Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Month: April, 2010

So You Think It’s Clairvoyance Not Coincidence

I’m never really sure how to react when someone tells me to “keep an open mind” and launches into anecdotal experiences that could best be described as coincidental.  All I end up really doing is nodding and saying “Uh huh. That’s very interesting.” As a skeptic, I find myself hard pressed to be enthusiastic about anything that could possibly be attributed to a bad batch of mashed potatoes and a bit of wine from the wrong vintage.  Yet, I think I’m too soft to play the hard-line even if I’m thinking it. I dislike having people yell at me even if they’re not quite right.

The problem I have with the phrase “keep an open mind” is the connotations around it–especially if it is voiced by someone who is about to launch into a story of woo-woo proportions.  It’s a plea and an admonition at the same time that the skeptic part of my personality is bad–that it would automatically discount whatever they say.  Everyone has the desire to be believed, that they want their own experiences validated.  But that’s just it.  It’s their own experiences–personal and subjective.  I don’t think it’s my place to say how you perceive things is real or not real.  But I don’t think it’s your place, either, to make me believe in the realness of something without any concrete proof.

Perhaps the hows of perception are better dissected by philosophers and neuroscientists.  I tend to attribute things to the simplest explanations–like coincidence.  Maybe people elevate these events of coincidence to more than mere coincidence because it’s human nature to attempt to attribute meaning to whatever is happening in their lives.  Maybe, like those remembering unhappy events more vividly than happy ones, the events that seem to fit in a worldview seeking for meaning also seem amplified in people’s minds, up and above everything else.  And the inconsequential? Well, they shrink to non-existence.  But if anyone bothered to put all the events, the remembered and forgotten, altogether, everything might as well fade into statistical mundanity.

And, I suppose, that brings us to the crux.  Other people might find they prefer the security blanket of meaning in the face of unhappy events in their lives.  I am fine with the notion that parts of life and the universe are governed by statistical mundanity.  Outside of lamenting my own boneheadedness, I’d rather not waste time trying to dissect meaning (if it even exists) when I encounter a setback.  It is more practical and less depressing to forge on ahead.

So Close

Two-thirds of Script Frenzy is already over, but unlike previous years where at this point I either was woefully behind or had given up, I am actually ahead of schedule.  In fact, as of this moment, I only have about ten more pages to write in order to reach the 100 page goal.  And as the writing time I have been averaging is approximately one page per ten minutes, I could easily achieve the ten page goal in under two hours.  Heck, if I had written the entire script in one sitting, I could have finished this under a day and not thought about this for the rest of the month.  After all, there are other things that have demands on my time.

One could conclude that this script writing is easy since it has been a smaller drain on my time than novel writing.  But it isn’t, considering the past three failed Script Frenzies.  I still contend that the script format is unnatural and not easy.  And despite making excellent progress this year, it doesn’t mean that I’m getting any good at it.  Script writing, like anything else, requires practice and dedication.  But other than this particular month-long challenge, I don’t really have the inclination to write scripts.  This particular art form does not fire my imagination like, say, writing prose.  I don’t like reading scripts or plays even though I can appreciate how a good one is put together.  I get bored by most movies and television drama.  The last DVD I attempted to watch, I ended up jumping past a good half of the scenes. I do not think I have ADD.  I am perfectly fine getting through entire books.  I’d be happy to spend an entire weekend watching a documentary marathon.  There are times in lab I’m concentrating so hard on what I’m doing that people have to yell at me to get my attention.  I only get impatient when I find myself doing something I don’t find particularly interesting.

One could argue that I’m feeling this way because I’ve hit a creative rough patch.  I don’t think that’s the case.  I have plenty of ideas.  I just don’t like the form because I feel like I have a complete lack of control over what I consider as the story.  The script writer just provides the words, the lumber as you will.  The actual house, castle or shack would be built by actors, production crew, director.  Unlike a novel, short story, or even poem, where the reader can ignore the physical trappings of how the work was printed and concentrate solely on the words, a script is only one building block.  The writer has absolutely no control on how things would actually look like or what the characters do with the words.  Directors and actors could very well alter character motivations and make a script into an entirely different story by interpretation alone.

So, as a reporter for the local newspaper last week had asked me, why do I want to do this if I have no intention to actually do anything with the script, like making it into a movie?  Well, there’s the easy answer: that I view this as a writing exercise to practice writing dialogue.  And then there’s the really easy answer: why not?  I’ve never finished a script before.  So maybe this is the year to do so.

But after this month, I’m leaving script writing to those who live to do it.

Social Media: A Useful Tool or Just Wishful Thinking?

Earlier today, I attended a seminar on campus by Mark Trahant on “Twitter & Democracy”.  It wasn’t until I sat down and started tweeting that I realized that it wasn’t a powerpoint presentation up at the front of the room but a tweet wall–a projection of a real time tweet stream about the Borah Symposium.  It was somewhat unnerving to see my own inane tweets posted up for several hundred other people to see.  So frankly, I stopped tweeting for the duration of the seminar.  It’s one thing to post things to the internet aether when no one else is paying any attention.  It’s quite another when everyone else quite literally sees you posting as if they are reading over your shoulder. (This is why I highly dislike working at the computer without a literal wall at my back.)  The following includes my notes and recollections of the lecture.  Any mistakes are my own and if anyone has addenda and corrections, please let me know.

Trahant mostly spoke about Twitter and other social media as a vehicle for democracy.  He pointed out that traditional media can shut out voices they don’t like.  And that protests aren’t such a great strategy when it comes to democracy because “ideas can be hidden behind police lines” – especially when there are outbreaks of violence.  Twitter and other social media has the advantage because it gives everyone a voice.  One merely has to pick out a topic via hashtag and join the discourse.

One example given on how Twitter was used to voice opinion was on the recent health care debate.  However, one concern was the quality of discourse.  Currently, Twitter has been used as an organizational tool or a forum to vent outrage, mostly in the form of ranting.  This sort of thing isn’t useful if you’re trying to wield social media as a means to effect change.  In order to do so, Trahant suggested that usage of Twitter and the like should be data driven rather than story driven.  The story approach has its roots back to old school media where journalists were more concerned about telling a compelling story rather than just laying out the facts.  This is not going to work if anyone’s going to use Twitter for change.  Instead, social media should be used as a vehicle to improve transmission of data, particularly aggregate data.  So, for example, people venting random anger at the health care debate that is rhetorical rather than factual, people could use Twitter to examine the actual numbers involved.

A brief summary of the Q & A session:

Q: In a previous panel discussion, it was brought up that there currently is not enough collective data to make the analysis that social media has a positive impact.  What’s your overview of the positives and negatives?
A: We should recognize that the technology is here and out of the bag.  Should we have it shape us or should we shape it?  We should shape it for the betterment of society.

Q: Traditional media usually takes the approach to social media as “Let’s look at our Twitter posts!”  Should traditional media use it in that way and if so, is it effective?
A: There are generally three different narratives that could be used for Twitter: 1) Getting people excited to use Twitter; 2) Report on individual tweets (which is what the traditional media does and is not effective); and 3) Pull back and get aggregate data to help confirm a larger picture.

Q: What’s an example of Twitter used for positive change?
A: – it’s used as an educational tool and as a forum for thoughtful discourse with the government.

Q: How is Twitter going to be effective since studies show that it is the slowest growing of all the social media?
A: Yes, growth on Twitter is slowing down, but it is still growing.  However, you also have to think about the power of networks and how Twitter is being transmitted.  What’s important is who you’re going to reach in the hub.  Maybe Twitter is the flavor of the month, but social media itself is here to stay.

Q: Viral movements can snowball into something beyond anyone’s control very quickly. How can organizers effectively guide them?
A: The organizers will have to keep an eye out for them when they start.

* * *


Just as there are many different people in the world, there are different reasons for joining Twitter.  Not everyone who joins Twitter has democracy on the top of their mind.  In fact, I’d argue that the opposite is true.  Although Trahant gives out the statistics that point out news as the dominating subject on Twitter rather than entertainment (whereas on Facebook, the reverse is true), one only has to read the list of trending topics to see that it’s really teenyboppers, sports, and memes which are the Twitter equivalent of the Friday Five that are the order of the day.

I signed up on Twitter because I viewed it as something that was similar to a blog, but in terms of communication more succinct and more immediate.  Primarily it was been used to express my observations about life in general rather than actual discourse about Important Stuff.  I do think that using Twitter as a way to facilitate democratic discussion a valid reason as any–and I suppose if the need arose, I would use it myself for that very reason–but at the moment, I think most people think of it as nothing more than an amusing toy.

As I departed the seminar room, I overheard some undergrads express their skepticism about Twitter as they primarily use Facebook.  Which wasn’t surprising, really.  Everyone on this campus seems obsessed with that form of social media.  It’s what’s in for college kiddies–although I’d have to say that most of them seem more concerned about learning the minutia of their friends’ lives rather than talking about societal problems.  The only other grad student I know who uses Twitter seems to read it mainly for funny anecdotes–which really doesn’t bode well for Twitter’s effectiveness on this particular demographic, does it?

Into the First Week of Script Frenzy

So far, I’ve written more on this year’s script for Script Frenzy than the past three years put together.  Which is saying quite a bit.

What is it about this year that is greasing the wheels?  Is it the idea? No, I still find the ideas from previous years as interesting–if not more interesting–than this year’s idea.  Is it the type of script? Well, I tried a radio play last year, but the two years before that the scripts were also screenplays. Is it how I’m writing? I don’t think so. I’m using the same software as last year.  And the formatting still seems as awkward as ever. My schedule? Nope. I think I’m even more busy this year. Actually being a municipal liaison for the region, setting up meetings, and doing writing sprints on Twitter? Well, that is different but I don’t think it’s necessarily that spurring me onward.  I definitely wrote something the previous Aprils, but mostly on other projects and not on Script Frenzy.

No, I think the impetus for this year was mostly spurred by the unsaid disapproval of another participant when I mentioned that I hadn’t finished the previous three scripts.  After all, what sort of example am I setting as a municipal liaison who hasn’t finished anything (novels and short stories notwithstanding)?  She sort of ignored me in favor of talking to one of the other participants who had finished a script in a previous year.  So thank you, Unnamed Participant, for kicking my butt into gear!

And now that I think of it, it’s kind of interesting how I become even more determined to do things when other people think I’m a failure.

Who Cares If There Were No Controls?

I remember elementary school science fairs as being somewhat traumatic.  They felt that way because I knew my ideas were not original, that there was no way I was going to win (or even come across as the science fair equivalent of Miss Congeniality), and that I would be going through all the stress for nothing.  I was a rather mediocre and unmotivated student before sixth grade and my feelings of inferiority were all the more magnified by other classmates who were certified geniuses.  Comparisons were inevitably made and I always came up lacking.

Anyways, I did not consider grade school science to be particularly fun.  Oh sure, I loved sequestering myself in the library to read science books, watching my father solder circuits in the garage, or fiddling with the light microscope my mother bought me, but stuff at the desk bored me.  There are only so many definitions you can copy down before you go mad.  And science fairs–well, they were structured projects and so tainted with school that I found it hard to find any fun about it.  It’s like the “demonstration” some student teacher* made when I was in fifth grade.  She had gotten a chicken at the grocery store and took it out to show the parts of the dead animal.  I thought it was incredibly stupid as I’d already had poultry anatomy lessons by simply observing my parents in the kitchen.  Scientific discovery isn’t like meat that you could just buy at the store.

But I want to make it clear that despite some of my less than stellar experiences with science when I was younger, I did not give up on the subject.

Earlier this week, I managed to get sucked into being an evaluator for an elementary school science fair.  Which was really uncharacteristic of me as I don’t consider myself the kind of person that children (or pets) would be easy around.  (And so much of a disconnect that one of the undergrads in lab wished that he had actually been there to see me interacting with the kids.) There were hundreds of projects from seven different elementary schools in town.  All of the evaluators either worked in a science field or were “good with kids”**.  As far as I knew, I was the only grad student without kids doing this–no undergrads or high school students.  One of the professors I talked to thought it was awesome I was volunteering and wished that she had forced all of her grad students to volunteer, too.  This made me feel a little better that people with actual PhDs didn’t think I was just wasting my time.

Before the onslaught of kids, the organizers explained the judging criteria.  They emphasized that it was supposed to be fun and positive.  No dinging the kids on not having a double blind study or not thinking through the scientific method.  Judge according to age appropriateness–no slamming kindergartners on handwriting when they’re supposed to be learning their letters.  Okay, that didn’t seem too hard.  The grading sheet made sense–until I actually read the grading column. Good. Great. Excellent. What?! Talk about grade inflation invading early education.

And if you, the evaluator, wrote anything on the evaluation sheet that wasn’t deemed positive, it was highly likely that the evaluator of the evaluators would change it.  Or worse, completely rewrite the evaluation.  Geez.  Are kids’ self-esteem these days so fragile that they’ll give up if a single negative things was said to them?

So I wrote the evaluations cognizant of the fact that it would be the adults who would be giving them the gimlet eye.  Kids might cry a bit over some criticism, but I think it would have been a learning experience for them, too.  I’ve seen adults who couldn’t take criticism–and it is never pretty***.

I found myself, surprisingly, enjoying my time talking to the kids–even the ones who seemed particularly sullen or non-talkative.  I think it was more satisfying to me in trying to lead the students to think beyond the box, outside of their project which had undoubtedly been replicated in thousands of other schools, rather than strictly grading them on how “correct” their display was.  Sure, some were nervous and wanted to get it over as soon as possible.  But sometimes, the light bulb figuratively went on after a bit of gentle probing.  My style–for better or worse–was completely different than another evaluator who I overheard gush about all the “interesting colors” in an interview with another student.

As for the other way around–who knows what the elementary school kids thought about me.  Probably the worst.

*I could go on a week-long rant about student teachers I’ve had the dubious pleasure of interacting with.  Yes, they were young and inexperienced.  But the type of twenty-somethings who go into education seem to be exactly the type who shouldn’t be taking education classes.  Because unlike anybody majoring in pretty much anything else, they don’t seem to know a damn thing.

**How being “good with kids” qualifies one as a judge for scientific rigor, who knows.

***This brings to mind the reviews I got for a novel contest I recently entered.  I was really surprised by how positive they were–they could have been a lot harsher in their criticism.  But the reviewers must have realized that there were some people who can’t take criticism–easily evidenced by some other entrants who threw tantrums on the contest message boards for something that everyone else considered very minor.