Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Month: December, 2008

Happy Holidays!

And for those bah humbug people, here’s something you might like.

Back in Music City USA

Hey, I’m back even with a couple delays. Of course, it could have been worse–flights could have very well been canceled (especially in Spokane). I’m feeling sort of woozy after being on planes all day, so I’ll have more tomorrow.

The Day After, It’s…

Tuesday Too

1. So, chances are, you are one of the majority of people that at some time have valorized your caffeine addiction.

I’ve done it. Becky’s done it (Mountain Dew and M&M’s, anyone?). Louis has done it (Coca-Cola). Lisa’s done it (I want an espresso maker!). Sya, not so much. Why do you valorize the addiction to caffeine? Why are you proud that it takes a gallon of coffee to make it through the day? Alternatively, why do people valorize the addiction to anything? Video games? Chocolate? Or, what’s your favorite kind of tea.

An addiction is an extreme. And people, for some reason, like extremes even when they border on the bad. A benign example: you’re a runner. Yeah, okay. But say you run every day–rain, snow, or shine (like the mailman!)–for five miles. That’s getting impressive. But no one calls running an addiction. Instead, it’s training. People reward you for your dedication with medals and such. And even if you aren’t particularly fast, you’ve got your peers’ admiration for your dedication.

Now let’s take an example that borders on the bad–bodybuilding. I (and perhaps a not insignificant number of other people) think this “sport” is gross and not a little crazy. So why do people do it? Well, like the running example, there are going to be people who think this warrants enough merit to be rewarded. All those fitness magazines don’t take up a trivial amount of space in the periodical section, you know. But why? It’s the dedication thing again–people who bodybuild take the time and effort to achieve a goal–in this case, sculpting their bodies to a certain ideal.

The addiction also has this dedication thing going for it. You’re doing this thing over and over again, like the runner or the bodybuilder. There’s a certain amount of work ethic involved (theoretically, caffeine will keep you awake to do more work which is obviously more productive than sleeping). And then there’s the component of sacrifice and suffering that people always seem impressed by. And if you’re suffering from an addiction, it’s a burden. And people with burdens have this cachet of being “heroic”.

So a chocoholic might seem compulsive to you and me, but to the chocoholics they may feel subconsciously that they’re displaying a bit of heroism by dealing with their compulsion. And who doesn’t want to feel a bit heroic now and again?

By the way, my tea of choice is green (duh).

2. There are two daily newspapers in Detroit. Today, the Detroit Free-Press and the Detroit News both announced that they are going to a home-delivery schedule of only three days a week. Is this the way of the future for newspapers? Is there nothing that can save daily dead-tree media? Are weeklies next?

I think this is just part of a bigger question. Is print media–of any kind–going to die out? Probably. If one tries to imagine the future in, say, two hundred years, I don’t think anyone would believe that we’ll still be toting around dead tree media. Everything will be electronic–which is far more convenient anyway.

Now, I wouldn’t say that paper will be completely eliminated. It’ll just be relegated to museums, antiques, and die-hard hobbyists. While I understand that there are people who prefer to read paper rather than digital, I think this preference is due from being accustomed to one way of reading rather than being physically unable to switch formats.

I am personally for the digitization of texts. Probably because I place more value on the words themselves rather than the object on which the words are printed on. I’ve already eliminated quite a bit of paper waste by keeping almost all the scientific papers I read in electronic form. I’ve tried to convince other people in my lab to do this too, but old habits die hard.

3. Which was worse to live in? Czarist Russia or Soviet Russia? I ask because I ran across a story which had a situation where a shady sort of character felt oppressed by a policeman. A colleague to the shady character made a comment that it was like living in Russia. That’s not so odd, except that the story was set in 1875 and was written in the early nineteen hundreds.

I’d imagine it would be difficult to live in either situation, but I’m not versed in Russian history at all–so I’m probably not the person to answer this question.

Oh, It’s Just the Weather

Reading this gives me bad flashbacks of earlier this afternoon. The cold, I can take. The ice and snow–or rather the results of said solidified H2O–freaks the hell out of me. As a pedestrian, I was so ready to make an Olympic dive into a nearby snow bank when I saw that sea green minivan fishtailing toward me with no signs of stopping.

At Least I’ve Got All My Fingers and Toes

The Pink and Blue Project. (via Metafilter) About two months ago, the lab tech picked out a baby shower gift for a support scientist whose wife was having a baby. She showed it to everyone and I made the appropriate cute noises even though the thing was pink. I suppose this was a safe choice–but it was also predictable and presumptive*. From birth, this kid is going to be conditioned to be “girly” starting with color. Why can’t people just be glad that they’re having a kid at all rather than obsessing on whether or not it’s a girl or a boy? Wouldn’t it make more sense to buy practical stuff (like diapers) or toys that would interest a baby itself rather than things in which a society or culture deems “appropriate”?

By the way, when I was a baby, I had green clothes. As far as I know, this had not been detrimental to my development.

*My possibly ill-informed opinion, of course. I don’t have kids. I don’t know anything about kids. When it comes to kids, I defer to the expertise of those who do have them (although having kids does not guarantee in any way that the parents have gained any wisdom whatsoever).

In Defense of Writing as a Storytelling Art

I recently finished watching the fourth episode in How Art Made the World (previously mentioned here) and I feel strangely disquieted. What made me wholly dissatisfied with it was Spivey’s implication that the ultimate in storytelling to date lies with movies. He exerts that movies engage in the senses (visual and auditory) and the emotions. It’s so real that you feel that you’re in the story. And if you’re watching a really good movie, you don’t want to leave the world you’ve been immersed in even when the end credits roll.

This directly contradicts one of his assertions in the first episode: in art, people don’t want real. Real is boring. You can already get “real” with life around you. What people want in art (and perhaps storytelling too) is something more than real.

I’m going to put forth an alternative theory: that the ultimate in storytelling has been around ever since writing had been invented. Reading a story engages you in a whole other level. It’s not something that can be quantified into something mundane and concrete with your eyes or ears. Instead, it’s your brain that’s engaged–and who’s to deny that one’s imagination is hyper-real in a sense that a bunch of images on a theater screen isn’t?

Let’s say we live in a Star Trekian universe where holodecks have been invented. Spivey would say that these holodecks would now be the ultimate in storytelling–not only does this new technology exploit the visual and auditory senses like movies, but it also includes taste, smell, touch, and real physical interaction. But I think this lacks an essential something that prevents it from being storytelling at all. A holodeck, instead, is merely just a fancy stage on which you play one part. You’re playacting yet you’re still you. If you wanted to truly immerse yourself into the story, you might as well just take that flight to Borneo and live out the adventure yourself.

What the holodeck and the movie lack is the ability to get into the characters’ heads. You can see expressions and actions on a visual medium, but you can only infer what the characters are feeling–just as you can only infer your boss’s displeasure after you’ve accidentally spilled hot coffee on him. You don’t know what these people are actually thinking. With a really good writer, he or she will be able to outline character actions and motivations with some well-placed words. The rest of the work will take place with your imagination–giving you the ability to empathize with the character on paper and create the entire scene in a hyper-real sense in your brain. And all for the price of a paperback rather than the millions spent on self-indulgent actors.

There is the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. And considering the fact that not everyone can read, one could argue that pictures are far more accessible than words. It might be accessible, but it also has the blunt style of whacking someone over his head. While interpretation of a work, whether as a viewer or a reader, is a problem, I would argue that a picture lacks the subtlety and preciseness that a written work possesses. And it’s exactly this subtlety and preciseness that makes a story alive and fantastic in an imaginative sense. For example: what if I had drawn this essay instead of typed it out? (Granted, considering my miserable art skills, it would look more like a couple mangled panels of xkcd rather than Michelangelo.) I think that in the course of translating this into a drawing, the finer points and an aspect of my literary voice would be lost.

This is not to say that the visual medium is completely superfluous. Images can be used to enhance and supplement a story. Certainly, images alone have the ability to convey a story. But is it the sort of medium that can consistently engage everyone’s higher cognitive senses–something that in itself recognizes that the story is an artificial construct with a beginning, middle, and end–and has value beyond its most literal interpretation? Or does it only invoke those visceral, inarticulate responses common to our lizard hindbrain–content with its imitation of life?

I admit, I’m more of a cerebral person. I like analyzing things to death. Another person can say that I’m just full of hot air; this person can be perfectly fine with solely stimulating his physical senses. But really, how satisfactory is it to have a relationship with a physically beautiful person who doesn’t have anything going on upstairs? I think the imagination, as triggered by the written word, is really what puts a book over a movie in storytelling terms. To read, you must work at it and as a result become more invested in it. A movie is just an info dump. After you’ve gotten your eyeballs bombarded for approximately two hours, you walk away feeling entertained (and perhaps inspired if it was a good movie), but it’s superficial. In effect, a movie watcher is a voyeur who happened upon a hole in the fence. But a written story allows the reader to become a completely different and much more intimate voyeur–one who sees into invisible and intangible thoughts.

The Cultural Need for Hot Drinks

The culture of valorizing coffee addiction is something that I don’t quite understand. Whether one person got hooked onto this particular caffeinated beverage when they first took a sip as a wee tot or another gradually warmed up to it when they became an adult, there’s this thought that people should be proud that they’re addicted to it. People act as if they can’t wake up without it, can’t get through the day without it, can’t end a meal without it, can’t live without it.


I don’t drink coffee, if I have a choice. It’s not that I particularly dislike the taste (in fact, I especially love how it smells and I adore coffee ice cream) or that I’m not drinking it just to be contrary (although would you wear uggs just because everyone else is doing it?). I might feel left out of the Cabal of Coffee Consumers, but I’m not the sort of person who caves to peer pressure.

On the surface, it seems as if my preference for another hot drink, say tea, over coffee might be as simple as a choice between two similar vegetables–celery and carrots. Yet, I would choose both celery and carrots equally over time. Choosing one particular vegetable at one given instance would be due to random whim because I don’t attach particular significance to either. Choosing tea over coffee consistently is due less to these drinks’ objective properties (taste, smell, heat) than my cultural associations with them.

In some ways, as a tea drinker, I have some things in common with a hard-core purist coffee fan. I like my tea straight up, hot water and tea only. Adding stuff like milk and sugar turns it into a frou-frou drink. It’s like comparing vodka on the rocks in a motorcycle bar with a silly umbrellaed strawberry daiquiri served by a pool boy slathered in too much oil. And don’t even try comparing iced tea with the hot stuff straight from the Camellia sinesis plant. They’re not even on the same metaphysical plane. It’s the yeti to the silverback gorilla.

With tea, I have happy memories coupled with the cultural milieu I grew up in. One of my earliest memories is that of my grandmother, pouring hot water from a colorful thermos into a mug with tea. My mother always claimed that drinking tea–particularly green tea–“cleansed the palate” after eating something singularly greasy. Tea was always served in the fun and boisterous dim sum restaurants I visited on special occasions. And then there were those quiet, more contemplative times when I just sat in the kitchen with my parents on a cold winter’s day (much like today) sipping tea and consuming pastries. Considering this background, it’s no surprise that I don’t have the same relationship with tea as other people have with coffee. I don’t drink tea because I need to (I easily do all-nighters without it), but because I want to.

So the difference between these two drinks, for me, has nothing to do with the appeal to my physical senses. It’s more about the idyll of childhood versus morning zombies. Tough choice.

Win a Pulitzer, In Your Underwear

If you blog, you could win a Pulitzer. (via GalleyCat) Man, is it too good to be true? It sounds like some pyramid scheme in somebody’s spam filter.

Hey, It’s NOT Tuesday!

Tuesday Too

1. What choice DO you have? What choice are you looking at, staring in the face and wondering which way you should go because doing this or doing that means that everything changes from here on out forever? What choice are you avoiding making?

There are always choices, even when it doesn’t look like you have any–you’re just not looking hard enough. At the moment, I’m on one path and don’t have any particular inclination to deviate from it even though there are uncertainties. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have the choice to do something else. Heck, I could drop everything now and become a traveling hobo if I really wanted to. But I’m not.

And even if I made a choice, it doesn’t mean that it’s completely inflexible. There are always options.

As for avoidance, I don’t do avoidance. Procrastination, maybe.

2. Okay, so I’ve got the first and third question written, and I’m having a problem coming up with the second one. Do you find it hard or easy to create things — questions like this, art, stories, plans, letters, etcetera… from scratch?

In one sense, no one creates anything from scratch. Everything is built, in some way, based on previous work. The only time when I feel like I get to make stuff up out of nothing is when I write a story. But it’s probably just an illusion. Even that is based on what I’ve learned and what I’ve been inspired by. Concepts from other people’s fiction most likely have been percolating in my subconscious only to be remixed once I write down the words.

3. What do you suppose ever happened to jf cates?

No idea. I hope she’s doing okay.

Cue Eye-Rolling

A bit of an overheard conversation at one of the local cafes from some guys discussing things they want in a wife:

“I wouldn’t marry a woman over twenty-four. That’s too old.”

Woohoo, I’m on the shelf! And I haven’t even yet reached the dreaded three-oh. Does this make me the old, crazy cat lady, except without the cats?