Monday, February 08, 2016

Review: Gulp

Mary Roach is a goddamn national treasure.

I almost stopped the review right there, but I should probably clarify. She's an immensely talented writer with a number of books ('Stiff', 'Spook', 'Bonk', 'Packing for Mars' and 'Gulp') that take a look at the science surrounding topics normally considered too taboo or too obscure for discussion and distill them down into a collection of facts so fascinating that you'll find that taboo breaking down just a little bit as you read. She discusses orgasms in an MRI machine and composting of human corpses with a slightly horrified thrill that drags you right along with her, and by the end of each of her books you'll feel a little bit smarter.

'Gulp', her latest book (I'm hoping she's due for another soon) is no exception. It's all about the way we process food, from the front--there's a lovely introductory chapter about the way we process flavors--to the back, with a chapter on the cutting edge of fecal bacteria transplants. Along the way, you get to learn about a man with a fistulated stomach who was so valuable to medical science that he had to tell his family to shoot anyone who tried to collect his body, about the science of making pet food palatable, about the tricks and tips for smuggling objects in your stomach, and all about the importance of swallowing to satiety. And how someone found that out the hard way.

It is a little squicky, don't get me wrong. Reading about a guy who had to chew his food and spit out the bolus into a little funnel that went directly into his stomach (due to damage to the esophagus) is actually a bit harder than reading about body disposal. But even if 'Gulp' is a little harder to read than 'Stiff', it's still filled with the amazing and fascinating tidbits that make Mary Roach so readable and entertaining. And even though she freely admits to not being a scientist herself, in many ways that helps her make a better book about science--she is constantly going to scientists and saying, "Could you please distill your work down to a level understandable by a layman?" The results tend to be far more informative than if a scientist had written them.

So yes, you will gulp down 'Gulp', one slightly wince-inducing but absolutely fascinating chapter at a time. Because Mary Roach is a goddamn national treasure.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

The Failure Mode of Clever

Apparently while I was out sick, John Scalzi wrote a piece on impostor syndrome. Now, in general I'd say that my opinion on John Scalzi is that he's right about 99% of the time, but when he's wrong he puts his foot in it hard and tries to pretend his shoe doesn't smell. This is one of those times he put his foot in it hard.

Because I honestly don't even understand the point of this piece. It's John Scalzi telling everyone he doesn't have impostor syndrome. He says he's not bragging about it, but my question is, if this isn't a brag, then what is it actually supposed to be? Is it some sort of advice to people who do have impostor syndrome? If it is, it's beyond terrible into actively cruel. His first suggestion-not-suggestion is that he never suffered from impostor syndrome because he knew he wanted to be a writer from the age of fourteen on.

Again, I don't know what this is if it's not a brag, because as advice, it's not just useless but outright harmful. Telling someone, "Hey, the reason I don't have impostor syndrome is that I knew I wanted to be a writer from a very young age. You should try that," is going to undermine their self-confidence, feed into that crippling sense of doubt that's at the root of impostor syndrome, and convince them that everything their negative self-talk tells them is actually true. Because here's a famous, successful writer who's everything they want to be saying to them that no, real writers know it deep down in their heart from a very young age so they never have to worry about it.

To understand why this is a horrible, horrible thing to do, imagine transposing it to a more commonly discussed mental illness, clinical depression. Imagine someone offering to you, as entirely unsolicited advice about your depression, "Well, I suppose it's never been a problem for me because I've had so much to be happy about. I don't know why other people don't have that." Can you picture the way it would make someone feel to be told that the part of themselves that's lying to them and suggesting the things that bring them joy aren't good enough or true enough is actually right? Can you imagine why this is an awful thing to say to someone even if you didn't intend it to be that way?

His second piece of not-advice-but-certainly-not-a-brag is that he never had a problem with impostor syndrome because everybody liked his writing. Which is a) again, a horrible thing to say to someone with impostor syndrome who might be reading this, because they already tend to magnify any criticism they get and a famous author telling them, "Oh, nobody really criticized me" is going to further magnify it, but b) shows a complete and total lack of understanding of the problem so thorough that it magnificently disqualifies Scalzi from writing this essay.

Because the problem with impostor syndrome isn't just that you magnify criticism. It's that you disbelieve praise. The thing that is utterly gutting about impostor syndrome is that you assume anyone saying nice things about you and your work is deluded or lying, that it's only a matter of time before they find out who you really are and turn that praise into withering scorn. People with impostor syndrome get praise all the time, just as much as Scalzi if not more. They just don't believe it when they hear it.

Points three through six are all pretty much reiterations of the same theme--Scalzi had success early on, was proud of it, and when he hit a stall in his career he just dug deep and recommitted to writing. Again, this is sod-all use to anyone suffering from impostor syndrome, and completely misunderstands the problem in a way that only someone utterly oblivious to their own privilege can. People with impostor syndrome don't have a problem attaining success, they have a problem believing their success is genuinely due to their talent and that they don't deserve it. Scalzi's point four is absolutely flabbergasting in its sheer boneheadedness--it's, "When I succeeded, I was proud of it. That may be one of the reasons I don't have impostor syndrome." That's not even a reason, it's just a tautological reiteration of the fact that he doesn't have impostor syndrome. It's like saying, "Maybe one of the reasons I don't have the mumps is that my glands aren't swelling up?"

All of this would have been bad enough, a sheer mountain of smug lack of self-awareness as he proceeds to sanesplain people's mental illnesses to them, if not for his first comment to the person who called him on his crap. He said to them, "You do understand that I don’t actually care what you or anyone else expects from me, yes?"

So that's John Scalzi, telling people who are mentally ill and upset with him for casually dismissing their very real problems in a fit of oblivious privilege that he doesn't care. Apparently this piece wasn't written for them.

But it's not a brag. Because he said so.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Maybe They Thought It Was 'GTA: San Andreas'?

I watch the movie 'San Andreas' last night alongside my wife, who is always up for a Big Dumb Disaster Movie. (The irony is that she also loves to read about geology and vulcanology--half her enjoyment is derived from picking apart the terrible science.) This one has a lot of Big and a lot of Dumb, but I think what bothered me most about it was that it also had a lot of Lazy and a big chunk of Uninteresting, served with a side of Creepy.

The plot, for those of you who missed it, is that the Rock is a frankly terrible human being who steals a rescue chopper in the middle of a natural disaster, abandons his responsibilities to thousands of people in desperate need, and goes after his perfectly capable daughter who has already told him at the halfway point of the film that she's safe and looking for a way out of the city. Along the way, he loots a truck, illegally barters it to some perfectly nice elderly couple (leaving them holding the bag for the inevitable grand theft auto charges) for a light plane which he ditches in mid-air to crash God knows where, then jacks someone's boat. This is the hero. This is the sympathetic guy.

The unsympathetic guy is his ex-wife's new husband, who alerts rescue authorities to the daughter's danger instead of freeing her himself, then wanders around the movie for a while looking for something to do before getting squashed like a bug.

Oh, and Paul Giamatti is in the movie, although he's really not so much "in the movie" as he is "generally movie adjacent". He plays a seismologist who warns people about the earthquake, and we're told saves lives because some of the people listened. He does not interact with the protagonists or antagonists at all, and the movie would be absolutely no different if every scene he was in was excised completely. Which I'm sure he lobbied for hard.

The thing that's hard to get away from is the bizarrely solipsistic tone of the film. The massive 9.1 earthquake that devastates Los Angeles and San Francisco is only ever shown in long shots and convenient set pieces involving the main characters. Everyone else, the entire population of both cities, is treated either as a convenient prop for the Rock to rescue, an obstacle to make their lives less convenient, or a faceless and panicky crowd to fill out the background while the Rock poses or Alexandra Daddario flirts with Hugo Johnstone-Burt. (Honestly, that may be the point of the otherwise entirely superfluous Giamatti scenes, to make people feel better about watching all the mass devastation with bland platitudes about people evacuating the city.)

I do think there's an interesting idea behind all this, believe it or not. I think you could make a movie that would be legitimately compelling about a rescue worker whose family is in the city he's helping save, one where he struggles with the moral dilemma of helping his loved ones or saving dozens of lives. But it would have to be a movie where the main character was actually aware such a moral dilemma existed, and the Rock's character is principally there to be steely determined and to Save the Girl.

(Who, again, would have been fine if he'd just told her at the halfway point, "You're doing great, keep right at it and let me know when you get to a refugee checkpoint!" instead of telling her to head directly into the middle of the burning collapsing city so that he could rescue her with the helicopter he stole.)

Watch it for the collapsing buildings, gleefully imagine the Rock being arrested afterward, and you'll feel okay about it all.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Review: I Know I Am, But What Are You?

I've been a huge fan of Samantha Bee's work on the Daily Show for years. She's always had such amazing delivery--she slips the joke in like a dagger, working it into innocuous-seeming conversations in a way that almost leaves you wondering whether she meant to say that, or it just slipped out. She's a brilliant comedian, and so when my wife saw her book in a used bookstore, she grabbed it for me because she knew how much I liked her.

The book was...a little different. It was funny, don't get me wrong, but it straddled that same line between "funny" and "deeply uncomfortable" that made some episodes of 'Fawlty Towers' pretty much impossible to watch. Bee has a chapter about her teenage years, where she was so deeply socially awkward she couldn't even get raped. She has a chapter about her hideous taste in clothes and her ugly hands. She has a chapter about how awful she looks naked. She has a lot of chapters that go well past "self-deprecating" and into "self-loathing". In short, the things she says in this book are generally the sort of thing you only expect people to say about themselves with hordes of angry teenage Communists standing behind them with guns.

(Yes! A little Cultural Revolution humor just to liven things up! It's that bleak of a book.)

Again, I don't want to suggest it wasn't funny, because it really was at times. There's a very amusing explanation of the book's back cover, which features her re-enacting sex acts with her Barbie dolls (her mother had absolutely no fucks to give about propriety and figured the sooner her kid was educated about sex, the easier her life would be) and an extremely funny explanation of how she met her husband (they performed together in a touring Sailor Moon show for kids). It's not without its charms. But this is a bit on the bleak side for me, and I laughed at 'Super'.

In short, read at your own risk and don't be surprised if you simultaneously want to give Samantha Bee a hug afterwards and are too icked out by her to do so. I actually think that was what she was going for.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

"Leave Britney Alone" Is Actually Kind of Good Advice

I've decided I'm officially over people wishing pain and suffering on celebrities, even as a joke. I made this decision after reading an article on the Gawker network about an extremely sketchy "wildlife sanctuary" that's actually pitching itself more as an exotic animal petting zoo for the super-rich. My feelings on the zoo are pretty strong (short version: It is terrible and exploitative and endangers the animals and humans) but my feelings on the commenters saying, "Oh, I really wish the Kardashians would get mauled by a lion!" are even stronger.

Because no. The Kardashians do not deserve to get mauled by a lion. They do not deserve to die in a fire, they do not deserve to get disfigured by acid, they do not deserve to be locked in jail. They are guilty of nothing more than being famous for their looks and for making you aware of their existence. Wishing harm on someone for making you aware of your existence is really kind of a terrible thing to do to yourself--that's a lot of anger to carry around, even if you're "joking" when you do it. (I put that in quotes because many of the commenters actually said, "I'm not even joking.")

The same goes for Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, Adam Sandler, and anyone else who is probably more famous and less talented than they deserve to be. I can appreciate being irritated by the fact that success does not always accrue to the deserving, but letting it rise to the level of actually desiring physical harm to come to people simply for not deserving everything they've got doesn't make anything happen to them and it forces you into a slow, grinding, unpleasant ordeal of rage that I can't imagine is healthy.

So yes, do leave Britney alone, at least in that sense. Let's all just try to keep some perspective, and remember that these people aren't actually bad. In a world where Donald Trump is causing measurable harm to people in the form of inciting crowds to attack protesters, getting angry at Justin Bieber for making teeny-bopper music seems like an overreaction. Leave the hyperbole behind, ignore the Kardashians (which is actually quite easy to do with only minimal effort) and enjoy the life you have. You'll be happier.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Guest Blog Post (by Inconspicuous J. Normalhuman)

Since I don't really feel up to writing another eulogy at the moment, and I don't know what else to talk about with Alan Rickman's death kind of weighing pretty heavy on my head right now, I've decided to turn the blog over to a guest blogger, Inconspicuous J. Normalhuman. Inconspicuous comes to me from "a perfectly normal hoo-man city, which contains many friendly and edible hoo-mans," and lists among his hobbies "certainly not eating you!" Take it away, Inconspicuous!

Thank you, Inconspicuous. A real message of hope for the next generation.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Planet Earth Is Blue (And There's Nothing We Can Do)

I got to work this morning to find out David Bowie passed away. It was a strange feeling to learn that, like something of immense and indefinable value had been stolen in the night. I don't think that we'll ever be able to appreciate the magnitude of this loss, even those who were tremendous fans or those who were close to him personally, because one of the monumental achievements of Bowie's life and career was that he saw things that were invisible to the universe until he revealed them.

As such, I'm not really sure you can quantify the impact of his life and work. He created strange and wonderful things, ideas that inspired the people who inspire the rest of us. He found different ways of thinking about art, about life, about fame and the artifacts of culture that rise up around the people who dream for a living. I can imagine a few of the mysterious connections between the world we live in and the man who just passed out of our life--could Steven Colbert have existed without Ziggy Stardust? How many fantasy writers were touched by strangeness for the first time by the Goblin King? But I can't say that I see them all. He's too big for that.

And so I wish he had more time. Because I cannot imagine what five more years, one more year, even six more months of Bowie would have given us. I cannot imagine how he could have transformed the world all over again in that span, because he was rarer than a genius. He was, in his own way, a magician in the truest sense of the world, someone who changed reality with his thoughts and his words and his music, and even the geniuses he inspired cannot perform his magic.

David Bowie is gone, and that is a sad thing even if the world he helped make is wonderful.