Thursday, April 30, 2009

perfectly symmetrical violence

I found this unaccountably amusing, thought I'd share:

keanu reeves and hugo weaving

Can you tell I'm procrastinating writing?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Facebook is a window to your soul...

...and your pocketbook. Wired is currently featuring an article about how marketers use your public social-networking data to sell you things. If you've got a Facebook page, it's worth reading.

I'm of two minds about this. It instinctively creeps me out, knowing I'm under marketers' microscopes. The people who sell us stuff are extremely good at their jobs. They're so good, they've managed to turn "shopping" into a leisure activity. And their message is more layered than people realize. When a hypnotist says, "do you notice how sleepy you're feeling?", the language-processing part of your brain has to subconsciously accept the feeling sleepy part to process the grammar of the question. And any reflexive answer you give subconsciously assumes you're feeling sleepy. And ads do the same thing. You accept their subtext to process their message. They're not just selling you a laptop; they're selling you on the whole concept that you need a new laptop, that your two-year-old computer is now obsolete. They aren't just selling you beer; they're selling you the concept that you'll have more fun and people will like you more when you're drinking. And you can't fight both messages at once. According to NLP theorists, you subconsciously accept one message to reject the other. People who make ads do this kind of manipulation on purpose; they modify your perceptions of the world to make you more likely to buy their products, and the cumulative effect is staggering. And I'm not comfortable giving them too much information about me.

On the other hand, we do buy stuff, and ads are everywhere anyway. If better target marketing will reduce the ads aimed at me to things I'm actually interested in, that's not such a bad use of my personal information.

And, I'm really not seeing it as a privacy issue. It's on Facebook -- it's inherently public information, and information you entered yourself. If you want to keep something private, my deep advice is to keep it off the internet....

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

More Racism Revealed!

I suspect that most of our prejudices are invisible, even to ourselves; without an event to make them visible, they're just part of the background noise in our heads. We make an assumption or set of assumptions, based on our own experiences, that gets validated or invalidated by further experiences, but we don't do it consciously, and probably aren't aware of it unless an event happens that shocks the hidden stereotype into view.

I had one of these today. I had never realized that I've got a stereotype about Russians. I don't think it's a normal social prejudice; I think it's just something I picked up based on my own experiences. The stereotype is, roughly: Russian=Intelligent. And thinking back, I can see where I picked it up; in my entire history with various Russians, I've never met one who wasn't pretty darn smart and well-educated.

And today I met an exception. After a few minutes talking to the guy, I caught myself thinking, "you can't be this stupid -- you're Russian!", and I realized I had this prejudice lurking in my subconscious. It makes me wonder how many other prejudices like this are living in my head....

an unmasculine thing to admit

I read manuals.

I know, I know: real men aren't supposed to read the manual. I lose guyness points merely by admitting that when I open a box I usually read the manual before I start playing with wires and widgets. But I use a lot of technical gear, and a lot of it is so complex, you'd never figure it out by just punching buttons. And even if you did, you'd miss a pile of little tricks that are in the documentation. So I've been in the directions-reading habit for a while.

Maybe the first place I learned the importance of RTFM was the first time I tried to assemble a piece of IKEA furniture sans instructions. I ended up with pieces not fitting, holes stripped from using an off-size fastener, and a very wobbly bookcase (which I immediately reinforced with plywood, construction adhesive, and pneumatic staples; reading manuals doesn't completely invalidate my other guy qualities). Now, even if I've assembled something just like it before, I still read the instructions first, just in case.

Also, I get a moderate amount of comedy by reading manuals. Maybe my favorites are for Rane audio gear. My splitter/mixer manual begins like this:
Realizing that in most areas there are laws against reading owners manuals, and that reading them under the blankets at night with a flashlight makes you feel stupid, we therefore provide this brief, yet legal description of how to use the SM26B just in case your batteries are low and your mother is about to come in the room.
To achieve a quick understanding of the SM26B, think of it as a six channel mixer with faders and pans only. Or think of it as a 2-to-6 channel splitter with output level controls and a mix knob. If you get that, you may stop here. If you're really hardcore, wiring block diagrams are in appendix B. Otherwise, read on.
See the tech comedy I'd miss out on if I skipped the manual!

Believe it or not, I also at least glance through the owner's manual when we rent a car. This is how I find the extra aux jacks for the radio, figure out how to turn off the emergency alarm (good to know this in advance!), how the cruise control or hybrid controls work, things like that. The irritating car company: Nissan, whose manuals are in the glove box, but on DVD ROM. So, great -- if we accidentally activate the alarm, we need to find a computer to figure out how to turn it off. Laura had an Altima (otherwise an extremely nice car!) for a week on tour, and we never knew you didn't need to use the buttons on the remote to open the door. It works on RFID; as long as you've got it with you, you only need to push that little button on the door handle. This is a handy feature, one it would've been nice to know about in advance. And it's the kind of thing for which it's better to read the manual. Sure, you could learn almost everything through experimentation. But it's much more efficient to read the directions than to waste time fumbling and bumbling. And I'm fine with sacrificing a little macho on the altar of information.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Wild Ratio Swings

Since Valentine's Day, our cats-to-humans ratio has gone from 4:2 (the Chaka-Koko-Meeper-Emmett standard) to 5:2 (plus Bowie) to 8:2 (Bowie plus her kittens). As of yesterday morning, we're back to 4:2. We put Bowie and her three new kittens out in the garage. We enjoyed having the kittens in the house; they're still in the Cute phase, while being a month or so from the Cute But Underfoot phase. But we thought it'd be easier to put them outside sooner rather than later, so they wouldn't get adapted to life inside. If they did, it'd seem a bit cruel to put them outside. And, the longer they stayed inside, the more likely we'd get attached to them and let them stay inside. Eight cats inside is too many, even for us; four or five is the solid maximum.

People who don't own cats don't know that having friendly, well-adjusted cats in the house takes a lot of energy. I'm not talking about task-oriented cat maintenance, the changing of litter boxes and feeding; that falls under the major heading of Household Chores. If you have cats, and you want them to be happy, you need to pay attention to them. You can't just ignore them or treat them like pests. And if you want them to be well-adjusted and friendly, you need to do it at least partially on the cats' schedules. If they want attention, you need to pay attention to them, at least most of the time. I know cat owners who disagree with this, but they tend to have cats who are surly, skittish, or invisible. And we don't have the time and energy for eight cats. If we kept the kittens inside and adopted them, we'd pretty quickly find ourselves with a house full of unhappy, surly cats....

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The highlight of my day

This afternoon we've got a performance by this guy, and he's the highlight of my performance week -- maybe of my whole month. He plays extremely good instrumental guitar in a unique style, and he's great fun to work with. We've got a rule that we only hire local performers; some of them come from as far away as Bloomington or South Bend, but most live in Indy. He's the most distant musician we've ever hired, by at least an order of magnitude -- he's French, and he lives in England. So if you get a chance, he's worth stopping by for.

We really don't have any bad performers, or even any who aren't actively good. But this guy's so unique and so entertaining to watch, he's special even by our high standards....

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Seasonal Sartorial Disorder

I suffer from a fairly common bicycle commuter's malady: Seasonal Sartorial Disorder. SSD is close to Seasonal Affective Disorder, except instead of getting moody, we suffer angst about what to wear on the bike. We're in that odd time of year when it's close to freezing for the morning bike ride, and over 60 degrees for the ride home. And there's no good clothing option that keeps you comfy at both temperatures. Our options are to either be cold in the morning, to be hot in the evening, or to be overloaded with an extra set of cycle clothes, in addition to our work clothes.

I'm better suited to dressing for the ride home. I'm cold on the ride in, but I'd rather be cold than hot. And, as long as I keep my ears warm, I've got an easy solution for getting chilly on the ride: pedal faster!

I don't know any cyclists who go for option three, packing extra clothes. Serious cyclists are happy to spend a few thousand dollars on a bike that's a few pounds lighter; they're not going to nullify their weight savings by packing extra cargo if they can help it. I suspect there might be an Option Four: buy extremely expensive bike clothes that work across a 45-degree temperature range. I don't know if such clothes exist, but if they do, they're out of my price range....

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Another secret to a happy marriage

So, we're all familiar with the more traditional elements that make up a happy marriage: communication, trust, honesty, et cetera. I've got a new one for the list: extremely bad puns. Laura and I engage in bad puns on a regular basis, and I think it strengthens our marriage. As an example, the last song on the radio before we went outside to work in the garden this morning was Tim Curry's "I Do The Rock", which we both find an unaccountably entertaining song. And, after a few minutes of pulling weeds and planting herbs, we had this conversation:

Laura: "I heard that, before Tim Curry was an actor and singer, he worked as a cook in a Chinese restaurant."
Jeff: "Really?"
Laura: "Yeah -- he do the Wok!"
Jeff: "Oh, so that was after he did suspension work at an auto body shop."
Laura: "Really?"
Jeff: "Yeah, he do the Shock!"
Laura: "I heard he was a shepherd for a while, too."
Jeff: "So... he do the Flock?"
Laura: "Yeah!"
Jeff: "I hear he auditioned for a Star Trek movie."
Laura: "You're kidding; he do the Spock? And I heard he was an offensive lineman on his college's football team."
Jeff: "So he can do the Block -- nice one. Didn't he invent the polymer-framed handgun?"
....

This continued for probably twenty minutes, back and forth. It was amazing how many -ock rhymes we could come up with. And Laura and I are evenly matched in bad-pun skills; we don't have a pun-off often, but when we do, it's a blast.

Friday, April 17, 2009

What a show!

I just saw an excellent show. Dance Kaleidoscope and the Indiana Repertory Theatre did an experimental co-production tonight. They used Margaret Atwood's script for The Penelopiad, the story of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus. Margaret Atwood not only wrote the story, she also wrote a play script in Greek drama style. Tonight, DK and IRT did the first several scenes, maybe 25 minutes, with three actors playing the roles of Penelope, Icarius, and Odysseus, and the dancers serving as maids and oracles and suitors and other assorted ducks and wedding guests. And it was an amazing production. It was a complete synergy of movement and song and performance, beautiful and moving and energetic.

They used no scenery, minimal props, and no costuming, and the piece was performed under worklights; it stood entirely on the strength of the script and the performers, who were still on book after only four days of rehearsal and choreography. And I think this was for the best. It's easy to pile Production on a production, elaborate scenery and costuming that in no way serves the story and primarily serves as a showcase for the theater, rather than as support for the story and characters. And it was nice to see a show that survived, and wowed me, strictly on the basis of the story and performers. It's a reminder that, while all that production stuff is nice (and, not incidentally, what I do for a living), it's really secondary. If they ever get the wherewithal to mount the full production, I hope they approach scenery and costuming from a minimalist standpoint.

Another bit of comedy: union rules are one of the biggest impediments to mounting a full production. The IRT is a union house for actors and stage managers, and union rules add a lot of expensive hurdles to a production like this. The added rehearsal time, plus the huge cast (the dancers would have to be under Equity contracts as well), would push the staff costs for the full show to around triple the IRT's usual show, so they're not doing it. The irony of actor's union rules keeping plays from being produced is, I hope, not lost on the performers and staff. I'm a little evil about this; I'd be tempted to call all the actors and tell them about this great show they could be in, if their union rules didn't kill the production....

And, I hate to say, but if you didn't see the "Penelopiad Experiment", you won't; it was one performance only. And, not to rub it in, but you missed a heck of a performance. Neener, neener! (Okay, I'll rub it in a little....)

Kitten Mortality

So far, in the first eight hours, we've had 25% kitten mortality: the litter started with four kittens, and we're already down to three. We're hoping it stabilizes here, but the odds aren't good; I don't know what the bigger statistics are, but we're closer to 60% with our feral colony, and that's only Natural Causes. If you factor in Unnatural Causes, like dog attacks, we've got to be closer to 90%. Case in point: Ghost and Tommy just had kittens a few days apart in the garage. Tommy's litter went from five to one in the first four days, and Ghost's went from five to two in the first three weeks; she would've lost another one, which got trapped in a basket in the garage, if I didn't notice and rescue the kitten with wire cutters. Tommy's last litter, early last summer, went from four to zero in under a minute; one of the stray dogs that lives in Brookside Park jumped our fence.

One of our lingering questions has been what to do with the deceased kittens. We've gotten more jaded as time's gone on. At this point, if the cat is old enough that we've named it, we'll bury it and plant something over it in the garden (Tosca's poppies started blooming last week). If it's too young or unknown to have a name yet, we just bag it and drop it in the trash....

Thursday, April 16, 2009

(Yet) more kittens

It's late, I'm tired, but I can't hop in bed just yet. Why not? Because we just found a cat giving birth on our bedspread. That's why not.

Remember Bowie, our new kitten? Turns out she was pregnant when we let her in the house (cat gestational period: 9 weeks, so she had to be pregnant already). We didn't realize until a few weeks ago that she wasn't just getting fat on the rich indoor kitty diet, and by then we would've felt bad throwing her out.

We're still not sure what to do about the kittens. My first thought is to carry the mom and babies outside (I put Bowie in a big plastic tote as soon as we found her in labor) and leave them in the garage; it's pretty safe, and the weather's not bad. I really don't want any more cats inside. Bowie herself seems like maybe one too many sometimes. So a pile of kittens -- while extremely cute -- will eventually turn into a herd of cats we don't have space for or inclination to keep. But I won't put them out until tomorrow at the earliest.

So, anyone want a kitten?

Coffee economy

I just figured out something surprising: if you make it at home, the price of a latte is about 65% of the price of a cup of brewed coffee. Until I measured, I didn't realize how much less coffee you use to make espresso. And you don't need to keep half-and-half on hand, like you do with coffee. I figure a latte at home costs close to 45 cents: 25 cents for the milk, 15 cents for the coffee, and a nickel for the sugar. Brewed coffee costs close to 45 cents just for the coffee alone, plus another 20 cents for half-and-half and a nickel for sugar. I was doing math to see how much money we'd save by going back to regular coffee, and I'm pleasantly surprised to find we've got financial incentive to stick with our traditional morning latte. Of course, this doesn't factor in that an espresso machine costs a lot more than a coffee pot. But we already own it; I'm just looking at daily expense here.

Of the funny, Laura and I have a running joke about my equivalent Starbucks experience. We rarely skip the morning latte; it's conservative to assume I make 600 lattes a year, and we've been doing this for six years. A busy barista makes at most 100 a day (plus, of course, a pile of mochas and iced coffees and every other random half-skim half-caf no-whip caramel macchiato a customer asks for). This means I've got over a month of Starbucks-equivalent latte experience!

And I make a killer mocha, too....

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

I wish I were this clever!

Randall Munroe invents a coathanger-based widget to allow him to read in bed with ease. Pro: you need only a coathanger and pliers to make the widget. Con: you need an Amazon Kindle 2. But it's wildly clever and extremely practical, and it solves a problem that everyone has....

Pimp My MacBook

Every so often, when I've got a few minutes to kill near a computer, I play a game on shopping websites. I pick something you can extensively customize, then I hunt for the most expensive possible customization. I don't know why I find it so amusing, but I'm interested to know that, if you really wanted one, Apple would build you a $20,000 Mac Pro, or Toyota would sell you a Rav4 (base price: $21,500) for $36,000.

Now that I think about it, it might be a bit cathartic for me to do this kind of exercise. I generally go the other direction when I buy stuff -- is there any way I can get this $50 piece of hardware for $40? So temporarily pretending I've got huge cash reserves is a cheap, quick financial power trip.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

I needed that.

We paid our taxes yesterday. And I mean paid. Unlike a lot of people, we don't get a refund -- we have self-employment income, so we owe social security, and we don't have taxes withheld from these jobs. And this year was a bigger hit than we were expecting. So I spent this morning feeling depressed about money. And I wanted a treat of some kind, even if it's my usual $2 coffee-and-bagel combo, but I just couldn't justify spending the money.

So, I was a bit down when I was setting up for the Indiana Secretary of State seminar in the Artsgarden today. But, it turned out that Chick-fil-A donated a bunch of lunches for the seminar patrons. So when they brought me yummy lunch (with a fudge brownie!), it was exactly what I needed. It's a little thing, I know, but that free lunch really brightened my outlook and gave me the vibe that better times are ahead. I know it's a little silly, but I feel much, much better now....

Monday, April 13, 2009

It's hard being a superhero

Laura and I trekked through a huge parking lot Saturday. As I was walking past a wide variety of vehicles, it occurred to me: if I were a superhero, and I needed to pick up a car and wallop a supervillain with it, I'd have a problem. There's no good way to pick up a car! You can't grab it by the bumper; that piece of expensive, color-matched plastic will pop right off. You probably couldn't even get enough lift on the bumper to pick the car up high enough to grab the axle. Ditto, any upper part of the frame, or any part of the body. I think my best bet, if I had to whack Masked Menace with a car, would be to pick it up by a wheel, then flip it enough that I could grab the axle. Even then, the axle would probably not deal well with the strain of being used as a handle; pieces would bend or pop, and the resultant wobble would throw my aim off.

Maybe better would be a car with a trailer hitch; while it also wouldn't take the strain of being used as a hand grip, it's at least bolted directly to the frame. I suspect I'd have to swing just right, to not apply to much torque to the frame or the hitch -- maybe grab the hitch, then swing the car straight overhead and drop it on top of the arch-fiend. But swinging it like a giant baseball bat probably wouldn't work.

I think probably the best vehicular villain-basher would be construction equipment. Almost any part of a bulldozer could be used as an effective lever. They're built to take strain from odd angles, so you could grab it by the frame or the bucket or even by a convenient tread-axle and use it to smite evil. Plus, they're heavy and solid; they'd pack one heck of a wallop.

I have to wonder if this train of thought (ooh, train car -- another good weapon!) occurs to most people. It'd be comforting to know it's just me.

Cathartic Cleaning

I cleaned my desk today.

No, really -- this is a big deal. I'm a bit of pack rat when it comes to my desk space. In the vicinity of my desk I've got not only all the usual desk cruft, I've also got a mountain of old computer hardware and software. I've got install disks and hardware left over from my old Pentium I bought in 1994. It's not my fault that I hold on to this stuff. I've been conditioned to keep it around forever. Every time I throw something away, I find out a few days (or even hours) later that I need it. The obscurity of the item I discard seems to have an inverse relationship with how long it'll be until I need it. Last time I cleaned, I remember thinking, "when am I ever going to need 3 1/2 to 5 1/4" drive rail adapters?" Answer: about two hours after the trash truck came. Soon after, I threw away a Windows 98 install disc, almost sixteen hours before Laura needed to install an offline editor for a light board. Which only ran in Windows 98. So the fates have told me not to dump this stuff.

But today I did. I filled two grocery sacks with junk. The computer software and hardware was easy, and I threw away an amazing amount of stuff. And I organized what I kept -- I've got neat ziplock baggies with labels like, "Laura's laptop restore discs" and "obscure but useful drivers". I even threw away old games. And I've resolved to not worry about throwing away anything I might regret. It'll be less than the regret involved with keeping all this crap in my workspace.

On the other hand, I feel odd about throwing away my stack of audio cassettes. I had live recordings of theater shows I did fifteen years ago. I had mix tapes made by friends in high school. I had Dweezil Zappa's first album. I had live recordings of the Indiana Ragtime Festival, old Prairie Home Companion joke shows, compilations I made to listen to while driving. And it all went in the trash. I've got some good memories attached to a lot of this stuff. But I'm in a cleaning mood, and I haven't listened to anything on cassette in at least four years. Getting rid of old mix tapes from friends I haven't seen in years was a bit difficult. But when they were here, I didn't listen to them. It occurs to me that maybe their value has less to do with the music on them, and more to do with their totemic power: here are (somewhat) handmade expressions of friendship and love, always there to remind me of the people who care about me. So maybe I'll dig through the bag and save a few. But the old show tapes of "Decades!" from Glacier National Park -- those can go.

The part I haven't finished involves sorting through the huge stack of unlabeled CDs and DVDs which were piled on the floor and the desk and in boxes. I might be able to assume that if I haven't needed it yet, I probably won't; on the other hand, some of it might be of interest, if not actually important. So the plan is to do a few a day until the pile's gone.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Expensive taste

It's axiomatic that personal taste isn't a matter of right and wrong; someone who doesn't like shrimp has no better or worse taste than someone who thinks shrimp is the most perfect foodstuff ever eaten. Sure, there are some general standards: spoiled food is generally bad, rotting anything is generally frowned upon. But for the most part taste is, yeah, a matter of taste.

That said, there are standards for taste, and they're generally set by experts. I'm specifically thinking about wine. An expensive wine is generally agreed to be better than a cheap wine. Some of it's supply and demand: the expensive wines are rarer and therefore more expensive. But some of the rarity is manufactured; a specific wine might be vinted in a smaller production run to add to its value. And the rest of the value is a factor of what wine experts tell us. The experts tell us it's the best wine of the year, and it gets expensive. The experts tell us it's not so good, and it's cheaper. But, again, it's all a matter of taste. If you have expensive tastes -- that is, if you agree with the experts 100% of the time -- that's not a good thing. What's more likely: all of your subjective judgments independently agree with the pronouncements of a panel of experts; or, you've let the experts' pronouncements define your tastes for you. Option one is statistically unlikely. And option two would be a bit embarrassing to admit. But, especially with wine, I suspect that a lot of people's tastes really are determined by the pronouncements of the experts. It'd be hard not to internalize expert opinions about wine; they sound so formal, so authoritative, it's natural to assume they're right, especially since they all tend to agree. But they only agree because they all went to the same school (in the "school of painting" sense, rather than the "educational establishment" sense), wherein they were graded on their ability to agree in detail with other experts. 

Laura started me thinking about this when we went out for post-show dinner on Friday. She ordered the least expensive chardonnay, and she was extremely impressed with it; we're adding it to her list of favorites. She's got good taste, but it's entirely defined by her internal values, rather than what experts have determined to be the best. She likes some expensive wines, too, but it's because the experts and she happen to agree occasionally; she doesn't fall into the "expensive = quality" trap. I really respect this about her.

I also respect the fact that she is always willing to try the new and different, rather than falling into habit and ordering the same thing every time. I think she works under the assumption that she hasn't tried her favorite wine yet; she's got favorites, but she knows there has to be good and different that she hasn't experienced yet.

Oh, and: Friday's wine was Pure Evil, a South Australian chardonnay. Laura gives it her stamp of approval. If you're a wine-oriented person and you see it on a menu, give it a try and see how closely your taste matches with Laura's.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

teevee-free

I heard the apocryphal number that people who say "I don't watch television" in surveys, average 9 hours of television viewing a week. Laura and I don't watch television regularly, and I can prove it: we don't have cable or a satellite dish or an antenna. All of our television comes in the form of DVDs, which we get from the library; in the last year or so, we've seen a few seasons of CSI, she's seen a season of Smallville, and I watched two seasons of CSI: Miami (am I the only one who thinks David Caruso is actually pretty cool?) while Laura was out of town in February and March.

And I just figured out that we haven't turned on the television since she got home. I had unplugged the TV to plug in my electric blanket in the den while she was gone, and I just realized today when I was packing up the electric blanket for the winter that it's still plugged in there. We've gone four weeks, as of today, without realizing the television hasn't been plugged in. I feel so unAmerican....

Friday, April 10, 2009

Perfect for your World Domination needs!

This week in the Artsgarden, we're displaying the entries in the American Institute of Architects design contest. The participants are all high-school students in architecture classes, and the theme of this year's contest is interesting: design a laboratory built into a cliff face. I couldn't look at some of the designs without picturing them on Villain Source's lairs and bases page. They'd be the perfect place from which to scheme nefariously, only missing the shark trap, femme fatale lodgings, and large, obvious self-destruct mechanism.

We've had the AIA high school design competition here for five or six years, and even in this short span of time I've noticed that the design submissions have become very polished -- CAD and rendering software has allowed even high-school kids to produce professional-looking designs, with simulated images and pro-quality layouts. This has the side effect of making even bad designs look good. I really needed to pay attention to figure out which designs are functional and workable and which aren't, because they all look so presentable. I think people have an inherent sense for good design. Something designed well is instinctively more appealing than something designed poorly. But well-presented good design doesn't inherently click with viewers any more than well-presented bad design.

I also think that bad design is more obvious than good design. It's easier to look at a display board and notice that the restrooms-to-occupants ratio is off, or that the walls are all difficult-to-build multidimensional curves, or that they've got wind turbines to generate power mounted three feet from a cliff face. But it's hard to look at several good designs and decide which would be more ergonomic, easier to work in, or more practical. The best design comes from a gestalt of a huge collection of factors, and it isn't immediately obvious, or even apparent after much study, which is the best gestalt....

Anyway, if you're in the neighborhood you might get a kick out of the designs. Some of them are very clever, and some of them are thought-provoking. They're on display through next Thursday evening.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Odd days off

One of the things I really like about my job is the odd schedule. Like today; it's Wednesday, and I'm off. I'm also off next Monday and Tuesday, I think. The people who do paperwork say that I need two days off every week, and I agree wholeheartedly. But I need to work a lot of weekends, so my days off tend to be placed almost at random, instead of conveniently arranged on the traditional Saturday/Sunday weekend. And when I've got a random Wednesday off, it seems like a treat, a surprise, because I'm still mentally attached to the weekends-off paradigm. There's no excuse for this; my entire adult life, I've worked in the theater, where you tend to work all weekend, every weekend. With the exception of a warehouse job during college, I've never had a Monday thru Friday job. But I still tend to see weekdays off as something special and out-of-the-ordinary. This is probably a good thing, because this point of view means that all my days off feel at least a little like holidays.

And, at the risk of sounding extremely antisocial: days off are always good, but days off when most people are expected to be working are better. It's not uncommon for some outside force to try to appropriate my weekends for their own purposes; it's assumed I won't be working, so I'm free to do whatever they want, at the risk of social penalty if I balk. Working weekends has the huge advantage of being a true, absolute excuse for not doing what other people want me to on my days off. And, as an added bonus, it gives me days off during the week, when people don't think to commandeer my time. A day off on the weekend might become someone else's time, but a weekday off is 100% pure mine mine mine! Selfish, but true....

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

We Are Not Easily Impressed.

For a typical performance at the Artsgarden, we'll usually have a crowd of 25 to 75 people seated at any time. But over the course of the performance, around 1500 people will walk through the space and catch a bit of the show. Some will stop and catch a few minutes of the show, and some are apparently so wrapped up in themselves that they won't even notice there's a performance going on. But most people will at least glance up at the stage and see what's happening.

Today's performance was by Gregg Bacon, saxophonist extraordinaire. He does a trick wherein he plays three (!) saxophones at once. It's exactly as impressive as you'd think. But I'm also entertained by watching the crowd's reaction. The most typical reaction is surprise and amazement. I'll see someone glance at the stage and see a guy playing three saxophones; it takes a moment to sink in, but when it does, they'll at minimum point so their friends notice. More typically, they'll stop for a moment and watch. But the ones that I really wonder about are the people who glance at the stage, then keep walking coolly on. I see a few options: they're looking, but not really paying attention, so the sax trick doesn't register; they see Gregg playing three saxophones at once, but have no background to realize that it's out of the ordinary; or they're so determined to be nonplussed with the world around them that they pretend they don't care. Mostly this last group consist of teenagers, who radiate a vibe that says, "ho hum, guy playing three saxophones, been there, done that."

A few weeks ago, we had the Blue Monkey Sideshow in the Artsgarden -- a real circus-style sideshow, complete with a bed of nails and jugglers and all kinds of carnival tricks. I didn't work it, so I didn't get to watch the crowd. But I wonder if they got the same reaction from teenagers: "ho hum, guy squeezing himself through a tennis racket, ho hum, guy smashing light bulbs with his forehead, so not impressed...". It seems like sideshow tricks would be the sort of thing that it's cool for teens to notice, but I still wonder....

Monday, April 06, 2009

Facts in fiction

I'm reading a book in which I found two factual errors in five pages. The author has a short scene happen in a chem lab in which the laws of chemistry don't apply, then a scene in a gym wherein a character uses a nonexistent machine (a "biceps press machine", with a weight stack that goes to 400 pounds). This kind of factual authorial error has always bothered me; it's outside the realm of normal suspension of disbelief. I'll accept that a character can turn invisible and still see clearly, even though light is passing through their eyes (and the rest of their body) without stopping; I'm fine with a matter teleporter that works in opposition to the normal laws of physics; I'll grant the existence of vampires. This stuff moves the story forward, and it's part of the world the author establishes. They're deliberate choices an author makes. But once an author establishes his world, he has to stick with it and live with its rules. If a fictional cab makes it from Brooklyn to the Bronx in ten minutes, that's an author error. If a golfer hits a hole-in-one with his twelve iron, that's an error two ways -- no such club, and even if there were, it'd be the wrong one for distance. If a character hops on a Harley, he had better not stomp the accelerator; the throttle's on the grip. An author getting his facts wrong kicks me out of the story.

And today, it finally occurred to me why it bothers me when authors get facts wrong. When I read about a subject I'm not familiar with, I like getting the feeling that I'm learning while I read -- that what I'm reading is True, even if I know I'm reading fiction. When I read a suspense novel set in an airport, I feel like I'm getting to see the back-end operation of an airport; when I read a story set in Scotland, I want to believe I'm seeing Scotland, that the buildings and customs are authentic. And information I pick up in fiction becomes part of my background working knowledge. So when an author makes factual errors that I can catch, it throws into doubt all of their other "facts" -- the story no longer seems True. And I have to be almost consciously aware that a lot of the "facts" I'm reading might be complete inventions, so they don't slip into my pool of background knowledge about the subject. It's distracting.

I feel a bit foolish, admitting I (at least unconsciously) try to pick up actual facts by reading fiction. But this is somewhat mollified by the knowledge that a large chunk of Americans pick up their political news from comedians....

Friday, April 03, 2009

Feline auditory acuity

We all know that cats and dogs don't see in the same range that humans do; they can see better in low light, but are largely colorblind. I've recently been wondering if the same thing is true of cats' hearing -- if they can't hear some sounds that people can. I've been using my cats as study subjects and conducting experiments. Here are the results of my observations so far:

Stimulus
Range of hearing
Can opener
Other cats fighting
Bacon wrapper crinkling
"Treat!"
"Down!", "Off!"
back door creaking
cat-food can shaking
100 feet
150 feet
200 feet
60 feet
inaudible
100 feet
60 feet

Nothing scientifically conclusive yet, but it warrants further study.

Oop, gotta go -- I hear a Pringles can opening somewhere....

Thursday, April 02, 2009

This should've been obvious...

If you're fixing the seal around one of your car doors with any kind of adhesive product, make sure the glue has fully cured before tightly closing the door!

That is all.

Define "realistic"

In fictional terms, I suspect that realistic, as it applies to characters and events, has little to do with the real world. It's more of a synonym for believable, which a lot of real events and people aren't. In the comment thread for my take on race and stereotyping in writing, I mentioned that I know real people who are way too stereotypical to use as characters; they're real, but that doesn't mean they'd look good on the page.

It also occurred to me that in my early- to mid-twenties, I had a friend who was a living, breathing Marty Stu. He was good-looking, tough, and an expert in everything. He was a computer hacker, an engineer, and an expert combat marksman. He was the most accomplished martial artist his age I've ever met; he was inhumanly fast, and had an inherent gift for fighting (I've met better fighters, but not many, and they're all at least a decade older than him). He was a rock climber, he could fix cars, and I heard he was a good dancer with excellent taste in wine. He could quote huge chunks of the Bible from memory, yet was a complete heathen. Et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseam. He was a real person, but as a fictional character he'd be as believable as the movie version of James Bond.

This is one of the biggest challenges I have writing -- making characters who can do extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances, yet still read as real people, not superhero stereotypes. It's one of the reasons I like John Scalzi's Old Man's War so much: John Perry is so completely a hero, yet so completely a normal, everyday guy. I didn't realize how hard it is to hit this balance until I hammered my head against it for a while. And OMW is practically an object lesson in how to do it right.

It's a habit I'm working on breaking in my writing -- the tendency to justify writing that doesn't quite sound right by saying things like, "but I just heard someone talking like that!", or "but I know a guy who can do that!", or "something like this was just on the news!" I know it's bad writing, but it's easier than good writing. :-)

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Race Fail

In case you missed it, the sci-fi and fantasy community online has been buzzing for two months with a discussion of race and fiction. The entire discussion has been labeled RaceFail '09. If you haven't caught any of this, for heaven's sake don't try to catch up now. I estimate the discussion to run over two million words, divided between a few hundred blogs and comment threads. And the signal-to-noise ratio is pretty bad, for several reasons: a lot of the signal has been lost (in the form of locked/deleted/screened posts and comment threads), a lot of repeat in the signal (hundreds of people have said essentially the same thing in lots of different words, and several people have said the same things in lots of different places), and a lot of noise in the signal (it's occasionally devolved into vitriolic screaming matches). A few people on every side of the issue have behaved poorly, quite a few people involved have been rabidly angry, and the floors over at LiveJournal are sticky with mouth froth and flung poo. Don't get me wrong -- it's an important discussion, I've found it enlightening, and a lot of important things have been said. But, like I said: two million words. You can't sort through it, because so much of it's gone and because you can't put a coherent timeline together across all the venues where discussion was happening. Like Inigo Montoya said: "Let me explain.... No, there is to much. Let me sum up." So if you're interested, I recommend this short summary; it's as good a short introduction as you're likely to find, and all of the links are worthwhile, if you want to read deeper. I'm also recommending this essay; it was enlightening.

A lot of the discussion involves White Guy Privilege -- the concept that being white folk, and especially white and male, has a huge number of advantages, and that white guys are generally blind to their privilege, in the same way fish are generally unaware of water. This part of the discussion has been instructive. When I look around and pay attention, I become aware of a lot of the ways in which being a white guy works to my advantage. It hasn't had much professional impact; I'm a tech guy. But I have a broad-spectrum peace of mind that I probably wouldn't have were I not a white guy. F'rinstance, I just had expensive car repairs done. I suspect if I were a persecuted minority (or a woman), the thought would've at least crossed my mind that I got slapped with the unofficial Colored/Ovaried Fee. If I don't get a job I want, I'll never have to wonder if my race has anything to do with it -- or, if I get the job, I won't ever wonder if I only got in because I fill a quota. I bicycle at night through neighborhoods that I couldn't ride through in daylight if I weren't a guy (it helps that I've got lots of expert-level hitting-people training). This is just a tiny sampling of what I've thought of, and I'm sure White Guy Privilege impacts me in ways that will never occur to me.

Another major feature of the whole RaceFail discussion has been a bunch of White Guys claiming they're not racist and not trying to cause any offense, and a bunch of People of Color reminding them that, really, they are racist, and accidental offense is still offense. This is mostly valid, too. With the first point, it's arguable that everyone is racist, and with the second point, it's true that writers can control their work, but not another's reaction to their work. There's a huge ongoing discussion in fine-art circles about this issue, and the consensus swings like a pendulum from Artist's Intention Reigns Supreme, to The Audience Is Never Wrong. If the artist thinks his painting is about the triumph of deconstructionism over structuralism, but the audience thinks it's about gloomy birds sitting on a split-rail fence, the current thinking in the art world seems to favor the artist. The RaceFail discussion swings the pendulum hard in the other direction; if anyone finds your writing offensive in any way, it's therefore offensive, regardless of the author's intention.

I don't know that I entirely buy this argument. For one thing, critics always look through the lens of their own worldview. I once heard a college professor talk about the undercurrent of sexism in Piet Mondrian's work. I thought this was empirically untrue to the point of ridiculousness, but she took offense at the "sexist themes" of his work (if you don't know Mondrian, click that link and look at the sample works). I can't argue with the fact that she was offended. But merely because she found something to be offended at, doesn't automatically make anything about the work inherently offensive. Hostile Media Effect: it isn't just for news sources.

As a novice fiction writer, I had two reactions to the RaceFail. First, a completely selfish "oh, great -- something else to keep track of in my writing. As if pacing, structure, theme, dialogue, plot, and character arc weren't enough!" Just thinking about it drives me to fits of italics.

Second, this introduces a whole new category of error that writers can commit. If I write that Dirk Blackthorn stared darkly into the obsidian fireplace, watching the reflection of the flames dancing on the dark glass, I'm committing an error of fact. Obsidian would crack apart with the heat if you used it to build a fireplace. If I have Dirty Larry draw his .44 Magnum Desert Eagle and blast away at bad guys, I'm committing a research error; no automatic pistol is chambered for .44 Magnum. If I write that Oliver Crumley stepped off a double-decker bus in Trafalgar Square, munching heartily on a bag of chips, I had better mean French fries, else he should be munching from a packet of crisps. This would be an error of usage. But if I have a character say another character is scary like the boogeyman, I may have just used a racial slur, offensive to the Buganese people on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi -- the error is compounded if the character in question is, indeed, Buganese, because now I'm stereotyping and reinforcing cultural misconceptions with my writing. Suddenly I've jumped into a whole new category of error -- I've now committed a moral error. I've crossed the line from doing bad fact-checking to being a racist, a sinner, a Bad Person.

The worst part is, you can't avoid screwing up. If I decided to learn Cantonese, I could spend years mastering the lexicon and pronunciation and syntax and culture that make up the language. But no native speaker would ever confuse me for another native speaker. A thousand little cues and quirks would give me away. Similarly, no matter how much I work at it and research and travel, I can never get a foreign culture completely right. It occurs to me that it's almost offensive to assume I could. And it doesn't matter if the culture in question is in Chad or Chile or China -- or even ten blocks from my house, where the barbershop window says "Estetica Unisex" and the meat shop is a carnicero. If a native looks close enough, they'll always see the gaps in my grammar, the Spanish words painted over English thoughts. But with language, you've got the advantage that, as long as you're making the effort and manage to communicate, natives will overlook your intermittent incorrect usage and poor grammar. When you're writing The Other, any minor lapse is all it takes to get people crying "racist!"; it's a tighter standard, according to a large number of RaceFail participants.

Further, if you include any bit of ethnicity, your ethnic character had better not exhibit any stereotypical traits. The difficulty of writing flawed characters who are also non-WhiteGuy is that your flaws can't be perceived to line up with any existing ethnic stereotypes. If I've got a stingy, skinflint shop owner, he had damn well better not be Jewish, or any other ethnicity with a stereotype for pinching pennies. You even need to avoid non-negative stereotypes; what instigated RaceFail was, apparently (I should mention I never read the book in question, just the critique), a white author writing about a tall, well-endowed black man. Neither of these traits are undesirable -- they can, respectively, get you the corner office (according to the business world), and hot babes (according to my spam trap). But they (amongst other things) were considered damning evidence of authorial racism. So, if I'm writing a lesbian character, I need to pay extra attention to make sure she doesn't wear flannel or drive a pickup truck; if she were a straight girl, she could wear and drive whatever makes the character work. If I'm writing a Puerto Rican character, I need to make sure he doesn't play baseball.

And that's another writing problem: I don't have any Puerto Rican stereotypes floating around in my head. I know a few Puerto Ricans, but I've never heard anyone making snide comments about them. I just threw out the baseball example because I just listened to a news story about Major League Baseball recruiters in Puerto Rico. I have no idea if that's an actual stereotype, or if I just made it up. But if I wanted to write a Puerto Rican character, I would need to do research to make sure it's not. In order to make sure you avoid stereotypes and misculturizations for unfamiliar ethnicities, you need to spend a lot of time learning about the stereotypes. I can't pinpoint why, but this instinctively seems like a bad practice. Packing my head with this stuff, just so I can purposely avoid it, seems like not only bad writing, but also bad moral practice.

Several of the White People in the RaceFail discussion have said something like: "So, now I'm expected to write multiculturally, and if I get it wrong in any tiny way, I can expect to be crucified for it. The hell with this -- I'm sticking with white characters only from now on!" I can see where this comes from: sins of omission are easier to live with than sins of commission (I think it was Mark Twain who said, "it's better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you're a fool than open it and remove all doubt"). But I don't buy into this. Racism is a problem, and by consciously avoiding dealing with it, you shift yourself towards the part of the problem end of the problem/solution continuum. By choosing to address the issue, you're adding to the discussion, and pushing in the right direction.

And it's important to realize that it doesn't have to be perfect. Striving for perfection is a good way to do nothing at all; it's paralyzing. Most books on the craft of writing have an entire chapter about how poisonous perfectionism can be. So my target is to write well and consciously work to avoid negative cultural biases to the best of my ability. Personally, I use the U.S.S. Enterprise as my gold standard. Looking back on it through a modern, politically-correct lens, the original Star Trek series seems like a mess of ethnic stereotypes and tokenism. But it was a huge step forward for television; in a lot of ways, it redefined how race and culture could work on television. If I can do half as well in my writing in my time, as Gene Roddenberry did for his time, I can live with that, even if it occasionally pisses people off. And I hope my readers will be able to live with it as well.

Major Existential Question

It's important to ponder the important questions, the big ones that define us as people and help us find our place in the world. What do we think happens when we die? Do we believe in god? Does individual freedom trump our responsibility to others? Actually, I've got these three figured out. So now I'm working on another of the big ones:

What's my ideal karaoke song?

I've never done karaoke, but it's still an important question. So far, I'm leaning towards Rod Stewart's "Do You Think I'm Sexy?"; it's got the right combination of disco vibe, inadvertently funny lyrics, and memorable, easily-imitable video. It would let me do the goofy dance, and I could play it either straight or wacky, depending on my mood. The only prop I'd need would be a scarf.

What do you think -- any better suggestions? And, what's your ideal karaoke song?

Theater on a shoestring

One of the things that worries me about our current soon-to-be economic depression is that it might kill big chunks of the theater community. Theater survives on love as much as money; it works because every single person involved is willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen. Already in the last few years, I've seen performing companies take hits, but the only people who are readily aware of it are the people doing the actual work. One company I know of has had their traditional four days of in-theater tech and rehearsal time turn into two days, then into one day. The show still happens, and the audiences would never know the difference, but the process has gotten stressful and painful for the people doing the work. It's the way of life in the theater -- the show must go on, at any personal cost to the people involved. Staff and performers and volunteers do things that would be considered insane in nearly any other endeavor, putting forth tremendous, often last-minute efforts to make the show happen. We mostly started learning this in school, where tech weeks were extreme and stressful, and the show always somehow managed to happen in spite of it all. And it continued into our professional careers, the vaguely seat-of-the-pants vibe that all shows seem to have.

But it's been this way for so long -- staff and performers and volunteers doing excellent work under extreme stress -- that it's become almost the normal operating mode for the performing arts. The people at the top of the biz (as a friend of mine says, "the people who shower before work, rather than after") don't realize how much coping happens in the trenches, how tight things truly are for the people doing the work. So they keep cutting, because it never seems to matter; they cut, and the show seems to go on regardless.

And this is the reason why theater is in a position where it will take a heavy hit in the economic downturn. It's already stretched and stressed to a degree that most industries couldn't survive. I've already seen little instances of people leaving the biz, or curtailing their involvement, because the stress finally surpassed the payoff. And I know a distressing number of serious professionals in the field who are looking for a way to get out, searching for some other job that pays better and provides more security with less constant stress and more respect.

And none of these are high hurdles. Better pay is easy; fast food would be a lateral move for the majority of people in the performing arts. Security is a hard thing to come by these days, but the arts have even less than the norm; a lot of jobs are seasonal contracts, so it's not a matter of keeping your job, it's a matter of hoping to get re-hired for it, season to season. Stress is everywhere, too, but I suspect theater is worse than most, the stress of short-term, hard-deadline, improvisational work with demanding, occasionally neurotic management, repeating itself with every new show. And respect is its own issue; between often top-heavy management cutting budgets and schedules from the bottom, and decreasing audiences, it's easy to feel thankless and unappreciated.

When the people that make the magic happen start leaving, it's going to get that much harder for the people remaining. And the snowball effect might even overbalance the constant influx of new people who love the performing arts so much, they're willing to do the stressful work for the low pay. So far, the most troubled theater and performing companies seem to be getting hit from the top; when a company folds, it's because expense and debt have outpaced income. But I don't think it'll be long until we see companies drying up from the bottom, when there aren't enough dedicated people to produce quality shows that attract audiences and donors. From the outside, and probably from the front office, it'll look the same -- not enough money to keep the doors open. But the money will be a symptom, not the cause....