Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Month: May, 2008

Summer Reading

I don’t know what it is about the beginning of summer, but I always feel optimistic that I’m going to get some reading done before the fall starts creeping up. Here are some vague descriptions of books I’m going to attempt before the end of summer. Can you guess what they are?* (Hint: They are not listed on the bookrolling page.)

-a writing how-to book written by a successful agent
-non-fiction on the neuroscience of reading framed by a literary metaphor
-the winner of the World Fantasy Award, published in 1974
-a 162 page book by the author of the Paradys tetrology
-non-fiction NYT bestseller on corpses
-the English translation of a German ursine text
-also known as “the mannerpunk classic”
-a paranormal romance with an oxymoronic title
-a historical fantasy on food
-non-fiction about Charles Babbage with a cover quote referring to Dava Sobel
-urban cultural history by the author of a delightful little book about the screwdriver

So what are you reading? (Or are you going to put all your books in storage and go to the beach instead?)

*Answers posted next week!

Toe Cleavage In Lab Is A No-No

The Cleavage Controversy. Personally, I don’t really give a damn what other people wear or don’t wear. Shirtless frat boys frolicking in the soccer fields? Red-lipped bank tellers flashing their perky chests as they count out twenties? Stilettos on ice? Dingy looking baseball caps on backwards? Whatever. Except in lab–then, it’s a safety issue rather than anything fashion, gender, or social-related. But this is just me. Other people, however, have hang-ups. It’s disingenuous to say to people that your fashion choices are a form of your expression and that if they have a problem with it or for some reason misinterpret nonexistent signals, then tough cookies for them. Like birds and plumage, clothes are signals to most people. Being professional, particularly in a business setting, is all about appearance. Ask the average person and they will have preconceptions about young men in baggy pants and bling, people dressed in black, and the old lady in her Sunday best. Until society as a whole manages to quash its fixation on the body and concentrate more on the mind (which I doubt will happen any time soon), fashion choices will have their consequences.

Two Links

(a.k.a. My Target Audience Is Apparently Googlers Who’ve Clicked the Wrong Result)

Publishers Weekly Reviewers Now To Be Paid Even Less. Hm. I’m just thinking about how much I’ve been paid for my short stories and the somewhat leech-like approach of publishing academic papers and still, those reviewers are making more than me, word for word. But whatever the kind of writing, writing is a sucky money maker. Unless you’re already famous, you definitely don’t do it for the money.

(An additional “hm”: I write reviews. On this site. So that means I’ve been writing them for free. Mostly as an outlet because real life doesn’t give me much opportunity to talk about my choice of books in any sort of meaningful manner. Not that anyone online reads my reviews anyway.)

NaComLeavMo. (via BlogHer) In theory, this sounds like a cool activity–who wouldn’t like to get comments? But in practice, this is very hard. Not the actual typing of the comment, but the motivation. Some blogs leave me feeling intimidated–due to a mix of subject matter I know little about and a cadre of regular, rabid commenters. Take, for example, the list of participants for this thing. I have almost nothing in common with infertility and mommy bloggers (or even the “minority” of political, knitting, or cooking bloggers). And I have no doubt that they’d find my little online exercise pointless.*

*Rant redacted. I’m really disgruntled that this is just a one month thing. Sure, there will be a flurry of posts, but after the month is over there will be NOTHING. And stupid, contentless comments like “I LUV THIS POST!!!11!!!” don’t count.


Booking Through Thursday: Manual Labor Redux

Scenario: You’ve just bought some complicated gadget home . . . do you read the accompanying documentation? Or not? Do you ever read manuals? How-to books? Self-help guides? Anything at all?

It depends on whether or not I’ve used the gadget before. And how patient I am at wading through the documentation. If I’ve used it before, no. If I haven’t, I’d probably only read the relevant bits of information in the manual. And yes, I’ve read manuals before–or rather just parts of them. (For instance, I don’t read the troubleshooting section unless I actually have something to troubleshoot.) It’s the same with how-to books. I only go to the section that is relevant to me. Self-help, I don’t read them. As for anything at all–I’m not sure what you mean by this question. Is it rhetorical? Well sometimes I go to the internet to search for help.

* * *
The Thursday Threesome: Mark My Words

Onesome: Mark–ing devices? What do you use to mark things up around the house, school, work, wherever? Does the Sharpie rule? …or do you believe in the sanctity of the pencil?

Geez, when did I last use a pencil? Maybe last year on an exam? Or maybe I did it in pen. Anyways, when I’m labeling things in lab, it’s always in Sharpie. When I write something down, it’s in black pen. Or it might be in some other color if I’ve found that all the black ones have mysteriously disappeared.

Twosome: “My– day starts off best when I……” I’ll let you fill in the blank at your place!

…am awake.

Threesome: Words– of a feather clump together? Nah, but hey: what word pairings do you use routinely? Are you into alliteration? …pithy comments? ‘Down home’ sayings? Give it up for Thursday!

On this blog, I use a lot of transition words like “at any rate”. I don’t have any particular fondness for the phrase, but it is the lazy way out when I’m trying to finish a post quickly.

Science Linkage

Tangled Bank #105 is now up at The Beagle Project Blog. Go read about dogs, bananas, and platypuses. (And please don’t correct me on the spelling. I already looked it up in the dictionary.)

Fold It! A game about protein folding. I wonder if this could be used to hook the kiddies onto science early…

The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (via Notebookism) “These images of Darwin’s notebooks are taken from microfilms; excised pages are taken from a colour microfilm made in 1982 in conjunction with the editing and transcription for the definitive edition.”

A Link

A wife rating scale from the 1930s. Wow, that’s pretty whacked. I think if anyone got a “very superior” score, I’d suspect a mass of seething resentment writhing just underneath the surface, ready to explode without a moment’s notice.

Addendum: Here’s the entire test.

Only How, Not Why (A Haiku)

The small brown rabbit
Pounds across the fraught pavement
Like swift water wheels.

And I Thought I Was Living Under A Rock

Mass market genre surprise. I’m stuck mostly in lab and yet even I know that the vampire romance glut has been around for quite a while. I’m thinking since 2003 for some reason. At least that’s when I started noticing that the used book stores had stockpiled enough Christine Feehan novels to rebuild the Berlin Wall.

As for PZ wondering if Sturgeon’s Law applies to this genre, I have no idea. I mean, theoretically, I should. I’ve read enough to say with some certainty. But the vampire books that I’ve read partially or managed to read all the way through and dislike had one thing in common–they were all trying to be serious. Maybe this is the problem–with me as the reader anyway. Vampires and seriousness simply don’t mix in my head. They’re like emo teenagers who are just plain annoying. Perhaps that’s why I’d rather read funny and comedic vampire stories.

Besides, by not examining the shelves at the conventional bookstores, he’s totally missing the next new wave to sweep the book section at his local Wal-Mart. It’s dragon-shifters and magic tattoos. And sexy demons! Now wouldn’t that be a sight next to all those bibles.

The Door Swings Open

I recently finished The Door by Margaret Atwood.

Oh no, you might moan. She’s read yet another book of poetry? Hasn’t she learned that this writing format isn’t her thing since she hated the previous two books of poetry she’s reviewed? Of course not. Just because two Pulitzer Prize winners completely failed to impress me doesn’t mean that I’m going to write off the entire genre.

First off, I really enjoyed reading The Door. Atwood is wry and vivid–with a deft hand at verbal construction. Every word is deliberate, articulate, meaningful. Reading each poem is sort of like the Monty Hall game show, except there are no goats behind the doors, just cars, gems, something shiny and interesting. Well on second thought, if there was a goat, it would be a magic goat that could probably tell the future.

The collection is partially inspired by nursery rhymes and fairy tales. I particularly liked “Owl and Pussycat, some years later”–an ode to the practicalities of happily ever after. No one wants to hear about the problems, the narrator laments. Instead:

The worst is, now we’re respectable.
We’re in anthologies, We’re taught in schools,
with cleaned-up biographies and skewed photos.
We’re part of the mug show now.
In ten years, you’ll be on a stamp,
where anyone at all can lick you.

Many of the poems are also contemplations of life/death, as a poet and writer, as a daughter worrying about the decline of her parents, the passing of pets, nature’s cycle. One of my favorites is “The Last Rational Man” which crystallizes one of the collection’s themes of reason’s futility against madness. But really, it’s the language that hooks me. From “Reindeer Moss on Granite”:

In the rain they go leathery,
then sly, like rubber.
They send up their little mouths
on stems, red-lipped and round,

each one pronouncing the same syllable,
o, o, o, like the dumbfounded
eyes of minnows.

There is a CD, included with this volume, of Atwood reading a selection of her poems. At first, her rather monotone voice isn’t exactly charismatic. While her poems are full of barely restrained energy, the reading seems just restrained. But after tracks 4 or 5, her voice sort of grows on you. It’s dark, sometimes darkly humorous. Definitely worth a listen.

Life Is Nothing But Leitmotifs

Except when I’m particularly bored, I pay little attention to personality theories. I’m familiar with Freud and Jung and those silly Myers-Briggs tests on the internet, of course, but I never really felt there was anything behind any of that stuff. After reading Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are by Daniel Nettle, I’m beginning to understand the why of personality development, but I’m still not convinced of the purpose of finding all of this out–except perhaps to give high school guidance counselors another tool to shoehorn students into predetermined career paths. (Wouldn’t it be better to just let people choose their own paths and make their own mistakes rather than trapping them in a possibly miserable situation if you’re wrong?)

Nettle posits in the introduction to Personality that life is nothing but a series of leitmotifs which can be predicted by an individual’s personality. Unlike other personality theories like the Myers-Briggs, Nettle touts the five-factor model developed by Paul Costa and Robert McCrae which has been determined by statistical observations–when different traits were analyzed for correlations, they clustered into five groups heretofore labeled as extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness. Because humans are social animals and we need to act in certain ways to ensure cooperation and survival, the main thesis of the book is that personality is an outgrowth of evolutionary fitness.

An obvious question then is: If humans need certain cooperative behaviors for survival, then why don’t we all have the same personality? Why, in reality, is there a continuum–from introverts to extroverts, staid to flaky, co-dependent to psychopathic? Nettle answers that because the environment itself varies and may require different strategies for survival at different times, the existence of different personalities within a population is necessary. He argues that there is no bad or good personality–all personalities have their benefits and drawbacks depending on the situation. Examples: Most people would associated excessive neuroticism with anxiety and depression. But you need to have some neurotic tendencies to help you keep alert for dangers. If you’re not neurotic at all, you might miss certain warning signs and walk straight into a life-threatening situation. One might say that a lot of openness is a good thing; openness correlates with artistic ability and creative thinking. But sometimes, it’s not–schizophrenics, psychotics, and believers of wacko religions tend to have high scores for openness.

Almost without exception, Nettle seems skeptical of any environmental influences on personality. He points to studies that show that similar family environments have no effect on personality (anecdotally, anyone with siblings could probably attest to that) as well as birth order. It’s possible that personality is influenced by the environment in a manner like that of the crest development of the water-flea Daphnia–by outside hormonal and environmental cues. However, in trying to explain the differing personalities of identical twins, the author leans towards the gene network theory. Because environment can influence outward characteristics like height, the tweaking of those factors may have a downstream effect on personality.

Nettle ends with some techniques for “changing” your personality if you’re displeased with it. It really isn’t so much “changing” as it is behavior modification. One is finding alternative outlets for your personality. Say you’re an extrovert who gets high off sky diving. But sky diving is dangerous–so you find an another activity that gives you a similar high (maybe participating in cooking competitions on television) that isn’t so dangerous. Or you could do something called “running against the spin”–which is not even starting a destructive behavior (like excessive drinking) in the first place.

One weakness of Personality is that it’s written as a popular science book. I would have liked a bit more science (the abysmal correlation values that were cited didn’t help any)–but as it is, one would have to go to the notes to look up the references if one were inclined to read the actual experiments. But then again, too much science would bore the heck out of a general audience–so I guess it’s a fine line to tread. At any rate, I had the impression that the text had quite a bit of hand-waving even with some intriguing theories.