Thursday, December 20, 2012

Sci Fi Uncanny Valley

There's a phenomenon in computer animation and robotics that "when human replicas look and act almost, but not perfectly, like actual human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers." (Wikipedia.) Basically, people freak out if human imitations are in a small window where they're very human-like, but not quite human enough .  It's called the uncanny valley, and you can read a very dry, boring explanation of it on wikipedia.  Here's a more interesting explanation of it. 

Creepy CGI kid

I thought of the uncanny valley recently when I tried to read (for the second time) Isaac Asimov's I, Robot. Published in 1950, this is a famous book in the sci fi cannon.  It's a series of stories about robots and how they interact with the people who created them.  But I had a similar reaction to it that I had when I read some science fiction stories from Arthur C. Clarke in February.  (See The Future Back Then.)

Like the Clarke stories, there are attitudes in the book that just grate on me. I can't stand any of these characters.

The husband is the Man of the House, and what he says is FINAL.  But because he loves his wife, he relents and gives her what she wants.  (As opposed to a mature negotiation between two equal adults.)  Men patronize women, and they both patronize children.  Parents openly LIE to their children and try to deceive them in an effort to spare their feelings.  In one story, the parents try to take a robot pet away from their daughter.  The dad takes her to the movies and promises her robot will be there when she gets home.  It's not. Of course, she is devastated.  How did they expect her to react to this betrayal?  I would think that the only thing this teaches children is never to trust people.  (Maybe this is why the 60's counter-culture had such disdain for authority?)      

One main character in the book is a woman, the head of U.S. Robotics, which I'm sure Asimov thought was very progressive, but she's the only female scientist in any of the stories.  All the other women in the stories (there aren't many) are stupid and play the stereotype of the anti-technology ditz.  
How women were portrayed in 50's sci fi.

To be fair, the men are pretty stupid, too. 

The scientists are annoying and overreact to everything.  Instead of calmly investigating problems, they fret and ridicule and bloviate and insult.  There's a lot of "Now see here!"s and "You idiot!!s."  They're as sarcastic and impatient as 8th graders.  They make stupid assumptions, jump to conclusions, and do stupid things based on those assumptions.

Perhaps they just didn't know how to write dialogue.

In one case a scientist has to explain to another scientist about the atmosphere on Mercury and how it affects the human body.  While they are on Mercury.  Don't you think one of the first humans to land on Mercury would already know that kind of thing?   In another case two scientists encounter a serious problem with a unruly robot, and instead of explaining the problem to the guys who replace them, laugh and let them figure it out on their own.  What professional from NASA would ever do something like that?  I kept asking myself, "Were all scientists from 1950 this stupid?" 


Which brings me back to the uncanny valley.  I think the problem is that these people are too much like us, but not enough.  If they were from 1850 I could just look at it as a period piece-- that's how people thought back then.  But like the uncanny valley, people from 1950's dealing with robots in the U.S. are too similar to me, but not quite enough.   I feel like they should know better.  

I do like the premise of a I, Robot, and the concept of the Three Laws of Robotics (designed to protect us from the robots we create.)  The book illustrates the issues and complications that arise with creating artificial intelligence.  That really is a fascinating topic.  But the delivery is often annoying and not credible.  I did a lot of eye rolling as I read this book, and actually only got about half the way through it before I gave up.  

Aside from antiquated language ("Now see here!") and amusingly inaccurate predictions about how the future would look, here are some other ways that the stories date themselves:

These people create robots that can reason, think, react, lie, and even read minds.  They travel to all the planets of the solar system and set up working mines.  And yet, they still use paper and pencil to draw out their plans and schemata.  

One character (with an Irish last name) is referred to as "the redhead" several times.  I don't know what color hair his colleague has, but presumably it's not red.    

In one story (which takes place in 2029) a man exclaims that they can't just destroy some dangerous robots, because each robot costs Thirty THOUSAND dollars!  These days $30K won't even buy you the propeller on a drone aircraft. This made me laugh out loud and reminded me of the scene in Austin Powers where the evil villain, who's been frozen since the 60's, ransoms the whole world for One Million dollars!!

Interestingly, just a few days later I heard a news report on the radio about a new kind of robot used in manufacturing. The reporter said it's "cheap, less that $30 thousand." Funny he used that exact number.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Conversation With a Stranger

A complete stranger at a community organization potluck started a conversation with me like this:

Stranger: What does your wife do?

[This person was clearly a transsexual or at least a transvestite.  She wore a dress, messy makeup, fingernail polish, and a horrible wig, but clearly had a man's body, complete with old man whiskers.  She did not pass well AT ALL.  I don't post this story to make fun of her appearance, but the bizarre way she interacted with me.  And it does seem relevant that she came across as a drunk old man in a dress.] 

Me: Uh, I don’t have a wife, but I have a fiancĂ©.  She’s a teacher.
Stranger: My husband [blah blah blah.]  We’re moving to Madison.  Do you know if there’s a GLBT office at Madison University?

Me: [Assuming she means U. of Wisconsin in Madison]:  I’m sure there is. They’re a Big Ten school.

Stranger: My friend asked me the other day, “What’s the difference between a pre-op transsexual and a post-op transsexual?”  I said, “A post-op transsexual has already had surgery.”  Like me.  I’ve already had surgery, and I feel so much better since I became a woman.   The only person who really cares that I’m a woman now is my husband. 

Me:  Great.

Stranger:  I wanted to be a porn star. 

Me:  [Long pause.]  Yeah, I don’t know how someone would get into that. 

Stranger: Me neither.

Me: I think you probably have to audition. 

I swear I’m not making any of this up, including the abrupt and random change of topics.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Officiantly Ordained

In preparation for our wedding next summer, my betrothed and I are investigating different options for officiants.  We might want to have one of our friends or family members officiate the wedding, and so I'm trying to figure out what the rules are.

We don't want some stranger to marry us

I went to the Cook County Clerk's website to see what their rules are about getting married.  There is a lot of information about marriage licenses and marriage certificates, but the only thing they say about the officiant is this sentence:  "The officiant performing the ceremony must complete the bottom portion of the marriage license and mail or deliver it to the Clerk's office.

Nowhere else on the site does it say anything about officiants, who can do it, how you get authorized, etc.  On other websites they usually mention either public officials or clergy.  I know there are websites (such as American Marriage Ministries) that will "ordain" people by filling out a form on the web, but is that good enough for the county clerk?   

Dudeism: Church of the Latter Day Dude

So I emailed the Clerk's office and asked about it.  How does one become a wedding officiant?  Here was the response I got: "In order to perform marriage ceremonies in the county of cook, you have to be ordained or a judge or the county clerk himself. Those are the only people."

Thanks.  That doesn't answer my question at all.  So I replied and asked, "How do you define "ordained?"  Does the county have official criteria?  Is there a license/certification someone needs to become officially ordained to perform marriages?"

I received no response.  My betrothed said, "Welcome to my home... Get used to incompetent government." This is Chicago, after all.

My next attempt was to call them directly.  I called one of the six County offices and got a recorded message.  When I selected the menu option for information on marriage licenses, it gave me a recording of the exact same information on the website.  Useless.  I called a different County office, hoping to get a live person.  It had the exact same recorded message, but this time I listened through all the options, hoping there would be a live person after I got through this gauntlet of efficiency.

Eventually I got someone.  I asked Live Person who can officiate a marriage in the county, and even mentioned those free online ministries.  They couldn't answer my question, but gave me a phone number for the "Marriage Office" downtown. I called them, got a live person surprisingly quickly, asked about getting ordained, and he said, "We don't do that. You do that on your own."  When I specifically asked about websites that will ordain people online, he said that's fine.

Green light. We're good to go!

It sort of makes sense.  The State is not in a position to judge whether someone is "ordained" or not.  Churches do that.

Here's what I find silly, though.  If you have to be a minister to marry someone, and becoming a "minister" is as easy as filling out a form for free on some nutjob website, why bother with that requirement?  Why not just let anyone officiate a wedding?  It's like having a fence that's three inches high.  Why bother with it at all?              

Who certifies a Klingon wedding?

Monday, November 26, 2012


Most men observe their mid-life crisis by buying a sports car, having an affair, or blowing all their money in Vegas.

For my mid-life crisis, I'm going to get married, move to the suburbs, and have kids.

Yes, big changes are planned in the Timniverse for the next year.

I just got engaged.

Katherine of Evanston

On a cold windy October day in Evanston, with the Chicago skyline in the distance, we negotiated the terms of our betrothal.

The happy couple, moments after we got engaged.

We are getting married next summer, which means in the next year I will be planning a wedding, looking for a job, quitting my job, moving to Chicagoland, selling my house, possibly buying a house, and a bunch of other things that go along with turning your life upside down.

It's scary but exciting.


When I told my oldest brother I was getting married again, he said, "Wow, that soon after your divorce?"

"Um," I said, "I've been divorced for four years."  He thought it had been like a year and a half.

Nope, after four years of divorce, I'm ready to graduate.  I realized last month that I had been divorced an entire election cycle.  I've officially been separated from my ex for longer than we were together.  It's time to move on.     


The Wedding Machine is now in full gear.  We're both planners, and one of the things we bonded over when we first met was our love of Excel spreadsheets.  So of course we have a wedding spreadsheet to keep track of all of our to-do items.  In one particularly productive weekend recently, we decided on a date (7/13/13), a venue, a caterer, a photographer, and a rehearsal picnic.  Now only 4,253 decisions left to make.

This is happening...

Monday, November 5, 2012

My Invisible Gorilla Moment

There's a famous Psychology experiment where people are shown a short video of two groups of students passing basketballs around.  They are told to count the number of passes that one particular group makes.  After they're done, the researchers ask the subject how many passes they counted.

They ask a few more questions about what they observed, and then they ask, "Did you see the gorilla?"

Half the people answer, "No, what gorilla?"

When they show the video again, the people see that halfway through the video, a person dressed in a gorilla suit walks right into the group and waves.  The gorilla is in the video for nine seconds, in plain site.  When they see it a second time, many of the subjects don't believe they're watching the same video they just saw.  How could they have missed the gorilla? It was right in the middle of the video!

This experiment teaches us a lot about human observation.  The problem with the gorilla is not that people aren't looking at it (subsequent tests that track eye movement prove this), but that they just don't SEE it.  Numerous studies have shown that it's an eerily common occurrence for humans to be looking right at something and yet not be able to see it.  Unexpected sights just don't register in our brains.  This principle can be applied to countless environments, from the witnesses in a courtroom to drivers to pilots landing a plane to doctors looking at x-rays.

There doesn't seem to be any pattern to who notices the "invisible gorilla" and who doesn't.  It's not people who are smarter, or more focused, or better at multitasking, or are left-handed or who have a penis.  In general, it's always about 50% of the people who see it and 50% of the people who don't.  The only predictor is expectations.  If you tell people to look for something unusual, they're more likely to spot the gorilla. But in everyday life, when something unexpected happens, our brains have a harder time registering it.  None of us is immune to it.  It's how the human brain was built.  It's all about expectations.

After I read about this phenomenon, I remembered a significant "invisible gorilla" moment from my own life.

In my family, on our birthdays each of us kids got $25 worth of presents.  It was always thus, so I never expected anything more than that. So one year, on my 11th or 12th birthday, I was really surprised when after I'd opened all my presents, my dad told me to go out to the back deck.  I could tell from the tone of his voice that there was something special out there.  From the dining room, where we had just had my fancy birthday meal, I looked out the window to see what it might be, but the view was obstructed.  To get outside I had to go through the kitchen and family room.  I was so intent on getting out to the deck to see what great thing was waiting for me that I sprinted through the house.  I busted through the back door onto the deck, but nothing was there.

I went back into the house to see what the deal was.  My family had all run after me from the dinner table, and they were standing in the family room.  My mom laughed, "He ran right past it!"

I looked in the hallway and there was a brand-spanking-new Schwinn Stingray 3-speed bicycle.

My Invisible Gorilla.  I don't remember it looking quite this dorky, but then again, I'm learning how crappy human memory really is.
I was so intent on getting outside to discover what my special birthday surprise was, I ran right past this sweet beauty, and didn't even SEE it.  Who expects to see a new bicycle in the living room?  Not me.

The invisible gorilla phenomenon is yet more evidence that we completely underestimate how limited our brains really are.  It has implications for memory as well.  It's shocking how unreliable our memories really are.  Study after study shows how we construct memories in our head that can be quite different from what actually happened.  Most people think they know why & how they think things.  They don't.  This is why we need science-- to prove how wrong our intuitions can be.  To read more about how stupid you (and I) are, go to the Invisible Gorilla website.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Whirled Peas

As your humble dilettante blogwriter, the next issue I'll hold forth on is the Israel/Palestine conflict.  I read a book, so now I have Opinions. (I actually read 1.25 books, but the first one felt way too biased, so I stopped and found a more balanced treatment.) 

The more I learn about the Israelis and Palestinians*, the more I hate both sides.  Seriously, there are no good guys in this story.

*Note: I use the words Israelis and Palestinians a lot in this post, even though I realize that neither group is a monolithic entity.  There are plenty of Israelis who oppose their government/military's actions, and plenty of Palestinians who want peace.  But unfortunately, those are not the ones who are making the overall decisions.  

Every time I try to sympathize with one side, to see the situation through their eyes, something jerks me back into feeling for the other side.  It's a strange case of sympathy vertigo.  I can't tell up from down, good from bad, right from wrong.  I can never tell who's the protagonist and who's the enemy.  It's like reading a book where the point of view keeps changing, but you can't identify with any of the narrators.

Obviously, it was wrong for the Israelis to forcibly remove thousands of Palestinians from their homes in 1948.  It was wrong of them to ignore the U.N. recommendations for borders, and then to assassinate the Swedish mediator assigned to broker a peace agreement. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

It's also patently wrong and unfair that the Palestinians have been living under a foreign occupation for 60+ years.  They are a people without a country, without rights or self-governance.  That is so obviously wrong it's ludicrous. And I can't understand how Israelis could be so oppressive toward a minority under their jurisdiction.  You would think Jews, of all people, would have more empathy for that kind of thing.

To be fair, not only did the Jews have to deal with persecution, pogroms, and the Holocaust, but Israel is surrounded by countries and people who want to kill them, who think they don't have a right to exist.  One can see how they might make them a little skittish.

The Palestinians, for their part, seem to be doing everything they can to make their situation worse.  Every time they attack Israeli soldiers or citizens, they're being, at the very least, stupid.  And at their worst they're being just as big as dickbags as the Israelis.  It's like having two children in the back seat of you car.  The big one is being mean and punching the little one, but the little one won't stop taunting him, inviting more of it.  The Palestinian terrorist attacks not only invite Israel to retaliate (often disproportionately), but it also allows Israel to justify its aggression.  It's just bad PR and hurts the Palestinian cause.  You don't win sympathy,  peace, or justice by blowing up people. When you blow up a bus full of civilians, you just look like an asshole who deserves whatever punishment you get.   

What the Palestinians need is their own Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or dare I say, Jesus.  (This coming from an atheistic agnostic.)  Someone who can show them that peaceful protest is the way to get the rest of the world on your side.  I truly believe that if the Palestinians just laid off the bombs, guns, and rock-throwing, the Western world would have much more sympathy for them and be more inclined to come to their aid.  But they have no patience and no faith.  They don't believe anyone would be on their side.  Maybe that lack of faith is justified.  But let me pose this question: How is the current strategy of blowing shit up working for you?

Where are all your hippies, Palestinians?

The argument I don't buy from either side is that they absolutely must have THIS PIECE OF LAND.  This is where the conflict becomes sectarian and I see no point to it.  Jews argue that they've been yearning to live in the holy land for 2,000 years.  I'm sorry, but your statute of limitations is up.  You can't stake a claim on land from a hundred generations ago.  I fully support the idea of a Jewish state, but I don't buy the argument that this state must be in one specific location. (I once heard a comedian joke that the Jewish homeland should have been taken from Germany after the Holocaust.  Bavaria would be a nice chunk of real estate for the new Jewish homeland. It was a joke, but really, wouldn't that have been more fair than displacing all those Palestinians?) 

The Palestinians' claim to the land is more recent, but still, it's been 60 years.  Israel is established now.  It's not going away, so Palestinians need to learn accept that and move on.  Their uncompromising insistence on "right of return" is not only unrealistic at this point, but counterproductive.

The solution to the problem is obvious: we need two separate, autonomous countries, Israel and Palestine.  It was obvious from the beginning.  The problem is getting there.  

This whole situation reminds me of the old adage about interpersonal conflict: some people would rather be right than happy.  So many of the players in this drama are so focused on the past-- at claims to land and wrongs done to them-- that they are unable to look to the future, to a possible resolution and a peaceful co-existence.  Many of the Palestinians I read about in my book were so intent on going back to the land that was taken from them that they refuse to see any resolution without it.   If you were to offer them a happy, comfortable, and prosperous life where they are, they would not take it.  It must be a return or nothing else.  

They would rather be right than happy.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Gross Day

Incident #1:  The first thing I noticed when I went into the bathroom stall at work were nail clippings on the floor.  I studied them for a moment, and then a wave of horrible realizations washed down upon me.  These clippings are evidence that, 1.) someone was clipping his fingernails on the toilet, 2.) in a public restroom, 3.) onto the floor, 4.) leaving it for others to see/clean up.  Serioulsy, WTF is wrong with some people?   

Welcome to the bathroom!

At first I thought they were toenails, because some of them were really big.  But then I realized (hoped!) they must have just come from someone with really big thumbs.  Because if those were toenail clippings, it adds a whole new level of creepiness.  Aside from the horrible image of someone sitting on a public toilet and clipping toenails, it also means the person was barefoot.  In a men's room stall. If you've ever seen a public restroom men's stall, you know the last thing you want to be in there is barefoot. 


Incident #2: I dropped a library book into a public toilet.

There was a good reason why I had the book with me, and it was not, as one would assume, to read it.  (I don't deny that I read on the toilet, but not usually in a public bathroom.)  You see, I was at our satellite campus giving a library presentation, and I had my portfolio with handouts and notes in it, and a library book to read during the dinner break between classes.  After my classes, I had to go to the bathroom before my long drive home.  I stepped into the stall and tried to figure out where to put my portfolio and book.  (This is one of my biggest complaints about public bathroom stalls-- there is never a good place to put my stuff.  It's even worse when there's no hook on the door to hang up my coat. Then I usually have to place it in the corner on the floor. Ugh.)

Where do I put my stuff?

So I placed the portfolio on top of the toilet paper dispenser, and it was held up against the wall by the handicap rail.  (Yes, I was using the handicap stall.  No one else was in there.)   

Like this, only imagine the toilet paper in a metal box dispenser. 

There was no good place for the book, though, so I tried to rest it on top of the rail, up against the portfolio.  Bad idea.  The book was too thick for the rail and tumbled down, and to my horror it fell into the open toilet.

I acted fast, quickly fishing the book out.  Luckily, the toilet water was "clean"-- it hadn't been used yet. Only the top edge of the book was submerged for a few scant seconds.  If the Five Second Rule applied to books falling in toilets, then I would have been safe.  A kitten bookmark I'd been using fell back into the toilet, and I let it go, figuring it was beyond saving.  Collateral damage.  I used toilet paper to wipe off the book.  The glossy cover dried pretty easily, but the top 2-3 inches of the pages were varying degrees of wet.

I washed my hands and then held the book under the air dryer, fanning the pages under it to get them dry.

A sanitary way to dry your hands, or a book you just dropped into the toilet


The book has dried, and it really doesn't seem to be in that bad of shape.  Some of the pages are a little crinkly on top, the way they get when there's slight water damage.  But other than that, it's a perfectly serviceable book.

Not my library book


It fell into the toilet.  I'm perfectly willing to pay for it and tell the library I damaged it, but what I'm reluctant to do is tell them how I damaged it.  "Um, sorry, but I dropped this into the toilet."  Can't I just tell them it fell into some water?  That's not a lie.  Because if you look at it, it looks fine.  I've seen much worse. But they probably have a right to know what kind of wet it got.

The other issue: I usually read my library books when I'm eating.  During breakfast and lunch I will read.  That means that the book I dropped into the toilet is near my food.  On the table.  This should gross me out, but here's the thing. I guarantee that you've touched, eaten, and somehow come into contact with much less  
sanitary things than my library book.  It reminds me of a study I once heard about.  A student had tested the bacteria levels in a fast-food bathroom and compared to the levels in the drink dispenser.  There were more germs in the drink dispenser.  You see, a bathroom gets cleaned regularly.  Other things don't. (I wasn't able to find the original study, but I found another one that said fecal material was found on drink dispensers:

I don't point all this out to gross you out.  Just to say that, where germs are concerned, our fears are often misplaced.


Incident #3: When I came home from a long day of toilet mayhem, I went into my bedroom to change out of my work clothes. I saw that one of my cats had puked on my Nikes in the closet.  Lovely.  I often come home to cat puke, but it's usually on the carpet.  Puking into my shoes is a new one.

Fur and puke corridor: The usual place where cats leave their "surprises"

Thanks, kitties.  That's the cherry on top of my shit sundae.  

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Online Creeps

I have a new online addiction: laughing at creeps on the intarwebz.

The A(n)nals of Online Dating not only has a fun juvenile title (heh, heh, you said "a(n)nal!"), but it's a fascinating study in online behavior, mating rituals, and hilarious taunting-- all with a point system!

The premise is simple: they take online dating profiles and messages sent by real people (mostly men) and make fun of them.  Point out all the mistakes they make, then add up the points.  For example:

why can’t I find a good looking woman with her life in order to DATE and be in a RELATIONSHIP with??? Am I too ugly? I would have thought having a stable job, place of my own, car, Harley, dog and no kids would be a good thing??? but it seems that those things don’t matter. I think I am a decent looking guy. I’m not sure what I have to do to attract the right woman. I’m not picky, but yet I don’t want someone that weighs more than i do. As long as you are pretty in your own way.. have all your teeth and they are not yellow… Is it too much to ask for a pretty woman that I am proud to be with and have a little arm candy??
I don’t know what I am doing wrong, but being single sux a$$ and I wanna change that! I don’t wanna get married right away, need to find the right one first. I’m just stressed and glad I don’t own a gun… I might get depressed and do something stupid with it………

+10 for whoaaaaa suicidal! You want to know what you are doing wrong? That is what you are doing wrong.
+6 for you know what else you are doing wrong? Not caring at all about women as actual people. I mean, I can’t fault you for having impossible standards (although the “no fatties” thing is kind of… come on). But maybe be more picky? Have some sense of what you want a partner to be like outside of physical appearance? Because “Sweet Jesus, ANYONE WILL DO AT THIS POINT” has gotten surprisingly few people laid.
+4 because the “right woman” is the same thing as “arm candy.” LOL women. My friend said that maybe I should treat them like they’re “people” and not decorative accessories. Can you believe that guy? Hilarious.

It's amazing to think there are so many clueless people out there.  I'm sure some of the entries can be explained by bad jokes, childish pranks, drugs, or some weird cultural differences. (Sometimes it's obvious the writer is not a native speaker of English.)

But based on my own experience with online dating, I have to believe that many of these entries are actual real people who sincerely want to find a mate.  And that is just sad, so very sad. How can so many men be so clueless about how these things work?

I say "men" because, although there is the occasional female profile featured on this site, for the most part it's guys who are offensive idiots.  And now I truly understand why so many women have to be so cautious when they date.  I'm terrified for them.  Because there are some disturbing fucking nutjobs out there.  

Here's another sample:

If you are not a woman of my race, I’m not sexually attracted to black woman it’s my choice and I don’t have to explain to anyone why I choose this, so all other woman fell free to write me back if your educated and you don’t have a house full of children cause I don’t have any of my own!!
+6 for putting it right out there with the racism.
+4 for “it’s my choice and I don’t have to explain to anyone why I choose this.” I think we all know why? And hopefully no one has to explain to you why you are still single.
+10 for “fell free to write me back if your educated.”
+5 for being willing to date ALL OTHER WOMEN. As long as they’re (or is it “their”?) educated. And not black. And not any other race except his. And don’t have kids. But anyone else, totally, date this guy. Until he has his own kids. Then it’s ok if you have kids too. 


I could post 50 more, but I need to break this addiction.

Monday, October 1, 2012


At the public library the other day I picked up three nonfiction books.  The books were located in three completely different subject areas: from the Dewey 100's to the 500's to the 900's.

I love learning stuff.

Science isn't my only passion.  I really should have been a writer/architect/tennis pro/evolutionary biologist/astronomer/cult leader. Oh, and I forgot linguist.

The latest thing to capture my attention has been The Universe.  The planets, the solar system, our galaxy, other galaxies, time, expansion, the Big Bang, the nature of everything-- where it comes from and where it's going to.  Huge doesn't even begin to describe our universe, and when I consider all the mysteries it contains it makes me a little dizzy.

It may look like a collection of penises, but these enormous "Pillars of Creation" are in the process of creating new stars.  Our entire solar system would fit into that tiny finger-like object on the left one.  That is a huge erection!

When I consider all these mysteries, it's easy to dismiss any of the petty problems in my life, or in the lives of the people around me, or of humanity itself, or of our planet.  We are smaller than tiny.  Things I fret about, like a tennis match or an election or saving the environment-- they mean nothing.  We may destroy our environment and that of many organisms on our planet, but the planet itself, we can't touch it. 

The Earth has survived much worse than a case of the humans.  We're like a small rash on a world that's been around long before us and will go on long after us.  And that world itself is just one tiny insignificant dot among of trillions and trillions of things spinning around in space.

Perhaps it's escapist, but I love that I have the luxury of considering the universe, of thinking about what's really going on in all those places we can't see, hear, or touch (or haven't seen, heard, or touched yet.)  It is almost like a drug the way it takes hold of my mind.

Maybe this is what God does for religious people-- makes them feel like they are one tiny part of something much greater and more mysterious.  For me, I'll take science and astronomy and science fiction-- stories and fantasies and possibilities based on what we already know about the laws of the universe-- and escape into that.            

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Unreliable Narrators

I love memoirs, but after years and years of reading them I've finally learned to hone my bullshit detector.  The way someone tells a story-- how they present themselves and their view of the world-- often tells me as much about them as the content of their stories.

I was reminded of this by two recent books I've read.  The first, Chelsea Handler's My Horizontal Life: a Collection of One-Night Stands, was kind of like a mafia movie: I was fascinated by it, but her world is so far removed from my own that I couldn't imagine living in it myself.

I wasn't far into the book before I started to question the veracity of her stories.  I mean, how could one person have such a fabulous, drunken, orgiastic life?  A lot of her stories (or details) seemed ridiculously far-fetched, and as they piled up it made it harder and harder for me to believe them.  Her reputation as a reliable narrator was not helped by the fact that she openly lied to people in almost every story.  In one passage she even talks about how her lies kept getting her into trouble, so she made a resolution to stop lying when she was drunk.  (Sober lying she held on to.)

Handler is a comedian, so it's not like she's doing top-level journalism.  She's just telling funny stories, and she's really good at it.  Still, as I've said many times before, whether or not a story really happened is part of the story.  "IT REALLY HAPPENED!" accounts have a much lower bar than fiction.

I just don't like feeling like I'm being lied to, ya know?


The other book I just finished is Andre Aggasi's memoir, Open.

The thing I noticed from the very first page of this book is: WOW, can Andre tell a story!  A few years ago I read Pete Sampras' book (I don't remember the title and it's not worth looking up) and although it was mildly interesting from a tennis fans' perspective, it really wasn't a very gripping story.  Maybe Pete is just too private, or he really is as dry and boring as his reputation, but his book was stiff and wooden.

Agassi's book, on the other hand, jumps off the page at you.  On the very first page he talks about how he hates tennis, and how he's always hated tennis.  What the what?  One of the best players in the history of the game hated it?  That's some interesting shit.

Although Agassi's book is much better written than Sampras', that doesn't necessarily mean that Andre's a better writer.  After all, these guys often work very closely with journalist/editors, if not outright ghostwriters. So I was under no illusions that Andre was a great writer.  But his voice was there, and it's definitely a more interesting and vibrant voice than Sampras'. Sampras may have been the more successful tennis player, but he can't touch Andre on personality.  

Sampras may have won more tennis, but Agassi has a better book

Even so, as Agassi's book progressed, my bullshit detector started to blink a little.  Details in the story seemed a little too convenient, like his childhood friend pointing to a magazine photo of Brooke Shields and saying, "She could be your wife one day."  (She became his first wife.)  Or when they were married, Brooke putting a picture of a very fit Steffi Graf on their refrigerator to motivate herself to get in shape.  (Graf became his second wife.)

These are amazing coincidences, and the details may be true, but maybe they leave out details-- like maybe Brooke was one of dozens of celebrities his friend said this about.  After 10 years of librarianship and teaching information literacy, I'm finally realizing all the subtle ways that people manipulate information to fit their narrative. (Also, I follow a lot of politics.) 

And sometimes people just outright lie.  Just like Chelsea Handler, Agassi admits to lying in his book.  He tells how he lied in interviews because he just said what he thought the interviewer wanted to hear.  ("I've always loved tennis!") He can't admit difficult things to people close to him, so he lies.  We all do it on occasion, but in this book it happens enough to add to the overall sense that he's not quite leveling with the reader.  

A tennis player is a different kind of celebrity than a comedian.  They usually have publicists to control their image in the media.  Plus there's the simple issue of privacy.  We're simply not entitled to know every intimate thing that happens in a celebrity's life.

But still, I often wondered as I read Agassi's book how accurate it was.  No doubt it was a good story, if a bit overwrought at times.  But how much of it could I trust?

In his acknowledgments at the end of the book, Andre writes quite a bit about the writer he collaborated with.  It seems this writer collected stories from Andre and was mostly responsible for the stellar writing.  Andre even wanted to include his name on the book as a co-author, but was talked out of it.  This is probably typical for a celebrity of his stature.  But it shows how even the book itself was misleading.  The whole time I was thinking about what a great story Andre tells, and it turns out someone else was taking his stories and shaping them for him.      

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

I'm a Librarian

The student was just loitering at my desk, trying to strike up a conversation when he asked, in that Bill-And-Ted's Excellent Adventure tone of his, "What do you... do you mind being called a librarian?"

I answered, No, I don't mind at all.  In fact, to be a librarian you need a Master of Library Science degree.  "Not everyone who works in a library is a librarian," I said, "just like not everyone who works in a hospital is a doctor."

The student said, "Wow! You just blew my mind!"


It's not that I equate what I do with saving lives, or that people in hospitals who aren't doctors (and people in libraries who aren't librarians) don't do important work.  Although several students have actually called me a "lifesaver" when I help them find what they're looking for, I don't have a God complex.  Hey, I'm not giving you a kidney-- I'm just finding you a book. 

I think my biggest pet peeve about being a librarian is how people misuse the title.  A librarian is more than just someone who works in a library.  I cringe when a part-time student worker in the library refers to herself as a librarian.  Librarian is a title I spent two years of graduate-level coursework to earn.


Being called a librarian certainly isn't an insult, as the student's question implied.  I was more amused than annoyed by his question, though.  He was so earnest and curious, I couldn't help but appreciate how I had opened his mind.  He kept repeating.. "I had no idea..."

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Invisible Obama

I needed a break from politics.  It was just too depressing to hear all the lies, misrepresentations, anger, and petty squabbling coming from both parties.

This was difficult to do, since I listen to NPR every morning and during much of my commute, and my two favorite TV shows are The Daily Show and Colbert Report.  Watching them was not fun anymore, though, because instead of making me laugh at conservatives, it made me angry.  Angry at their bullying, misrepresentation, hypocrisy, and propaganda.

Listening to the speeches at the GOP convention made me seethe with anger. Not because they held different opinions than me, but at how they mangled the facts.  

Then along came a chair.

Clint Eastwood's painful, cringe-worthy performance of a blathering old man berating a chair on national TV brought out the absurdity of the conservative position toward Obama.  And watching Jon Stewart eviscerate this performance made my day:
Eastwood finally revealed the cognitive dissonance that is the beating heart and soul and fiction of this party. They're so far gone, they're hammering Obama for things Bush did... [like starting the war in Afghanistan].... This president has issues and there are very legitimate debates to be had about his policies and actions, successes and/or failures as president...but I could never wrap my head around why the world and the president that Republicans describe bears so little resemblance to the world and the president that I experience, and now I know why.

There is a President Obama that only Republicans can see.

I've also struggled trying to wrap my head around this invisible Obama.  I've gotten into arguments with people who don't like Obama because he's "arrogant", "pompous", "elitist", "a snob".  Despite the fact that this "snob" was the bi-racial son of a single mother and worked his way through Harvard Law School, then instead of making lots of money in the private sector, started out as a community organizer. These same people who label Obama a "snob" have no problem choosing the millionaire son of a governor over him.

Still, calling someone nasty names is just an opinion, not a fact.  If you feel someone is arrogant, there's no amount of evidence that will dissuade you.  However, there is also a complete fiction around Obama that seems to be gripping entire sections of our population.  He's a socialist.  He's not a U.S. citizen.  He wants to destroy America.  I actually had a family member tell me they think Obama is a Muslim.  Well, there's really no way to have a rational discussion with someone like that. It's like arguing with someone who thinks the moon landing was fake or that 9/11 was an "inside job" (whatever that even means.)

Such theories are ignorant, paranoid, and borderline racist.  Because our president looks different and has a funny name, I believe people are more willing to ascribe things to him that have no basis in reality. (Not that there's anything wrong with being Muslim or socialist, but the people who use those labels sling them as insults.)  In fact, whenever I hear people call him words like "elitist," I can't help but think that that is code for "uppity."  

What angers and saddens me the most about these attacks on Obama is that people have lame, misguided reasons for opposing him.  If you can give me a fair, informed opinion of his policies and why you oppose them, then fine, go ahead and hate him.  If you value your narrow interpretation of Christianity over science and education, he's not your candidate.  If you oppose abortion more than you value women's rights and health, he's not on your side.  If you're against gay rights, he's not so fabulous. If you think large corporations care about your health and well-being, and that the government is evil and has no role to play in solving our problems, don't give Obama your support.

If you want America to go back to the way it was in the 1950's, where Blacks, Hispanics, women, and other minorities knew their place, Obama's not for you.  I mean, seriously, can you believe that in 2012 we're actually having a political debate over birth control?  Republicans have turned a simple, fair mandate that requires all insurance policies to cover birth control (the same way they cover Viagra) into a battle over "religious freedom." ("Religious freedom" for them means "forcing my brand of Christianity on others.")

Let me stress this, because it blows my mind: Republicans don't think birth control is a women's health issue.  I don't know how any moderate woman in America who cares about her rights can reward them for that. Argh!  Poll after poll shows that among almost every demographic other than white men, Obama is leading.  As a white man myself, I don't know how the Republicans can continue to survive as a party that serves such narrow interests. 

Sorry, I have to cut myself off or I'll never stop ranting.  I could list dozens of similar issues that just make my blood boil.  And I hate that.  I hate that it's impossible to have rational, nuanced discussions about politics and how to solve our nation's problems. Because it feels like all I'm doing is playing defense, defending Obama and liberal policies.  And I'll admit it comes from both sides. I also get pissed off when I hear people on the Left say ridiculous shit.  There are times when The Daily Show oversimplifies a complicated issue in order to win rhetorical points.  That annoys me.   

I just want people to be fair.  And I don't see much fairness right now.  Sometimes I just want to give up.  Fuck it.  I have a good job, a comfortable life, health insurance, a supportive family.  I'm incredibly lucky to be living in this time and place. I've got mine, why should I care about people who are too ignorant to understand what's in their own best interest, what's in the interest of our country?  Why do so many poor and middle class people vehemently fight for the rights of rich white men? It makes me want to give up.

As John Steinbeck is purported to have said, Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.

Both sides want you to believe that if the Other Guy wins the election, it will be disaster.  The End of America.  I'll tell you a secret.  I'm trying to convince myself that a Romney presidency wouldn't be so catastrophic.  He loves America just as much as Obama does.  He wants to succeed.  And most candidates usually have to move to the middle to get anything done.  Romney was the Republican governor of a liberal state who instituted the model for Obamacare.  He's a centrist.  And to be honest, Romney might be able to get more done simply because Democrats are more willing to work with a Republican president than vice-versa.  All that Obama's accomplished the past four years (and it's been a lot, despite the GOP's empty chair narrative), he's had to do with Republicans blocking him at every turn.  He's bent over backwards to accommodate them, and they still shit all over him.  Presumably they wouldn't do that to Romney.  And if they did, then let the country see what asshat obstructionists they really are.  Ugh, sorry, another rant. 

Whoever wins the election, the world won't end.  Obviously, I know who I'm voting for and why.  I have solid, informed, legitimate policy reasons to think he's the better candidate.  It's not a popularity contest to me. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I believe my reasons are more rational than most of the people who are voting for the other guy.  I don't have to turn one candidate into a caricature in order to vote against him.  

My choice is not between a real person and a chair.


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Social Scientist

I was trying to tell someone recently about the Five (+ 1) Tenets of Timicism, and I think I got most of them right.  I'm such a horrible timvangelist, I have trouble remembering the tenets of my very own cult.  (After a quick review I see that I forgot the third tenet, Humor. D'oh!)

Anyway, after my spiel my friend replied that Timicism sounds more like the rules of a social scientist than a religion.

Hm.  I kinda like that description.

Timicism: the "religion" for social scientists. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Love and Mix Tapes

While browsing the audiobook shelves at my public library, I found this book in the Biography section: love is a mix tape: life and loss, one song at a time by Rob Sheffield.

The back of the case said:
It was... when a shy music geek named Rob Sheffield met a hell-raising Appalachian punk-rock girl named Renee, who was way too cool for him but fell in love with him anyway.  They had nothing in common except that they both loved music... And it was music that would help Rob through a sudden, unfathomable loss.

In [the book]... Rob uses the songs on fifteen mix tapes to tell the story of his brief time with Renee...This is Rob's tribute to music, to the decade that shaped him, but most of all to one unforgettable woman.  
Well, I had to check that out!  As someone who's a huge fan of the movie High Fidelity, I just naturally assumed that Rob and Renee had broken up.  (Rob even has the same name of John Cusack character in the movie.)

Rob from High Fidelity, not Rob from Love is a Mix Tape

So it came as quite a shock to me when, as I listened to the end of the introduction, Rob reveals that Renee died suddenly at age 31. She didn't dump him, she died on him.  Wow, I didn't see THAT coming. It was like a twist beginning.

The book took on a whole new meaning after that.  It wasn't High Fidelity, but Love Story, told from the point of view of a couple of hip music geeks who spend all their time listening to music, going to concerts, talking about music, and falling in love to music.  I thought I knew a lot about pop music, but I had to admit that only about one out of every ten songs Rob lists from his mix tapes were songs I knew.  And only about 50% of the musicians/bands were ones I'd heard of.  


It's funny that I ran into this book, because I was just talking to friends recently about the culture of mix tapes.  This is a culture I know well, since I grew up making mixes for friends, myself, and girls I was into.  I don't know what the kids do these days when they want to share songs.  Do they make ipod playlists?  Over the past 10 years I've moved on to making mix CDs.  I remember when I first heard the soundtrack to Avenue Q, in the mid-2000's, I thought that the story must be somewhat dated, since they have a song called "Mix Tape." That's sooooo 1990, I thought. 

Nevertheless, it's a great song that I now like to include on CD mixes.  As Sheffield points out, the technology might have changed, and even improved, but there's something special about a mix tape.   


There was also something special about Renee.  In a hundred different ways Rob writes about how special she was, how & why he loved her.  He tells the story of how they met, fell in love, got married.

According to the intarwebz, this is the happy couple.
When she literally dropped dead from a pulmonary embolism, she wasn't even sick. They'd only been married five years.  The ensuing account of Rob's shock, grief, and depression is heartbreaking. As he writes, "After Renee died, I assumed the rest of my life would be just a consolation prize."  It feels that way in the book, too, as he describes day after day of drudgery and pain.  He writes about being a young "widow" and what a strange role that was for him.  

It made me think about my divorce, and what a vastly different experience it must be to lose your spouse to death.  Sheffield addresses this in his book after people try to console him that at least Renee didn't choose to leave him: “Love dies in many different ways, and it's natural for the grass to seem greener on the other side. But it's not a competition; there's plenty of pain to go around.”

The book ends on a happier note, though, as Rob has learned to move on.  There is a quote about the fact that always looking back was preventing him from moving forward.  Or something more profound than that.  I don't have the book anymore so I can't look it up.  I did, however, find a whole webpage of great quotes from the book here:

It was there that I re-read this gem from the book, about how there are certain songs he can no longer listen to:
“Sometimes great tunes happen to bad times, and when the bad time is over, not all the tunes get to move on with you."