Book Review: Earth (The Book)

A while back Jon Stewart and the other writers from the popular The Daily Show with Jon Stewart wrote a parody of high school Social Studies textbooks called America (The Book): A Guide to Democracy Inaction. That was a great piece of satire because it lambasted something most Americans were familiar with and it had a structurally solid skeleton on which to drape its parody. We all knew what he was talking about, or at least we knew we should know, which was often kind of the point. It had a target that was specific enough to structure a book around, but multifaceted enough to offer plenty of material. Earth (The Book) is also pretty funny in places, but not quite as much so as its predecessor, partially owing to the fact that it’s kind of a mess and doesn’t have much of a structure.

Stewart et al. cast Earth (The Book) as a guide for the benefit of alien visitors who arrive on our 3rd planet from the Sun after the human race has managed to annihilate itself in one way or another. Kind of a friendly guide book aiming to hit the highlights. None of us will be here to explain all the stuff they’ll find in the ruins, so it falls to this tome to explain not only the basics like Earth’s geology and weather, but also such inexplicable nonsense (to an outsider, anyway) like commerce, culture, religion, art, and science. Rather than large paragraphs of text, the book relies on a lot of gags derived from pictures, fake newsclippings, charts, photographs, and other visual aids with scattershots of text to go along with them. This being a Daily Show production, every page oozes irony, sarcasm, and humorous self-deprecation, and it often works. Noting on the page about film that “We called Hollywood the Dream Factory; unfortunately most people who went to work there ended up working at the Cheesecake Factory” is pretty witty, as is crediting Alexander Graham Bell as the inventor of “The Watson Summoner.” And there’s lots of stuff like that spread throughout the book.

Unfortunately, Earth (The Book) is fairly uneven, with a few too many of the jokes falling flat or relying too much on the same gag that you had just read a dozen pages earlier. The graphic-heavy nature of the pages also make the book tiring to read in long sittings, but you may get much better experiences out of it by just reading it a page or three at a time when you find yourself with a few spare moments. Whenever that might be. I’m not judging.

In the end, Earth (The Book) is worth reading if you’re a fan of Stewart’s (and probably more to the point, his writers’) brand of irony comedic self immolation. America (The Book) worked much better both as a concept and in execution, though, so if you haven’t read that one yet I’d start there.

New Cuts

Like some kind of little zen garden, we had been growing both Sammy and Mandy’s hair out for some time. After a point, though, they began to scream a lot more than zen gardens when you tried to comb the tangles out of their lengthy locks, so we decided to get them some breezy new cuts just in time for winter.

We had actually been trying to grow their hair out long enough to donate the trimmings to an organization called Locks of Love which takes such donations and and weaves them into wigs for children suffering hair loss on account of medical treatments or conditions. It turned out that only Sam’s hair met the minimum length requirement, so she got the most extreme cut, as you can see in the before and after pics below. Mandy also got a much needed trim, but not quite as much.

The place that Geralyn took them for the deed was, by all accounts, very strange indeed. Apparently they do parties for little girls where they will pick up your party goers in a big pink limousine, take them to the spa, let them dress up as princesses, get mani/peti treatments, and have glitter infused into their scalps by a machine that probably started its existence as a sand blaster. As someone whose most extravagant childhood birthday party was headlined by a fat guy who wore a Spider-Man outfit and fooled no one, this seems almost too alien for me to contemplate.

Book Review: Packing for Mars

Man, I love Mary Roach. She does popular science books with just the right mix of humor, personal involvement, hard science, and irreverence. In Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void Roach examines space travel from just about every odd angle you can imagine. Looking at the table of contents, you kind of get the impression that the author just sat down with a pad of paper, tapped a ball-point pen against her lips, and murmured, “Space. What’s the deal there? I wonder…” and then just jotted down topics without any care for impropriety or intellectual merit.

As a result, it’s all stuff that any bright and honest person would want to know about. It ranges from the curious (what other weird things do other countries do to select astronauts?) to morbid (what exactly does a crash landing do to a human body) to morbidly curious (just how does one poop in zero gravity, anyway?). This isn’t stuff that you’d get by reading the NASA website or a Popular Science article about the International Space Station. It’s real-life concerns, and perhaps more interestingly, it’s the real life account of how scientists, engineers, and astronauts have had to deal with those concerns. Sometimes Roach shares a little bit too much graphic detail –and I’m thinking of the chapters on the visceral perils of space flight, not the ones on deep space sex, though your results may differ– but it’s always interesting and it leaves you with the odd feeling that you’re glad someone is thinking about this stuff.

And, as with her other books, one of the best things about Packing for Mars is that Roach throws herself fully into the research. She does plenty of typing away on Internet search engines, but she also jets over to Russia to talk with former cosmonauts, tours NASA, observes interviews for the Japanese space program, and even experiences zero gravity by way of a parabolic flight on a type of plane affectionately called “a vomit comet.” And more. I think what I appreciate so much about this approach is that it makes you feel like you’re not so much reading about firing monkey-laden rockets into orbit, supposedly filming the world’s first zero-g sex tape, or abstaining from basic personal hygiene for the sake of science. You’re learning about these things alongside her, or at least strolling alongside an extremely informed and slightly cheeky tour guide. It’s fun and fascinating at the same time.

Also see these other reviews of Mary Roach’s books:

The Psychology of Horror

If you can get your hands on the new issue of GamePro magazine (#267, December 2010 with Diablo 3 on the cover), check out my article on the psychology of horror. The timing with Halloween was better a week or so ago when the issue first came out.

Aaaaaaaahhh! Why is this so scary? Aaaaaaaahhh!

This is another one of those topics that I was unsure of when the editor at GamePro asked me to tackle it. Not only did I not t really know much about the topic, I’m not even a fan of horror movies or games in particular. I’ve never seen a Saw movie or any other “gore pr0n” in my life, nor do I want to. Still, that’s why they call it “research” so I hit the library and found some more informed experts in the fields of psychology, media studies, and communications to help fill in the blanks. I got some great material, and the article turned out to be a lot of fun to write.

I turned Bobo the Quote Monkey loose on the article, and he returned with this:

Bobo want banana.

So I gave him a banana, reminded him about the performance standards in his contract, and sent him back. This time he came up with the following:

A second set of explanations for horror’s delight posits that we hate the horror, but like the proverbial man who bangs his head against the wall because it feels so good when he stops, we love the relief that comes at the end.

Excitation transfer theory, credited earlier with enabling spooky soundtracks to do their job, has also been hypothesized to give us a kind of “thank god that’s over” high. “People become physically aroused due to the fear they experience during the media event –and then when the media event ends, that arousal transfers to the experience of relief and intensifies it,” Sparks says. “They don’t so much enjoy the experience of being afraid –rather, they enjoy the intense positive emotion that may directly follow.”

Other explanations for the appeal of horror are cited, plus I also ruminate on what the research tells us about scary video games in particular. I really don’t have any feedback on how well these GamePro pieces are being received, so if you’re reading them, post a comment and tell me what you think.

Also, I couldn’t find an image of the relevant magazine cover anywhere. If you find one of those, let me know, too.

Soccer / Hooligan

Sam’s soccer season is coming to an end, so I thought it high time I pop on my telephoto lens and get some action shots. I paid enough for the thing, so I’d better. BEHOLD!

She’s really gotten much better in a short period of time. I hadn’t had a chance to take her to a game in a while, and I was surprised at how much more aggressive towards the ball she was being and how much more she was generally trying. She had also written “Winner!” on her palm prior to the game, presumably to help her remember to …win.

Mandy was also in attendance, and due to unusually warm weather she got hot in her fleece sweater and stripped down to her tank top undershirt. This showed her little belly, which she proudly displayed to everyone as she ran around in circles. So, in a sense, everyone wins.

I did have one spot of trouble earlier in the weekend when Sam was out in the area where several of our neighbors’ back yards merge into one common area. She was in the neighbor’s back yard playing with some friends, so I was keeping one eye on her while I made dinner. During one check-in I noticed that another neighbor was talking to Sam and her friends, and judging by the body language involved it was not a friendly chat. By the time I got out there the neighbor had already departed, but I managed to glare at Sam enough to get her to admit that they had been throwing rocks at the nice lady’s flower pots and had broken some.

Groaning, I marched Sam over to the lady’s front door and made her apologize in person. We decided that she would come back the next day (it was late) and help clean up the mess, which is exactly what we did. I also made Sam write a note of apology and give it to the neighbor. Sam seemed appropriately upset over her actions, and I took the opportunity to not only reiterate that destroying other people’s property was bad (I’m almost positive this point had come up in casual conversation before) but that sometimes she had to be brave and stand up to her friends when they were doing something wrong –or listen to them if they did so with her. All in all I think I handled it okay. We’ll just have to see if dead rats and pottery shards start showing up in our mailbox.

Book Review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

I was originally going to wait and read all three of the books in the “Millennium Trilogy” before writing any reviews, but I’m honestly not sure if I’ll ever get around to reading the rest. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the first in Stieg Larsson’s series, published posthumously and taking airport bookstores everywhere by storm. Really, people seem to love it, but I don’t understand why.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo largely follows the story of Mikael Blomkvist, a disgraced magazine editor in need of a long holiday. Blomkvist takes on a weird job of trying to solve a decades-old murder mystery in a remote village, but the twist is that the job is being done for a wealthy industrialist who asks Blomkvist to keep things quiet and pretend like he’s writing a family history. In exchange, he’ll get the dirt he needs for a career-making story. Also in the mix is Lisbeth Salander, a mentally unhinged but brilliant hacker and “researcher” who takes an interest in Blomkvist and the mystery he’s trying to solve. As far as a murder mystery slash thriller goes, the book is fine. There’s danger, sex, intrigue, excitement, sex, a serial killer, sex, and also sex. Did I mention sex? Seriously, Blomkvist sleeps with every female character under the age of 60 in the book in a very James Bond-ish fashion.

The shortcoming of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, though, is that it seems a little amateurish. Maybe it’s an artifact of it’s being translated from Swedish, but I frequently found weird repetitions of words and phrases along the lines of “he walked to the door and stood in the doorway” that seem like an editor should have caught. Larsson also has this odd predilection for detailing every street and neighborhood in Stolkholm that his character walk down, regaling us with their proper Swedish names. I completely understand that in the author’s native language the effect is simply banal, but for the rest of us it keep sounding like some 14 year old trying to make his fantasy world sound exotic by throwing in the elvish or dwarfish names of everything. Entirely my fault for speaking the wrong language and never having been to Sweden, for sure, but I nonetheless couldn’t escape the effect.

The book is also oddly paced. Large chunks of it are spent hearing about the characters clomp around Stolkholm or the tiny village of Hedeby, else we’re hearing about the sausage and liverwurst sandwiches Blomkvist had for lunch. It’s really boring exposition that seems to serve no purpose. There’s also one sequence where Larsson goes into excruciating detail about the laptop computer Salander buys, providing breathless details about processor speed, hard drive space, and RAM that serve only to make the device seem laughably outdated by the time someone from six months in the future reads it. Sequences of action or insight –OR SEX– punctuate the story, but it’s really uneven. There’s also the problem that Lisbeth Salander is a way more interesting character than Mary Sue Blomkvist, yet she disappears entirely from the tale for huge swaths of time. I think Larsson corrects this some in later books, but it accentuates the dull bits here and makes a long novel seem even longer.

So, not sure if I’ll continue on to the other books or not. I’ve got them, though, so maybe I’ll plod on. Does it get better?

Welcome to v3.0

Hello, and welcome to the third redesign of I’ve been meaning to convert the site’s content management system from Movable Type to WordPress for some time now, but never hit the annoyance or motivation levels necessary to do it. This changed recently, though when the site pretty much just stopped working. I would write a post and tell the blog “Hey, here you go, post this,” at which point the blog would do the computer equivalent of staring off into space and pretending that it couldn’t see me. So I gutted it.

I wish I had done it a lot sooner. WordPress is an orders of magnitude better system, and the installation and importation of my 1,289 posts, 2,005 comments, over 14,000 files (including several hundred photographs) was a snap. After tweaking the CSS files a bit to achieve the green and orange color palate, I’m back in business.

Good stuff about the new system and site:

  • It works and I can post new articles and comments without having the server time out. This is somewhat important.
  • It’s super easy to create photo galleries and I don’t have to manually create thumbnail images. WordPress does it for me.
  • You can browse photos for a given post in a cool overlay and go straight to other photos a by clicking next/prev links. Scroll down to the previous post on Halloween and try it.
  • Better comment spam protection and Gravatar images.
  • Easier to maintain my lists of read/saw/played media.
  • Clean design is cleaner.
  • Oh, yeah, the HTML and CSS is generally better and not broken on account of my having coded almost none of it.

    The one major downside to the move is substantial, though. All my links are broken. Like, ALL of them. This includes links from one blog post to others, and links to photographs. I’m pretty sure I could have solved all or some of this through some kind of httaccess redirects or some other wizardry, but you know what? Screw it. I’m just going to go back and fix each one of the posts that need it by hand. The ones with lots of photographs are mainly the ones that need it, and I want to redo those to get the new galleries anyway. I’m just going to do 5 or 10 entries per day.

    So anyway, enjoy the site. If you notice something in the archives that doesn’t look right, don’t worry. It’ll probably get fixed within a year.

October, 2010 Photo Dump (Part 2)

Halloween! Mandy changed her mind about what she wanted to be at fifteen minute intervals right up until the time she needed to get ready, but finally settled on a fairy. Samantha, on the other hand, had been resolute all along to engage in some gender bending and go as Harry Potter. We suggested Hermione, his female friend, but Sam was not going to play second fiddle (lyre, whatever) and wanted to be the main character. Good for her.