Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Month: March, 2011

Last Minute Planning

Script Frenzy is tomorrow and I just installed Celtx on my other computer today.  As for actual planning, um, I haven’t done any.  I may just end up writing most of the script by the seat of my pants.  The only research I’ve been doing for the story is saving articles from Wikipedia and not reading them and watching a bunch of documentaries.  The most recent documentary series I’ve been watching is Journeys from the Centre of the Earth which is hosted by the Scottish geologist Iain Stewart.  I first saw Stewart on Earth: The Power of the Planet which was pretty interesting, but in Journeys, he’s just plain wacky.  Sort of like Dan Cruickshank on energy drinks.  And the really awful food metaphors reminded me of this Simon Schama spoof.

Why am I watching these documentaries?  The format of the story is going to be a pseudo-documentary and I sort of want to get a general idea of how my main character is going to behave.  Monty (the main character) is more of a television presenter/journalist who likes being the observer.  He’s not a hero or a villain although minor characters who are heroes and villains might pop up.  (And while we’re on the subject, I recently came across an interesting Scientific American article on the psychology of heroes and villains.)  My initial idea says that it’s going to be serious, but I have the suspicion that I’m going to fail miserably in that goal when it comes to execution.

For the curious, here is a short summary:

Monty Salo, a journalist for a major news corporation, is sent to a small mountain country to investigate something called “ghost light”.  At first, it appears to be a natural phenomenon associated with some local folklore.  But as Monty digs deeper into his research, he makes the uncomfortable discovery that the grain of truth in these particular myths grows bigger with each question that gets answered.

Perhaps It’s a Wash

Portland, OR. Sunday, March 20, 2011.

Let’s just say that I had an extremely unpleasant shopping experience in Portland, specifically at the Teavana store in Pioneer Place Mall.  Getting my mouth drilled by a dentist and negotiating with a used cars salesman at the same time would have been absolute zen compared to this.  All I wanted was some green tea.  I got my green tea, but not before I was water tortured with samples and verbally abused by the sales rep–who was like a super-evil and super-snooty version of an infomercial host.  If I wasn’t so generally laid back, I’d be suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome by now.  Those Teavana sales reps should be tranquilized with used coffee grounds from the dregs of a pot that had been sitting unwashed over the weekend and forced to work at a Walmart returns department during a never-ending after-Christmas rush.

Tea stores are supposed to be tranquil and stress-free.  This was none of these things.  At the very least, I’m not going to visit that store ever again.  And if you’re reading this and value your peace of mind, you shouldn’t go there either.

* * *

I was supposed to meet up with the author of Pergelator, but as usual, I screwed things up and went to the wrong Stumptown Coffee branch.

I did end up ordering a hot cocoa there for which I will give the thumbs down. I think they added enough flavoring so that I could smell something cocoa-like, but otherwise it tasted like dishwater.  My sister ordered a chai which also tasted watered down.  Maybe their coffee is better, but I don’t drink coffee.

* * *

Now, for more pleasant things, in photo form:

1. Lunch was at a vegan restuarant called Red & Black which was located on 12th Avenue. The food: awesome. (The Insurrectionist sandwich, quinoa and kale with tofu, tea au lait in a red mug, “Not Toddy” in black mug.)

2. On 12th, we also passed the Franz bakery. My sister and I spent some time mesmerized as we watched English muffins and loaves of raisin bread go by on conveyor belts.

3. Some random pictures around the neighborhood. Colorful houses, a shed door painted with “The Rain”, blossoming plum trees, a teapot mural on 15th and Yamhill.

4. The world’s smallest park, decorated for St. Patrick’s Day.

Saturday in List Form

Portland, OR. Saturday, March 19, 2011.

1. Portland Saturday Market. To say the least, there was lots of stuff. Tried a combo plate of Polish cuisine and an elephant ear (a fried dough thing) from some food carts. There were two attempts at this point to get into Voodoo Doughnut, but the line (composed of crazy tourists and rabid locals?) stretched around the block.

2. Some cute chocolate truffles from Moonstruck Chocolate Cafe.

3. At Pioneer Square, trying to catch the tram, we stumbled upon a bunch of protesters. The police were out in force–on bicycles.

4. Spent the afternoon hiking around Hoyt Arboretum and the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial. I loved the elevator doors at the Oregon Zoo tram stop. Geek-tastic.

5. Dinner at Pastini Pastaria. Orecchiete with Italian sausage (1) and rigatoni zuccati with grilled chicken (2).

6. Finally, got into Voodoo Doughnut at 8:00 PM after a thirty minute wait.

It Felt Like Saturday

Portland, OR. Friday, March 18, 2011.

I met my sister in the morning at the Portland International Airport and we took the MAX Light-Rail to a nearby hotel and dropped our things off before heading into downtown proper.  We didn’t have much of a plan except for something unusual I found earlier browsing on the internet.  Anyways.  More about that later.

We got off around Pioneer Square and wandered a bit trying to find a place to eat.  My sister had heard about Portland’s famous food carts, but we didn’t see many until in the evening when everything had closed.  Eventually, we stumbled onto a small, quaint Thai place called Aroy Thai Cuisine on 4th Avenue.  It’s very good and I’d definitely recommend it if you’re looking for an inexpensive lunch.

Afterwards, we meandered our way to Chinatown and took the tour through the Lan Su Chinese Gardens–guided by an older lady with a Spinal Tap totebag.  Although she was just a volunteer, she was extremely knowledgeable about the place and from her talk, I gathered that she had actually visited gardens in China.  The only weird thing about Chinatown was–where were all the Chinese people?  My sister and I seemed like the only Asian people wandering around town.

I tried to find the 24-hour Church of Elvis, but all we discovered was this display.  According to a note on the right hand panel, it was closed for renovations.

Powell’s.  A bibliophile’s paradise.  Man, it’s huge.  A book lover could get lost in that place and not give a damn.  Of course I did not come away from it empty handed.  Up on one of the top floors, in the Pearl Room, there was a small exhibit on contemporary Bulgarian print making.  A silkscreen work by Ana Antonova called “Seeds in a Safe Place” was particularly lovely.

Then we ended up on the block on 5th Avenue, between Couch and Davis, which my sister termed “the hipster block.”  Mostly because there seemed to be a certain type lingering around an internet cafe and a tavern restaurant.  We were hungry at that point, though, so we ended up getting burgers at Theo’s.  I got the garden burger which was really good (and my foodie sister approved of it as well).

As night fell, we kept wandering around town, passing closed stores, some place with female impersonators, random clubs, and Chinese restaurants we were sure we didn’t see even though we scoured Chinatown earlier in the day.  It was then that we peeked in and saw where all the Chinese people in Portland went–they were at the restaurants.

Eventually, we headed to Hobo’s on 3rd where we met the tour group for the Portland underground.  I’m not sure how much I should say about this except that they allowed photos, the tour guide knew a lot of interesting stories about Portland’s history and we wandered about with flashlights so the pictures didn’t turn out so well anyway.

The guide said there were ghosts down there.  I didn’t see any (however, I’m a skeptic).  But even if there were, you wouldn’t have heard them because the people above were doing loud, bad Celine Dion karaoke.

Not Everyone Is Slave to the Television

In the essay One Genre to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them, Stephen Hunt laments the fact that mainstream media only brings attention to lit fic rather than genre fiction. And compounded on that avoidance, there is an active disdain for the lowbrow stuff.

As a reader, I have mixed feelings about this. Sure, the critics and the media should be more fair when they’re reviewing books. There’s good writing in both lit fic and genre. And crap in both. The labels “lit fic” and “genre” are not synonymous with quality or trash. But then again, the critics and media are self-appointed gatekeepers to literature and no matter how much they try to bill themselves as impartial, they are biased. And everyone knows it.

(One could argue that genre books are commercial fiction. Because everyone’s buying them, they don’t need any more exposure than they already have. But I think this notion is erroneous. A lit fic book can also be commercial. And not all genre books are commercial. For every Harry Potter, there are hundreds of other fantasy books that sink into obscurity.)

Then again, there’s the internet. Maybe it’s a generation gap or a mindset gap. I don’t think anyone can underestimate the power of word of mouth. After all, wouldn’t you trust a friend who knows you than some pompous talking head on TV? And recently, there’s a proliferation of blogger reviewers who read everything and anything. And I don’t find them any more or less convincing than a critic at a big time newspaper. Just because one has a degree in literature doesn’t guarantee that you know anything about taste or quality.

So my question is this: if a book television program were to seriously debate the merits of genre novels, will it really do anything more than turn an obscure book into a commercial book Oprah-style? Maybe it would get the casual reader a little more excited about reading. But for more independent readers, they’re just going to continue indulging in their same habits–to read whatever they feel like reading, not what someone else tells them to read, genre or no.

Preparations and Such

I finally have a title for this year’s Script Frenzy project.  I’m still not sure whether I want a literal or figurative ghost in the thing. But writing a philosophically impregnated script is holding appeal at the moment.  Less characters and more ideas!  (Of course, I see the flashing warning signs.  Such a tedious thing would be better suited to a novel than a script. But what do I know about scripts?)  I also have this really weird, but also extremely strong, gut feeling for putting the whole thing in an Asian setting.  Intellectually, I don’t want it to be so culturally obvious because I want to get this across as an idea, not a culture.  So this battle between my mind and my instinct is still going on–and I have no inkling of what the outcome will be when SF actually starts.

But aside from all of this angsty pre-writing, there is the practical stuff to look after.  I’ve already posted flyers around town, e-mailed people, sent nagging tweets on Twitter, reserved times and locations for local write-ins, and kick-started the official forums.  I have yet to:

*Distribute colored flyers and postcards (once they get here from SF HQ) to local bookstores.
*Distribute flyers to libraries in neighboring towns.
*Figure out how to set up an online chat room so that everyone in the state can meet virtually.
*Prepare for the kickoff party.
*Send more nagging e-mails so people will actually check the SF site.

I still feel like such a slacker, though.  There are MLs who are doing more than I am.  There are always MLs who do more than I do.

One ML recently posted that for Script Frenzy, most people don’t even check the site until the end of March or even in April when the event is already underway.  SF is generally more quiet than Nanowrimo–I guess it’s because fewer people have the inclination to do script writing than novel writing–so I find it a lot less stressful if one cultivates a “whatever” attitude.  This is where I aim my expectations very low.  Really low.  I don’t care if no one shows up at any of the events that I schedule.  As long as no one sends me scathing e-mails telling me that I’m spamming them with too much gunk about SF, I consider it a success.

Some Rambling About Sampling

Last night, a small bit of conversation about study subjects got me thinking about experimental design. A first year grad student was trying to figure out the logistics in recruiting pregnant women and women who had just given birth for her research project. Another grad student remarked that she should get some contacts in the local LDS community since there seemed to be no shortage of Mormon pregnant ladies. While the student with the study became really enthusiastic that there was this pool of subjects almost right under her nose, I wondered what it would really mean if she got only Mormon pregnant ladies as subjects. In that particular case, I’m not sure if the results could be in any way generalized. Mormon pregnant ladies as a group–especially in these parts–is a spectacularly homogeneous sliver of humanity. The most you could say about the results is that it worked for this group and that a larger, and more diverse, sample size would be needed in another trial.

There are, of course, experiments where genetic homogeneity is preferred or even necessary. These experiments tend to be the sorts that try to answer basic scientific questions like measuring one factor against another without the confounding problem of differing genetics. For example, let’s say you’re trying to figure out if microbe A or microbe B might cause mice to become obese. To do that, you’d feed microbe A, microbe B, or a control mixture with no microbes to three groups of mice that all have the same genetic background. If the mice came from different strains, then you wouldn’t know if the results were due to the microbes, the mouse genetics, or a combination of both. If one were to do such an experiment in humans, you’d need twins or at least a relatively genetically homogeneous population like the Amish or the Icelanders.

Then there are the experiments that try to answer more general scientific questions–where the results are used to generalize something fundamental about an entire species, groups of species, or even all of life. Here, things get problematic. Especially if sampling is limited. Take, for instance, psychology research. Much of the results that have come out of that research for oh so many decades had been generalized to the entirety of humanity. It’s only recently that people are beginning to question this assumption because a lot of the study subjects for this research had been done on volunteer college students. One doesn’t need a degree to immediately realize that self-selected college students in the west is only a subset of the entire world population.

But I don’t think one should completely blame the scientist for using small sample sizes. There are a lot of other things to consider. For one thing, ethics. It’s one thing using animals (which already requires approvals and justifications). It’s another using humans. A group of human subjects will always be biased because they’re volunteers. Another is convenience. It’s just easier and cheaper to recruit a bunch of cash-strapped students from the local university than attempting to round up a bunch of people (with different ages, ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, etc.) from all over the world. I suppose one could also argue that you could get around all of this with statistics, but you can only massage the numbers so much before somebody catches you doing something a little too creative with the math. So I wouldn’t write off any results per se, but I would be cautious how the results could be generalized, if at all.