembling a coherent political party in 2012 if the GOP nominates a Presidential candidate that the Tea Partiers deem unacceptable.

But either way, I think by 2020 we'll be looking back and seeing the Tea Party as a great big overrated pile of media-driven hype.

2. 2010 Elections.

In the House: The GOP will take over and hold a narrow majority. Speaker Pelosi will fall and Speaker Boehner will rise.

I might be wrong. FiveThirtyEight is currently giving the Democrats a 27% chance of holding onto the House. But if the Republicans do fail to take the House, it'll be the biggest failure of prognosticators since the 1948 Presidential election, and I will want to be a part of it.

In the Senate: The Democratic majority will survive in shrunken form. Possibly even 50-50. We'll probably have a different Majority Leader than Harry Reid. Reid's Senate seat may well survive the year (44% chance says FiveThirtyEight), but the Democrats are most likely going to call for his head.

Now, although I've had an eccentric habit of voting for Republican Congressional candidates in the past, I'm not at all a fan of the GOP of 2010, or the rhetoric its leaders are throwing about. But I've made my peace with the prospect of GOP control of at least one house of Congress. Deep within me there lurks a soulless, cold, calculating political junkie, reckoning the Democrats will be in a better position in 2012 if the GOP captures part or all of Congress in 2010 and find they have to put together a record they can run on. One nice thing about party politics is that any loss, no matter how catastrophic, can be spun as laying the groundwork for a win 2 or 4 years down the road.

Remember, it's all fun and games! The lives of real people in the real world won't be affected in any way by which party controls Congress, right?

I'm Back

It's a shame I haven't updated this thingy in months and months. I have no excuse. It's not like I went and got married or anything...

Friday, March 19, 2010

This is where we're at

From the AP: Cloak of invisibility takes a step forward.
Researchers at Germany's Karlsruhe Institute of Technology report they were able to cloak a tiny bump in a layer of gold, preventing its detection at nearly visible infrared frequencies.

Their cloaking device also worked in three dimensions, while previously developed cloaks worked in two dimensions, lead researcher Tolga Ergin said.

The cloak is a structure of crystals with air spaces in between, sort of like a woodpile, that bends light, hiding the bump in the gold later beneath, the researchers reported in Thursday's online edition of the journal Science.

From Nature: Scientists supersize quantum mechanics.

A team of scientists has succeeded in putting an object large enough to be visible to the naked eye into a mixed quantum state of moving and not moving.

Andrew Cleland at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his team cooled a tiny metal paddle until it reached its quantum mechanical 'ground state' — the lowest-energy state permitted by quantum mechanics. They then used the weird rules of quantum mechanics to simultaneously set the paddle moving while leaving it standing still. The experiment shows that the principles of quantum mechanics can apply to everyday objects as well as as atomic-scale particles.

Okay, people of Earth. You are officially no longer allowed to complain that it's the year 2010 and there are no jetpacks or flying cars. You're looking for cool future tech in the wrong place.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Coffee Party's Tom Schaller has posted an interview with Annabel Park of the Coffee Party Movement.

I’d like to start by asking you to give our readers a brief history of how you, using Facebook, came up with the idea to form the Coffee Party.

It was actually a very simple idea, or a hypothetical idea. Right after the Massachusetts election, leading up to Tea Party convention in Nashville, it seemed like there was non-stop coverage of the Tea Party movement. There was a growing narrative that the Tea Party represented the real America or a majority of Americans. And I thought that was completely wrong. I know they don’t represent me and I found the narrative alienating. And I just felt that was a shared opinion among many people.

So I kind of just started ranting on my Facebook page on late January 26. “Oh, God, I’m just so sick of the Tea Party. We should just start our own party, call it the Coffee Party, or the Smoothie Party—anything but Tea.” Friends of mine online bonded immediately. Within about a half an hour of that rant I created this fan page, Join the Coffee Party Movement.

The whole interview is worth reading.

I don't know an awful lot about the Coffee Party or what it stands for, but it makes me very, very happy to see somebody saying all this. And it makes me happier to see that so many people apparently agree.

You know what I hate about American political discourse?

I hate the idea that politics is properly approached the way people think and talk about sporting events.

I hate people who think the way to talk about politics is to shout nonsense and see how much spittle you can get on the other person's face.

I hate the idea that if you're giving your opinion about some politician or political issue, you don't need to restrict yourself to the truth or even make sense, and if I object on those grounds then I'm being a pedantic nerd.

I like what I've read about the Coffee Party so far.

Lesson with a Needle

Eric Mead's TED talk on the magic of the placebo has spawned some interesting comments. The site's top 3 adjectives to describe it are "Confusing", "Funny", "OK". As I write this, there are still very few comments and every one is a variation on "Huh. That was interesting, but I'm not sure what he's trying to say."

Here's my take on it, written in full ignorance of any comments that came along later that explain Mead's talk.

First, a quick summary. Mead comes out, shows the audience a simple magic trick where he makes it look like he's got a knife stuck to his hand. In reality, as he shows us, he's holding it up with a finger. But people's brains don't notice that not all of his fingers are visible and accounted for; they only see the knife hanging there like magic.

Then he talks a bit about placebos and what he finds fascinating about them. A little blue pill with writing on it is more effective than a plain white pill, even if they're both placebos. And a placebo injection is most effective of all.

So then he repeats his knife trick, with a twist. Instead of a knife, he produces a long needle, which he purportedly sticks through the skin of his forearm. He leaves it hanging there, and removes his other hand, showing that he couldn't be using the same trick that he used for the knife.

Then he shows us the alleged wound, and it looks like he's really pushed the needle through his skin and a bit of flesh, leaving it firmly attached to his arm. (The audience squirms in discomfort.) Then he goes so far as to wriggle it around, producing some realistic-looking "blood." (Several audience members cover their eyes and peek out from between fingers.)

And then -- he doesn't remove the needle, he doesn't show us how it's done like he did with the knife, he just leaves us to think about his message.

Here's what I think his message was:

Why are injections more effective placebos than pills? Because we human beings naturally respond much more strongly to needles and blood than to something innocuous like swallowing a pill. This is a reaction that occurs very deep in our unconscious minds.

Mead demonstrates this through his two magic tricks. The audience applauds politely when he makes the knife stick to his skin. But if he'd ended there, even if he hadn't explained how he did it, it probably wouldn't have stuck in their minds for very long. So he got something to stick to his wrist when it ought to have fallen to the floor. Big whoop. Everybody knows an 8-year-old who can do that.

Compare the audience's reaction when he brings out the needle. Even before we see the "wound", when for all we know it's being held there with his finger, there's already a strong "squick" reaction. Needles and the idea of piercing flesh gets people's hindbrains involved.

And when Mead shows us the "wound" dripping "blood" and never lets on how he did it, he insures that the people in the audience won't forget his performance for a long, long time. (I won't either. I mean, I know it's all a trick, but I thought he sounded somewhat dazed at the very end. Which is just what you'd expect to hear if he really had pierced his arm through with a needle...)

That's his lesson. He doesn't just tell us that our unconscious reacts more strongly when these visceral feelings excite our hindbrains. He tells us and shows us.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

Recently I saw Tim Burton Imagines a Sequel to Lewis Carroll's "Alice" Books, whose name has been shortened to Alice in Wonderland for wide release. It's a pity; now people are accusing Burton of all sorts of adaptation decay, which probably wouldn't have happened if he'd gone with the long name instead.

The two "Alice" books are probably unfilmable if the filmmaker doesn't take substantial liberties with the source material (and no, the famous Disney animated film from the 1950s is not a faithful adaptation). There's hardly any narrative continuity in what is basically a series of surreal little episodes. And don't forget that there's no continuity at all between the two books, despite the events that are thought of as the "Alice" canon being split between them. (The first novel's got slightly more famous bits in it, but it's in the second where you can find Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Humpty Dumpty, and "Jabberwocky".)

Now I want to read the books again, this time paying attention to the cultural context. Apparently the books are full of references to Victorian-era culture that hardly anybody gets anymore. The poems are parodies of stodgy moralistic poetry that every English kid had to know by heart back then, and now would be totally forgotten if it wasn't for Lewis Carroll's gentle mockery of them. Writing in The New York Times, Melanie Bayley points out how Carroll's mathematics background inspired much of the stories' lunacy.

And if TV Tropes can be believed (and I sure hope so), much of the dialogue that was Carroll meant to sound surreal and off-kilter sounds perfectly innocuous to modern readers, because colloquial English has evolved to match it - possibly due to Carroll's influence!
Much of the wording was meant to be surreal and strange, but has actually made its way into common parlance so that it seems perfectly normal to a modern reader. For instance, Alice says "Let's pretend," in the beginning. At the time, "pretend," meant "to lie or deceive", so "Let's pretend," sounded very strange. Now, thanks to Alice In Wonderland, the meaning of the word has changed quite a bit.

That is super-neat.

As for Tim Burton's movie, I enjoyed it for what it was: a surreal, hallucinogenic trip that had Burton's fingerprints all over it. The fact that he explicitly made it a sequel rather than a proper adaptation from the novels gave him a great deal of artistic leeway. Still wish he'd used the long title I suggested above.

Same goes for another movie I enjoyed immensely this year, Guy Ritchie Does a Movie about Sherlock Holmes. He could have avoided all the carping by Holmes fans if only he'd used my title.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Satire in Real Life

BoingBoing reports on a bit of official preposterousness that is particularly inane - and inconvenient and possibly traumatizing for its innocent victim:

Nicholas George, a senior in Middle-Eastern Studies at Pomona College, was detained, handcuffed, and intensively questioned by the TSA while trying to catch a flight back to school from Philadelphia. The TSA guards found English-Arabic flashcards in his luggage and said that because Osama bin Laden spoke Arabic, "these cards are suspicious." The FBI was called in, and an agent called him a "fucking idiot" when he asked why he was being held. After being asked if he was a communist or a Muslim, he was released. He was not read his rights at any time.
I figure the least disturbing explanation for this incident - and also, the least insulting to the TSA - is that the student got caught up in an anti-government satire. You know, a full-blown production put on to make fun of the U.S. government and airport security systems. Here's how I imagine it playing out:

TSA supervisor: "You know who did 9/11?"

Student: "Osama bin Laden."

TSA supervisor: "Do you know what language he spoke?"

Student: "Arabic."

TSA supervisor: "Do you see why these cards are suspicious?

Student: "OK, I get the point. TSA guys are morons. Can I go now?"

TSA supervisor: "What?"

Student: "That's the point of this whole game, isn't it? You want me to think the TSA is staffed by a bunch of illiterate racist morons, aren't they all so stupid, let's all point and laugh at them, ha ha ha? Like that time a few years ago, when that guy wasn't allowed on board a plane because his T-shirt had a picture of a gun on it? Well, I get the point. Very funny. Can I get on my plane now?"

TSA supervisor: "You're not taking this very seriously, young man. I represent the United States Federal Government."

Student: "You want me to take it seriously? Okay, then let's talk seriously. My aunt's a government bureaucrat too. She works for Health & Human Services. She's got a master's in public health. She takes her job very seriously. I respect her a lot. You want me to take it seriously, really? Well, take my brother Bob. He's a Marine. He volunteered to go fight in Afghanistan. You know why? Not because he wants to go blow up 'Ay-rabs', as you probably think, but because he respects what the U.S. military is trying to do over there and he wants to lend his skills. I respect the hell out of him and he's probably got more book smarts than me. Does he fit into your little pre-conceived notions of what a big stupid US army guy should be? No, I'd guess he probably doesn't."

TSA supervisor: "You--"

Student: "So yeah, if you want me to take it seriously, I really don't appreciate the way your silly little satire tars people affiliated with the U.S. Government with such a broad brush. It's unrealistic and it's kind of offensive."

TSA supervisor: "Listen, you fucking idiot. Satire doesn't have to be realistic. If you found the TSA guy who nailed the passenger who was wearing that T-shirt with the gun, and told him he was being unrealistic, do you know what he would have told you? He'd have told you that you were missing the fucking point."

Student: "But--"

TSA supervisor: "You think Monty Python practiced strict realism? You know that Python bit where the guy goes to the doctor's office, and when he gets there the nurse stabs him in the stomach for no reason, and the doctor makes him fill out all this paperwork while he's bleeding to death? Do you think that was realistic?"

Student: "But the difference is, the guy who got stabbed in the Monty Python bit was played by one of the Python team. They didn't set up a hidden camera so that they could stab a random guy off the street. I, on the other hand, do not wish to be a part of your little play, and may I remind you that my flight is boarding in less than 15 minutes and I would rather like to be there."

TSA supervisor: "No. I don't like your attitude. If you think I'm doing a fairly good job making the TSA look stupid now, I'll be doing an awesome job making fun of the TSA when I toss your Arabic-studying ass in a detention cell."

Student: "If I miss my flight, so help me I am calling the ACLU."

TSA supervisor: "Really now. Did Allen Funt get the ACLU called on him when he did Candid Camera, involving people in jokes without their knowledge?"

Student: "Allen Funt didn't intimidate people who'd been minding their own business, so that the organization he worked for would look like a bunch of incompetent asses."

TSA supervisor: "Fine then. Involve the ACLU. Maybe that's what I want. Because then, this whole satirical little scene will make the news. I'll get some publicity. People from coast to coast, and in other countries, will read about my idiocy and will have one more reason to believe we TSA guys are morons. How will your government bureaucrat aunt feel, when the American people see one more data point to confirm their notions that government bureaucrats are surly, incompetent fuckwads? And your brother in Afghanistan. How will he react when people's stereotypes of the men and women protecting America are pushed a little more in the direction of ignorant, racist imbeciles?"

Student: "You know, they're both adults. I think they can handle it."

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Apple's new product

Wednesday, January 27, 2010, will be a great day in the history of the human race. It should, of course, be immediately obvious to everyone what I am talking about, but in case there's anybody out there who doesn't know: today is the day that Apple is introducing its revolutionary new product.

And there is only one explanation that could justify the astonishing amount of hype and excitement. Apple is actually going to introduce consumer technology from the future.

Think of it. Steve Jobs has made contact with time travelers from the 22nd century. They have given him samples of their wondrous futuristic technology, which Jobs and his team of engineers have used to create the product that they will introduce today.

Oh, I'm sure that even now, at the eleventh hour, some nay-sayers will say that I've got the facts wrong. But I'm ready for their objections.

Objection: Apple couldn't possibly introduce technology from the 22nd century into the year 2010! That would change the course of history, leading to a different 22nd century from the one in which the technology was developed! It's a temporal paradox!

Response: Time travel doesn't work like it does on Star Trek, you silly person. In real life, when you travel in time, what you're actually doing is traveling to a universe identical to this one but a certain number of years behind (or ahead). Once you're there, you can kill your grandfather, assassinate Hitler, or sell iPods to ancient Romans, secure in the knowledge that you're not creating any paradoxes.

Objection: But even if I travel back to the 19th century and give a bright young engineer the secret of the iPhone, he's not going to be able to get rich off of it. The manufacture of modern technology requires an entire industry to already be in place. How is my 19th-century engineer going to replicate the parts that were mass-produced in high-tech factories in 21st-century Taiwan and China? Similarly, an iPhone in a world without Internet or cell phone reception would be pretty boring. Surely Steve Jobs will have similar problems trying to sell us 22nd-century technology?

Response: Ah, but Steve Jobs didn't meet his first person from the future just last week! What happens today is the culmination of years and years of Apple engineers working in tandem with tech guys from the 22nd century. They've been building factories that are capable of mass-producing 22nd-century technology.

Objection: You really think they'd be able to keep all that secret?

Response: Oh, only a few people know that Apple's new technology is from the 22nd century. Everybody else in the company just thinks Steve Jobs and his engineers are a bunch of geniuses. And they've been introducing 22nd-century design principles very gradually. Do you really think the MacBook Air and the late-generation iPods aren't influenced by the future?

Objection: Okay, okay, but maybe it's not people from the future. Maybe Steve's been talking to aliens! Maybe the new product he's introducing today is chock full of alien technology!

Response: Aliens? From outer space? Now you're just being crazy.

Friday, January 22, 2010

He's an American. Deal and move on

Gary Younge in the Guardian discusses opposition to President Obama in economically depressed parts of America. His article leads off with:

One year after his election, Barack Obama's approval rating is lower at this stage than for any US president since Eisenhower. So why has the optimism surrounding his victory disappeared so suddenly?

But that's a bit misleading. Younge doesn't so much discuss people who were optimistic about Obama but have lost the faith. Instead he mostly talks about those elements of society who never gave him a chance in the first place. And the people he quotes keep coming back to the issue of race. But they dress it up all nice, not explicitly mentioning race but implying Obama's a Muslim or somehow not American.

Usually I'm annoyed when I hear things like "People who oppose Barack Obama just oppose him because he's black." Not only do I think there are plenty of people who oppose him from both the left and the right who aren't racist, but tarring people who disagree with you with the broad "racist" brush is a way of shutting out viewpoints that differ from yours. You don't like the guy I voted for? Then you're a bad person and I don't have to listen to you.

But come on. Would there be a "birther" movement if the President were Al Gore or John Kerry or John Edwards or Hillary Clinton? Would people be muttering "(s)he's not even a real American"? Would people reflexively be calling the President a Muslim?[1]

No, of course not. Part of it is Obama's skin color. But I think a big part of it is also his name. A lot of people can't get over his name. Hussein. Barack Hussein Obama. B. Hussein Obama. And quite frankly, attacking him based on his name is racist too. His name is his heritage.

Here's what I'd like to see.

Who are seen as leaders in right-wing anti-Obama "tea party" movements? Palin? Scott Brown? Beck? Limbaugh? Let's have somebody actually show some leadership.

I'd like to see a prominent somebody that these tea-party guys respect forcefully repudiate all of the race-based anti-Obama crap. I want to see them loudly and unequivocally say that the idea Obama was born in Kenya is nutty, that calling him a Muslim is just mindless name-calling, that implying he's less "American" because he's B. Hussein Obama is simply unacceptable.

That would be leadership. And if right-wing opposition to Obama and his agenda really is based on his economic agenda, fears of a huge national debt, and opposition to expanded government programs, then denouncing the nasty race-based rhetoric wouldn't weaken or compromise their message one bit.

Once again, if Beck or Palin or Limbaugh or Brown said this loudly and forcefully, that would be leadership.

[1] Actual American Muslims, take note: They're trying to insult President Obama by comparing him to you. But no need for you to take offense. Of course.