August 31, 2008

Happy Birthday, Mike

Today is Tangled Up in Blue Guy's birthday.

Mike, my wish for you is that this be the year you manage to get back to school. However, I hope you realize that even if school eludes you a little longer, you're taking big steps toward your dreams. The formality of a university program can only add gloss to the scholarship you practice on your own. It can't touch the work you're doing to educate others as you learn.

I'm also hoping you get exactly what you want this year politically, but that has some selfish motivations mixed in. And who knows, maybe you'll finally win that argument with your friend. What ever the year brings, I wish you much joy of it and I look forward to another year of co-conspiracy.

Happy birthday!

August 30, 2008

Capital Gains and Retirement Income

Mike has a nice WaPo excerpt on the impact of the McCain and Obama tax plans. It has a beautiful graphic that tells the story very eloquently. However, a question came up in the comments:

This may be a strange place to ask for financial information, but I just had a conversation about Obama’s tax plan with my USAmerican mother. Though she is no fan of McCain, she told me that Obama’s plan significantly increases the capital gains tax, regardless of total income, so even for someone whose income might be around $50K, if the income is mainly from investments (ie for a retired person) they would pay more taxes. Does anyone know if this is true, or is it a McCain scare tactic implying that Obama wants to stick it to seniors with a fixed income? (As a Canadian, I plead justifiable ignorance of the US tax system.)

Mike just changed his layout, and every time he does, I get locked out of commenting for a while, so I can't respond there. But this is worth its own post anyway.

Most Americans with retirement savings have them in a 401(k) or 403(b) plan. These numbers refer to the sections of the tax code in which money going into and coming out of these plans is given special tax treatment. The biggest difference between them is that 401(k) plans also provide tax benefits to the sponsoring employer. 403(b) plans are sponsored by nonprofits and government agencies that don't need the tax breaks.

Now, I'm no expert on Section 401(k) or 403(b), but Wikipedia confirms my lay understanding that "[t]he character of any gains (including tax favored capital gains) are transformed into 'ordinary income' at the time the money is withdrawn." In other words, no capital gains taxes. Just income taxes.

This makes sense, considering that the purpose of these plans is to encourage citizens to prefund their own retirement rather than relying on the government. There is no incentive for the government to take anything more than they would have taken if the money were taxed as the employee earned it instead of it going into the plan.

To make a long story short, Theo's mama has nothing to worry about from a capital gains tax increase. In fact, she's a whole lot better off under Obama's plan.

Whether it's McCain's camp doing the scaremongering? That one I can't answer.

Update: Here is some more information from Snopes on additional lies being spread about Obama's tax plan.

Carnival of Elitist Bastards Is Up

I don't often write like an elitist bastard. I'm pretty careful about it, actually. Still, sometimes it just needs to be done.

Luckily, there's a place for this kind of writing. I say, "luckily," because if done well, it can be highly entertaining to read. Blake Stacey, of the newly relocated Science After Sunclipse, has collected some of the best elitist bastardry of the last month and incorporated it into a sheer work of art at his own blog. He deigned to include my post, but I think he did it to just to show up my writing, the bastard.

But he can't overshadow them all, no matter how hard he tries. This month's carnival contains some of the elitest of the elitists, so go check it out.

August 29, 2008

Obama Wins Minnesota 60%-40%

At least he does if the voters are limited to registered readers of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

I was flipping through the comments on the local article about McCain's inexplicable VP pick. Comments can be voted up or down, and it got to the point where I didn't have to read the comment to know which candidate it favored. Pro-Obama? Approved by 55%-75% of readers. Pro-McCain? Approved by 35%-45% of readers.

Looks like good news for Al Franken's Senate campaign, too. Funny comments had about a 90% approval rating, regardless of affiliation.

Now This Is Civilized, Mostly

Here's how to start your morning.

  • Prep for dinner with friends while making breakfast.

  • Leave the robots behind you cleaning the house.

  • Enjoy a nice, cool walk to work.

  • Be greeted by name at the coffee shop.

  • Have your Friday mocha ready by the time you're done ordering.

  • Get to work to find that your research has been featured in the news.

  • Plan for a party.

  • Get back to work.

For the record, I recommend skipping the part where you take a chunk out of your dominant index finger with your thumbnail while tying your shoes. It really doesn't add to the effect.

August 27, 2008

Oh, It Burns--Must Share

Kelly shared this lovely ad from France. Well, that wasn't what he called it. His description: "Orangina Phatasmagoria as imagined by Furry Enthusiasts on a Binge." I've tried to resist, but I must pass it on. If I can't unsee it, you must see it too.

Full disclosure: I own a cell painting of Omaha the Catdancer (NSFW) and several back issues of the comic and just about got the artist killed in a mosh pit once. The ad still leaves me speechless.

For the full fun, click through to YouTube for the comments.

I'll Take Mine Dense, Please

Periodically, someone blames the interwebs for declines in attention span and amount of reading people do. I'll cop to the first. As I spend more time online, I find myself unwilling to devote the time necessary to watch the news, listen to a discussion on the radio, or watch a movie. All these things I used to do without hesitation now seem to take so bloody long.

You'll note that I didn't talk about reading. That hasn't changed...well, unless I'm in the middle of an online argument, that is. Nope, books get all the time they need, without complaint. My only complaint is that there isn't time for more of them.

So what's the difference? Why are my viewing and listening habits changing when my reading habits aren't? Information density.

I've been spoiled by tabbed browsing and information-rich websites. When I'm sitting in front of a screen or a speaker, I'm all too aware of how much more quickly I can read than someone can speak. Inflection and expression just don't add enough additional data to fill in and make the medium worthwhile.

All the extra processing power has to go somewhere. My fingers twitch to be productive in the pauses, but they'll reach for text if I let them do anything. My attention wanders down tangents and alleyways, looking to make the kinds of connections I can make online. Instead, I lose the main thread. If I do keep myself focused, I over-analyze. I get critical of the smallest points or spoil my own fun.

Luckily, there are things I can still watch, like the excellent surreality of shows like Life on Mars (highly recommended--see the British version before the US team totally screws it up, cause that's what they're doing). I can watch short videos that illustrate a point and films where close observation of human behavior is the point. For just about anything else, though, like the convention speeches, I'm reading transcripts.

And contrary to what the internet pundits say, I'm reading more than ever.

August 26, 2008

You People Need to Time Things Better

Every year brings a few invitations for friends' and relatives' weddings. Not this year. This year, we received two.

One is for one of my favorite cousins. The fact that I only have four cousins makes this no less true or meaningful. She's one of the people who, without complaint, makes the world keep going. She played the music for my wedding. I look at her and see her mother, who died all too recently. She's sweet and funny and cheerful and always quietly herself.

The other is for our second-best man at our wedding (she looked good in the tux, but not at all masculine). She's my husband's ex-roommate, the ex-fiance of one of my good friends from college, and hooked into our lives in so many little ways that a friend refers to her as ubiquitous. She's a force of nature.

I'm so happy to see both of these people happy, but I want to shake them. Off all the days this summer to pick from, they had to put their weddings on the same day--in different towns, so we can't even manage one ceremony and one reception.

I've been staring at the date on the calendar all summer, knowing this was coming. Finally, this morning, I had to put the RSVP cards in the mail. We made the choice over breakfast. Bah. I'll get over it and be happy for them again soon, but not just yet. I'm still grumpy over having to choose at all.

All I can say, guys, is get it right next time.

August 24, 2008

Personally, I'm Anti-Tolerance

I hang out in a number of places where diversity is discussed. Differences in weight, cultural standards, socioeconomic status, religious practices, age, physical ability, skin color, sexual preference, gender identity, sexual practices, communication styles--either everybody's grappling with them or I'm only interested in the people who are. And yet, there's one thing I run across in almost all these places that would drive me away if I were any less stubborn.


One little word, it almost looks helpless sitting alone like that. Nothing about it warns of the headache that I get every time someone uses it.

"We should work to increase tolerance of _________."

"________ is tolerated much better than it used to be."

"I've always thought of this community as so tolerant."


Could we be more exclusionary as we seek inclusion? Could we find a word to more clearly state that power lies where it has always lain? Could we use one to make it more obvious that membership of the outsider is temporary and conditional? Could we draw the line between us and them any deeper?

It's a big, weird world out there, people. In here too, for that matter. Wake up and embrace it. If you hold back and tolerate it, you're missing half the point and all the fun.

August 22, 2008


I'm walking up the street with my friend. I'm maybe fourteen or fifteen. She's a couple years older. A fine mist starts.

Friend: It's raining.

Me (struck by some awesome whim): No, it's not.

Friend: No, really. I just felt a drop.

Me: I don't feel anything.

The rain gets slightly heavier.

Friend: It's definitely raining.

Me: Uh, I'm sorry. I don't feel anything.

Friend: Look. I can see it.

Me: I...[shrug] sorry.

Friend: You can't see that?

I shake my head slowly.

Friend: But I'm sure it's raining.

Me (feigning concern): Um. Look, are you sure you're okay?

Friend: But I can feel it. I'm getting wet.

Me: I'm really sorry.

I bite my lip. My friend looks at me, then at the ground. We walk along in silence.

Friend (quietly): You really don't think it's raining, do you?

Me: Oh, of course it's raining. I'm just messing with you.

It was then and there that I learned just how malleable people are, that however much we might think of ourselves as discrete individuals, we're prey to all sorts of outside influences. It was a hell of a lesson, even if I gave it to myself.

Oh, yeah. She hit me pretty hard for that one. We both agreed I'd deserved it.

August 21, 2008

Saving Science Fiction

If you're a movie-goer rather than a big reader, that title probably looks silly. But for all the success of science fiction in broader media, science fiction publishing--both short fiction and novels--isn't doing so hot.

Why? Well, everyone has their pet answer. SF Signal, in their Mind Meld feature, asks seventeen authors and editors in the field what one thing they would change about science fiction publishing. Most of the answers are attempts to broaden the appeal of the genre. One (which I read as tongue-in-cheek) is rather the opposite, and Kelly dismembers the notion at Wyrdsmiths.

My take? If I could change one thing about science fiction as a genre, I'd make it get over its obsession with not repeating itself. Science fiction is the only genre I know of where someone will look at a story and say, "Oh. I saw XX do that in a short story in 1977. Never mind." What?

When was the last time you heard someone say, "Oh, but Shakespeare did that already"? Bzzt. Doesn't happen. Anywhere but science fiction, repetition is homage or exploration of a theme.

Yes, science fiction the genre of ideas. Got that. But it's the story that puts the idea across. Without that, well, the idea might as well be a blog post. Telling the same story in multiple ways will get the idea across to different audiences: different generations, different ethnicities, different stylistic preferences, different levels of background reading in the genre. If we're not willing to occasionally retell a story a bit differently, we run the risk of alienating all these different audiences, and we run the risk of running out of things to say.

And yes, someone already wrote that story. I just don't remember who.

Update: For anyone who thinks "saving" is over-the-top, Bill runs the numbers on the "big" short story markets at Wyrdsmiths. Ouch.

August 20, 2008

What Maternal Instinct?

I was over at a friend's house last night. I held her two-month-old baby for a bit because, you know, it's polite to express some interest and it had been a while since I'd held a baby. One gets to thinking of them as fragile if one goes too long without touching them. Well, I do.

The baby was well-behaved, past the wrinkly stage, mostly healthy. Everything that is supposed to make babies so adorable was there. Tiny, wee fingernails? Check. Dimpled fingers and wrists and knees? Check. Instant grasp of proferred finger? Check. Deep dent in the upper lip? Check. Overlarge, luminous eyes? Check. Impromptu, trusting nap? Check.

Impulse to talk baby talk? Nope. Desire to have one of my own? Huh uh.

I was perfectly comfortable holding her. There was no fussing or crying. I recognized when she got hungry and gave her back to her mother. No relief. No regrets.

I know people who are kid-phobic. I know people who think children are the most annoying things in the world. I'm not one of those people. Kids are fine and all--for other people.

I just don't find them interesting, aside from their being examples of human development in action. They stay dull at least until they're verbal. I did enjoy teaching the two-year-old how to say "preposition." They don't get really interesting until they start to separate their identities from their parents'. Then they're human.

Until then? Yawn. I'm glad they make my friends happy, but I have other things I'd rather do.

August 18, 2008

RNC Good for St. Paul?

The claims, of course, are that a big convention like this is great for the host city, but there are a few people who aren't thrilled at the moment.

Hotels aren't full yet, and prices are dropping. Wonkette thinks the candidates with something to lose are staying home instead of being seen with the big names.

Restaurants aren't full either, even the ones that signed exclusive contracts with the RNC for the duration. Even businesses that haven't agreed to exclusivity aren't altogether optimistic. The convention has a large security perimeter, and some businesses within and just next to the perimeter don't expect that they'll be quite the thing the Republicans are looking for. Not fancy enough, especially compared to restaurants in Minneapolis.

But hey, even if the convention isn't as great for St. Paul businesses as expected, it has to be good for the city's reputation right? Raise its profile? Well, maybe, except that both Governor Tim Pawlenty and U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann (both Republicans) have referred to the convention as being in Minneapolis when talking to the press. Oops.

Oh, well. Maybe the bike-sharing program will at least be a success. During the Republican convention. While the bikes can't be brought inside the security perimeter.

Hoo, boy.

Brace yourself, St. Paul.

August 17, 2008

Blue Cheese Chicken Salad

I went to a potluck picnic today. Whatever I was going to bring had to be substantial, moderately healthful, tasty, without hidden allergens and not likely to be duplicated. My rules, not theirs. It also had to be safe sitting out in temperatures in the high eighties. That ruled out my chicken salad with the blue cheese dressing.

Or did it? I've never been fond of mayonnaise as a dressing base (or anything else), and I thought this would be a great opportunity to eliminate it from this recipe. A couple of tweaks later, I couldn't be happier with the result.

3 chicken breasts
1 - 1.5 lb seedless red grapes
2 large Granny Smith apples
5 oz. soft blue cheese, crumbled
3 oz. sunflower seeds
salt and fresh pepper

Oil and liberally season the chicken, then grill it. You're going for good brown grill marks but not char. Once it's cooked through, let the chicken rest--ideally, overnight in the fridge.

Cube the chicken and the apples. Slice the grapes in half. Add the blue cheese, sunflower seeds and about another teaspoon of pepper. Stir. The juice from the fruit will start to break down the blue cheese and make a dressing, but leave some chunks.

Serve cold, or as cold as your picnic will allow, and enjoy!

August 15, 2008

Bulwer-Lyttons Are Out!

My favorites:

Winner: Children's Literature

Joanne watched her fellow passengers - a wizened man reading about alchemy; an oversized bearded man-child; a haunted, bespectacled young man with a scar; and a gaggle of private school children who chatted ceaselessly about Latin and flying around the hockey pitch and the two-faced teacher who they thought was a witch - there was a story here, she decided.

Tim Ellis
Haslemere, U.K.

Winner: Science Fiction

Timothy Hanson, Commander of the 43rd Space Regiment in the 52nd Battalion on board the USAOPAC (United Space Alliance Of Planets Attack Carrier) and second in command to Admiral L. R. Morris of the USAOP Space Command, awoke early for breakfast.

Joe Schulman
Cartersville, GA

Read all the 2008 winners.

Thanks to Ben who makes sure I see them because I can't keep track of when they come out.

August 14, 2008

Ooh, Ouch

I need sleep more than I need to blog today, so here are a few people doing it for me (sort of):

Betül is covering a study on stereotypes of scientists that should be seen to be believed.

ERV connects PZ Myers and Terry Pratchet in a way that still has me laughing, days later. Seriously, she wins the internet.

Benjamin Collard, one of the young men at the center of the cracker storm, tells us how the whole thing was blown up by a simple political rivalry. And here we thought it was all about religion.

And Lyda discovers that some editors are taking a prurient attitude toward language in romance novels. Yes, romance novels.

Yeesh. On that note, good night.

August 13, 2008

More Muslim Censorship? Maybe Not

Yesterday, in a press release, Dr. Max Malik accused the Muslim Writers Awards of censoring his novel by not providing it to the judges, despite it being one of five shortlisted books.

“I’m angry at the treatment I’ve received,” stated Dr. Malik “because my creative effort is being treated as if it’s somehow unclean and unworthy. Clearly, the Muslim Writers Awards has decided that the novel is so unpalatable for them that it needs to be buried.”

Dr. Malik's unpublished book, The Butterfly Hunter, reportedly contains rape, pedophilia and a cell of suicide bombers. He discovered that the judges hadn't seen it after asking them for feedback.

The awards coordinators agree that the novel was shortlisted and that the judges didn't see it. However:

Irfan Akram said that he had personally tried to introduce Malik to publishers and agents on the basis that he felt his writing showed promise. "We are unequivocally, absolutely, not interested in restricting creative talent," added Akram. "The only thing I will say is that putting someone in front of television cameras and putting them in a magazine would not be the right way to censor them."

Awards project director Imran Akram said that Malik's submission was "certainly one of the best" received in 2008, and was shortlisted for the novel award along with four other unpublished novelists. But he admitted that Malik's work was not submitted to judges as it should have been, and said that the situation was currently being investigated: "The responsibility for ensuring work was submitted to judges was delegated to several individuals within the organisation. We are still in the process of investigating the matter, and will be responding to Dr Malik's concerns once we have ascertained why his novel was not forwarded to the panel of judges." A spokesperson for Malik said he had not as yet submitted his work to any publishers.

So we still don't know. It could have been one individual who didn't like the book keeping it from being seen. Or they may find a stack of books in a box under someone's untidy desk. We'll see.

Four Stone Hearth #47--Unasked Questions Edition

Welcome to the 47th Edition of Four Stone Hearth.

Those of you who read my blog with any regularity are probably asking, "Stephanie, why are you hosting a blog carnival on archaeology and anthropology? Aren't you a writer who does math for a living?" Well, yeah. I have a degree in psychology, but the closest my blog has ever come to anthropology is a little armchair sociology.

My motivation for hosting this carnival is, for once, pretty simple. I like reading outside my field. Almost invariably, I'm handed the answers to fascinating questions that I, not being part of the field, would never have thought of. So, without further ado, allow me to share with you a whole bunch of questions I had answered before I could ask.

First up, what should I do with my spare time if I think the modern Olympics are all just a bit, well, modern and commercial? Rex at Savage Minds makes the games more interesting by framing them as a window onto Western social thought. Vaughan at Mind Hacks covers a study on whether the expressions of winning and losing competitors are innate or culturally determined. Kris's Archaeology Blog has a lovely suggestion for getting back to the games' roots.

In case the Olympics aren't controversial enough for you: Do recent studies have a hope of settling the boys-are-better-than-girls-at-math, are-not, are-too debate? Greg at Neuroanthropology presents a detailed critique of the critiques, including an excellent analysis of the problems inherent in relying on testing data, particularly No Child Left Behind test data.

Daniel at Neuroanthropology discovered his own unasked question when he took a recent vacation: What was he missing by focusing on biology versus culture in his research? What other parts of the human equation were he (and others in his field) overlooking?

Jonathan Jarrett of A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe asks almost exactly the opposite question: What can a historian learn from talking to an anthropologist? In this case, the answer is why markets exist in areas where everyone is growing a relatively few staple crops.

Back to questions for anthropologists: When might an anthropologist not want to add to the knowledge in the world. Afarensis discusses the reservations he and others have with the Minerva Research Initiative.

More on the responsibilities of nations: How can a country best protect its historical resources? Stone Pages gives examples of a country doing it well (Ireland) and one that is failing (Australia).

Is there any place for treasure hunting in archaeology anymore? Antiquarian's Attic gives an example to suggest that if the treasure hunter is an honest one, yes.

Aside from their being an excellent brewery there, why do I really need to make a point of getting to Orkney next time I'm in Scotland? Remote Central covers some discoveries and theories to come out of a recent dig at the Ring of Brodgar.

Reaching further back: What does the recent sequencing of Neandertal mitochondrial DNA mean for our understanding of human evolution? John Hawks reports that this lays to rest the idea that some modern humans may be descended from Neandertals, and he's very excited about the evidence he sees in this study for positive selection on mtDNA in ancient humans. Anne of Writer's Daily Grind is less convinced about the evidence that Neandertals were a separate species from our ancient ancestors. And Babel's Dawn uses the information to place a lower limit on how recent the biological support for language is.

What can "fake" languages tell us about how language evolved and continues to evolve? covers recent research into the transmission of an artificial language through generations of learners.

If fake languages can tell us about us, what can fake organisms tell us? has fascinating coverage of a robot that appears to show social behavior, including responding to attention and avoiding apparent threats.

To end on a cheerful note: Why is the electric chair a chair rather than some other shape? Headsman over at answers this question, tell us where the word "electrocution" comes from, explains how the electricity wars played into the development of the electric chair, and provides an eyewitness account of the first execution by the chair.

That's it for this edition of Four Stone Hearth. I hope you found answers to some questions that had never occurred to you as well. The next edition will be hosted at Tangled Up in Blue Guy on August 27.

August 11, 2008

Muslim Scholar Says Muslims Can't Handle Fiction

If you're moderately literate, you've probably heard of The Jewel of Medina, the scandalous book about Aisha, the child bride of Muhammad, which Random House pulled from their publication schedule to avoid the next fatwa. But the more pieces of the story that come out, the more interesting it gets.

A little background: The book had reached the stage of galleys without anyone at Random House batting an eyelash, as far as can be told. The author, Sherry Jones, a journalist, requested that Random House send a review copy to Denise Spellberg, Associate Professor of History and Middle Eastern Studies and the author of one of the biographies Jones read in preparation for writing her novel. Spellberg didn't like it, calling it a "very ugly, stupid piece of work."

"I walked through a metal detector to see 'Last Temptation of Christ,'" the controversial 1980s film adaptation of a novel that depicted a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. "I don't have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can't play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography."

Uh, wait. The Last Temptation of Christ is not playing with sacred history, but this book is? The film shows Jesus having sex with Mary Magdalen. According to the author, The Jewel of Medina has no sex scenes. The excerpt that seems to have the most people upset is four sentences that occur after Muhammad first has sex with his nine-year-old bride:

...the pain of consummation soon melted away. Muhammad was so gentle. I hardly felt the scorpion's sting. To be in his arms, skin to skin, was the bliss I had longed for all my life.

This is pretty tame stuff. Admittedly, Aisha was nine, but that's part of the historical record. Is the problem that she enjoyed being with him afterward? After reading the prologue to the novel, which a Guardian reporter called "luridly written," I start to think it is.

"She has been flirting with him for years!"

I snorted, as if his words amused me instead of chilling my blood. He spoke the truth — but who else knew?

Again, yawn. Hardly the stuff of "objectif[ying] the wife of the prophet as a sex object," as Spellberg claims. [gasp!] Aisha flirts! Wives of prophets can't be complex beings, certainly not sexual ones! Not violent ones, either. No swords allowed for this woman who raised an army and directed a battle from her camel. Nope, that would be part of "a long history of anti-Islamic polemic that uses sex and violence to attack the Prophet and his faith," according to Spellberg.

And it's these objections that led Spellberg to make "a frantic call" to a fellow lecturer and editor of a Muslim website, warning him that Jones "made fun of Muslims and their history" and asking him to spread the word about the horrors of a book he hadn't read. They also led to her to call Random House to say "it is 'a declaration of war . . . explosive stuff . . . a national security issue.' Thinks it will be far more controversial than the satanic verses and the Danish cartoons."

Really? A sword, a little off-screen married sex in keeping with the practices of the time, and The Jewel of Medina is going to get people killed where The Last Temptation of Christ didn't? Would our esteemed Middle Eastern Studies professor care to explain why that would be? The last time I checked, Muslims were handling sacrilege much better than their Christian fellows.

I'm curious why she doesn't think they'd continue to be just as civil over a piece of fiction.


The author has her say, provoking a seriously screwed up comment thread. Also, Shahed Amanullah, who spread the news of the novel at Spellberg's request, speaks out for free and vigorous speech.

August 09, 2008

A Partial Reunion

I'm headed to my high school reunion tonight. If you think I could sound a bit more enthusiastic, you're right.

Not that I don't want to go. There are a couple of people who will be there who I fell out of touch with for no good reason. I'm very excited to see them again and catch up. No, I'm just thinking of all the people who contributed to the fun parts of high school who won't be there.

There are all the people from the other classes: Evan, Bill, Anna, Nana, Dan, Chris, Doug, Kevin. Of those, I'm still in touch with only Bill and Anna, and only Anna lives close enough to visit with. They're not even invited, of course, because what counts for a high school reunion is who got handed a piece of paper the same day you did.

But even among the paper-date sharing crowd, there are plenty of people who won't be coming to any reunion. We were not a joining bunch. We were the ones who sat in pep rallies (when we didn't skip them) during the parts where they tried to play the classes against each other and said, "You want me to yell competitively? Right." Seriously. That was my whole class, the silent ones. My friends were the ones who skipped. They not only had better things to do; they had better places to be.

Stacey, Barb, Erin, Brian, John--the defiant ones. I'd love to know what they're all doing now, but unless I'm very, very off in my guess, none of them will be there. I'll hope to be surprised. I'll raise a glass in their honor if I'm not, but without all these people, tonight just won't be my high school reunion.

Upcoming Four Stone Hearth

For those of you looking for the place where the August 13th Four Stone Hearth carnival will be hosted, you're in the right place. Please e-mail me your links to me at stephanie.zvan on Gmail.

For those of you who haven't a clue what I'm talking about, stop back by on the 13th for a collection of interesting posts on archaeology and anthropology.

August 07, 2008

How's the India?

I was chatting with a coworker in Gurgaon today. We were waiting for my computer to behave, and he asked, "How's the weather in Minneapolis?" I told him, feeling a bit silly for not being able to estimate the temperature in Celsius (it was early--for me).

Then I asked what his weather was like this time of year. "We're having the monsoons. Gentle rains every day. It's a very nice break from the heat."

I felt even sillier, not knowing it was monsoon season. That's kind of a big deal, although the fact that I hadn't heard about any flooding was good. Then he said, "Where is Minneapolis? It isn't on one of the coasts, is it?"

Woohoo for shared cultural ignorance! I at least know where Gurgaon is (outside New Delhi). He even thought I must have been to visit because I know the city is growing ridiculously fast. Nah. It's just in a big urban area in India. One follows from the other right now.

So I told him how to locate us quickly on a map. Then we went back to talking about the weather. Snow impressed him mightily, as did the entire concept of ice fishing. We were just getting into the local economy when my computer got its act together and we had to go back to work.

I love working for a global company.

Why Vaccinate? For the Youngest

Measles is back in Minnesota.

The Minnesota child, who lives in Hennepin County but who has not been identified, is 10 months old -- too young to have received a measles vaccine that is typically given at 12 months.

The child became ill on July 29 and was in two clinics, an emergency room and around the community before being diagnosed.

From today's local paper.

All it takes is one baby being exposed. How many play dates did the child have before being diagnosed (contagious four days before the rash appears)? How much time in child care? How many other babies were in those clinics? How many unvaccinated older children and adults who later came in contact with babies?

Between January and July, 127 measles cases in 15 states were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the largest number in the past seven years. So far, no child has died. Most cases have occurred in children whose parents decided against having them vaccinated for religious reasons or because of concerns about the safety of vaccines.

So far....

If you want to know what this baby could be in for, here's a good place to start.

August 05, 2008

Too Much Editing?

We went to see The Dark Knight this weekend, and it was okay. A few years ago, I might have told you it was wonderful. Even now, it beats any other comic book movie I've seen, and I see most of them.

Heath Ledger really was as amazing as everyone says. For the first time, the Joker almost makes sense as a character. As something of an agent of chaos myself, I almost sympathized with him. Not with his methods, of course, but with his impulses.

Neither Gary Oldman nor Maggie Gyllenhall got enough to do, but what they did, they did well, as usual. There were moments when the ease with which the Joker executed his plots stretched credulity (the funeral), but I'll give any superhero plot one or two of those. Bruce Wayne dithered over things that should have been straightforward, but his other secret identity has always been Angst Boy, so it wasn't out of character.

None of those things were really what bugged me though. What bugged me is what usually bugs me about a movie these days. It was a combination of feeling that the movie didn't trust me as the audience and knowing the answers to things that were supposed to be mysteries.

As for trusting the audience, how often does one really have to be shown that the Joker is a tricksy badass before the main conflicts can come into play? How much needs to be made of Dent to show that he's wearing a white hat before it can be knocked off? How many times must we hear about crooked cops? I get it all already.

But it's the knowing the answers to the mysteries that really gets to me, because I don't think it's all the moviemakers' fault. At least according to my husband, most people don't say, "Well, it had to be them. They're the only ones we've seen on camera in speaking roles who aren't dead yet," and, "But why else did you think his big ole stomach hurt?" and, "The stereotype wasn't a huge flag to you?" In this case, it really is just me. I've been editing too much.

I ran into a similar problem with fiction about the time that writing really started to work for me. I couldn't look at a book without seeing down to the bones. Every book was reduced to its structure. The problem isn't completely fixed yet, but it's getting better. I can read fiction for pleasure long as it's well written.

But in the meantime, I've been doing more editing. So now I look at a story and I see the function (preferably functions) of all the pieces. Everything has its purpose, and every story has pieces it that are needed to make it work. Fitting the two together is all too easy. Worse, it makes almost everything look predestined.

I can only hope that I'll get over it in time. Because The Dark Knight really should have been a better movie than it was--to me. For you, if you haven't seen it and I haven't spoiled anything for you, it will probably be much better than okay.

And in other review news, Banana Creme Oreos taste very much like circus peanuts shoved into an Oreo, with that coolness on the tongue that artificial banana flavor gives. They're kinda weird. Duh.

Just Askin'

Say, anybody got some Christian babies to spare? I have a friend who's trying to quit smoking, and supplies are running low.

August 03, 2008

Stereotypes in Comedy

A couple weeks ago, as part of a review event for Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy, the question of stereotypes in movies was raised. A number of reviewers felt that black and gay characters in the movie were stereotypes. Much discussion ensued, including input from people who hadn't seen the movie.

Okay, I took part too, despite not having seen the film, which isn't in general release yet. But my take on the discussion was a little more general:

The thing about stereotypes in a comedy is that almost every character starts as one. It gives the filmmaker a set of viewer expectations to violate. The question is where do these characters end up? Are they still stereotypes by the end of the movie?

I didn't get an answer, in part because that comment thread was, at heart, only tangentially about the movie. Today, though, the local paper has an interesting article on the uses of ethnic stereotypes in film. There's the discussion of the current state of the art:

In an ever-more-diverse United States, movies that trade in ethnic humor increasingly aim to give us laughs we don't need to feel guilty about. They often have, or at least claim, a de-stigmatizing effect. They lampoon bigotry, or the prejudices of people who imagine themselves open-minded when they are anything but, turning chauvinism into a punch line.

But the piece that really caught my attention was this:

Nearly all comedies traffic in stereotypes -- it's a quick-and-dirty way of connecting with audiences, giving them something they recognize, exaggerated for humorous effect. In fact, humor often depends upon that context of familiarity.

Vindication! Not that I thought I was wrong, but it's always nice to be agreed with, especially when I'm talking off the cuff. There's nothing quite like generalizing from a small sample and broad impressions and turning out to be onto something.

The article itself goes into much more depth and is worth reading in full, particularly for anyone who wants to write comedy.

Americans Abroad

A few years ago, on a trip to Scotland, our group found an unusual way to cut costs and improve our experience at the same time. We were greeted in a very friendly way in a non-customer service culture. A buffet restaurant tripped over itself to make custom celiac-friendly dishes for one of us. We received a substantial discount on a week's stay at one of Edinburgh's loveliest B&Bs.

Why? The kilts didn't hurt, but these all happened while someone was wearing the American Traveler International Apology Shirt, available here from CafePress. Here's the back:

That was all it took to be treated the way...well, the way most Americans expect to be treated abroad. So remember this simple strategy if you're traveling this summer. Of course, if you can't afford to travel, it's not a bad thing to remember in November either.

August 02, 2008

You Want to Sell Me What?

When the doorbell rings late on a Saturday morning, it means one of two things. Unfortunately, it's almost never one of the neighborhood kids who wants to make some money cutting my grass. No, instead it's someone who wants me to buy their god.

Today's was special. I was getting ready to run out and do some errands when I heard the familiar chime. Usually they send the well-dressed and stately (for the black churches) or the ultra-sincere but casual kiddies (for the white churches). Not this time. It was just some white guy my age with glasses and a stack of glossy half-page flyers.

He handed me one. I took it because I don't really trust these people to recycle the leftovers. Then I looked at it. "Miracle for Muslims," it said at the top, with the picture of an older black man at the bottom in a very western dress shirt.

"I'm from the X______ Church, and we're hosting a lecture on--"

I set the flyer back on his stack. "Thank you. No." Then I closed the door.

He didn't seem too disappointed, just surprised by the flyer. Maybe I'm not the only one who hasn't trusted him with them.

He wasn't targeting me anyway. The people he really wanted to have buy his god are my neighbors from Somalia. They're the folks who have kept our neighborhood from turning into a ghost town as the housing market collapsed, the ones who have opened new stores and restaurants and coffee shops in empty buildings, the ones who are bringing community back to our streets by gathering outside in groups just to talk to each other.

These are the boys who politely make room on the sidewalk, even when they're walking in big groups. These are the girls who have figured out how to tuck their cell phones into their headscarves so they don't have to hold them and how to make ankle-length skirts some of the sexiest clothing I've ever seen on a teenager. These are the kids who run and giggle like kids should.

This is who the door-to-door salesman wanted to lecture--lecture! They've gotten their hands on one guy who adopted the ways of his new home by converting, and you just know they're trying to use him to "civilize" the rest of these strange new people. They want to make them less strange, less scary, less Muslim.

Miracle for Muslims? Yeah, right. The real miracle is how infrequently my doorbell rings now that I have new neighbors. Now that's civilized.

August 01, 2008

Last Month's Explosion Continued

Transcriptase is the new site where some writers who had material in the Helix archives have reposted their work. We're talking free fiction here, people, good stuff, including a story from Janis Ian.

Go. Read. Enjoy.