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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (9/29/08) 9:34am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  <none>
TV:  MythBusters [Collection 1, Disc 1]
Books:  Little Brother, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

MythBusters [Collection 1, Disc 1]
Yes, of course I was going to like this show.

Years ago, katydid11 told me about a discussion she'd participated in on snopes.com's BBS.  People were arguing back and forth about whether a kettle of water boils faster with the top off or on.  People brought in lots of p-chem arguments, marked up phase diagrams, and talked about the basic laws of thermodynamics in some detail.  Then somebody posted a line I've often quoted since then:  "Gee, it's too bad there's no way to test this."

It's weird that people are so unwilling to test or measure stuff.  And it's not just boiling water -- think of all the political and social issues that people argue themselves blue in the face over without actually checking their common sense against, say, some study that measures whether policy <x> tends to cause a decrease in <y>.  Or if there are no such measurements available, nobody thinks to say, "Hey, maybe we should actually test this somehow."  When faced with the unknown, we just carry on with our "kettle arguments"[1], convinced that lots of vigorous shouting will magically produce the data we require.

And with urban legends, it's just ridiculous.  People accept hundreds of apocryphal stories that a simple experiment -- hell, even a simple google-search -- would handily disprove.

So I'm very glad that MythBusters exists and has been (by basic-cable standards) wildly successful:  this is the reality show that follows two special-effects experts as they run experiments to test the sort of myths and urban legends that regularly show up on places like snopes.com.  "Could breast implants explode in a airline cabin at 40,000 feet?"  "Can you kill somebody by dropping a penny off the Empire State Building?"  "In the rain, which keeps you drier:  walking or running?"  People argue back and forth about these things all the time -- or maybe they just accept the answer they're told without giving it a moment's thought -- when a simple, well-designed experiment could settle things pretty decisively.

Obligatory Randall Munroe quote:  "Science.  It works, bitches."

And though I'm not mechanically-inclined myself, I always have fun watching other people build stuff, and that's what most of the show is about:  our two special-effects dudes putting together some contraption that will un-riddle the riddle.  For example, for the breast-implant question, they cobble together a hyperbaric chamber from junkyard bits & bobs.  w00t!

Is it good television?  Yeah, I'd say so.  The directors/editors keep the 'padding it out' sequences (the blight of reality shows) to a comfortable minimum -- designing, building, and carrying out the experiments provides enough material for the running time.  Yes, it has a constant, hypey, pun-heavy voiceover, but you can kind of tune it out.  The chemistry between Adam (zany, high-energy, likes explosions) and Jaime (stolid, introverted, likes explosions) works well.[2]

But really, for me, it's more about the content than the delivery.  The presentation could be more slapdash, and I'd still be keen on seeing how they test the "run vs. walk" conundrum.  And thank god there's *something* out there that demonstrates the scientific method to people.  "Hey, maybe I can figure out what color the sky is by *going outside and looking at it.*"  I'll cheer that on any day.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
This is Cory Doctorow's young-adults book about a boy who fights back against Homeland Security abuses in the wake of a massive terrorist attack.  Actually, Unshelved has a great summary of the book.  (Is it sad, how much of my reading I discover through that webcomic?  Possibly.)  It's available for free here in whatever format you like.

"Privacy is important" is one of those things like "Piracy is not theft" that I find just about flat-out impossible to convince anybody of using a correctly-reasoned argument.  You try to explain that "Your right to privacy is important." and you hit an insuperable wall of "Why do I care if some company has my social security number?" or "Nobody's going to look at those pictures, anyway." or "But the government is trying to catch the evil terrorists!"  This modern world, where you can be so extensively surveilled, and that surveillance data can be so easily collated, is counterintuitive to a quaint society that still has Polaroid cameras and corded phones kicking around.

So maybe it was inevitable that Mr. Doctorow, ex-EFF employee, current Boing Boing contributor, would write a novel that explains the situation.  Yes, it's a very didactic novel.  For example, he devotes several pages to a teacher's wikipedia-entry-like speech about the Yippies.  But outside of those expository lumps, there's a pretty engaging story about the aftermath of a brutal terrorist attack in San Francisco.  Homeland Security swoops in and starts monitoring everybody and everything.  And they start disappearing people off the street for interrogation and torture.  (And yes, the joke is:  "More than they do now.")

It's one thing to read about somebody shipped off to Guantanamo Bay on suspicion of Al Qaeda involvement.  It's another to read a similar story from the point of view of an innocent seventeen-year-old kid.  Narrative works a lot better than the dry recitation of facts.  The interrogation sequences are harrowing, and throughout the novel, the frustration and paranoia of living under ubiquitous surveillance makes you squirm.

Does it work as a story?  Pretty much.  I don't think much of Mr. Doctorow's characters or his dialog.  The book fails the Epstein Test for Dialog ("Good dialog is when the character only says stuff that character would say; great dialog is when the character says stuff only that character would say.") and the Epstein Test for Scenes ("Good scenecraft has the characters doing and saying only things those characters would do; great scenecraft has the characters doing things that only those characters would do.").

This leaves you with a bunch of vague characters.  I know that Marcus Yallow (the protagonist) likes technology and is frequently brave and... that's about it.  I'll never meet a guy and think, "He reminds me of Marcus Yallow."  As for the secondary characters, they get about one adjective each -- maybe two for the obligatory love interest.  Nothing too deep, but there's a virtue in being clear and simple.

And anyway, sci-fi is rarely about its characters; it's more often about the ideas.[3]  And the book is full of ideas -- ideas about the oppression of a hyper-intrusive nanny state and ideas about how to fight back against it.  I imagine I'll quote the book's "Super-AIDS test" paragraph the next time I have to explain why a 99%-accurate "terrorism test" is worse than useless.  And the plot moves like hell, with its constant cat-and-mouse games between Marcus and whatever shadowy force is trying to find him & torture him & kill him *this* time around.  But even that plot feels like Mr. Doctorow's excuse to get to the *next* cool gadget/technique/discovery that he found out about via Boing Boing.

With the last book of Mr. Doctorow's I read -- Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom -- that got tiring.  "Please stop lecturing me about how neat-o the gift economy is.  Please."  This time, the ideas feel more exciting to me -- maybe because it feels like there's more at stake.  Instead of "Hey, wouldn't a new economic system be nifty?", it's "Please don't turn my homeland into a police state."  In any case, I found myself sharing the author's excitement (and fury, and frustration), so I could overlook the book's limitations.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon [audiobook, abridged]
Yes, I know:  abridged audiobooks are the spawn of Satan.[4]  I bought the abridgement from audible; by the time I realized this mistake ("Huh.  Thought this book was a bit longer."), they already had my money.  I figured, okay, fine, I'll listen to this abridged book.  wanderlust_atx had recommended it, it won a Pulitzer Prize, and it was about comic books.

How refreshing, to read a book that obsesses on something I'm actually interested in.  I've read novel after novel that all obsessed on faux-Weathermen, and all left me feeling like I'd made that fatal mistake of asking some poli-sci grad student about their dissertation.[5]  The exposition wasn't putting me to sleep because, hey! they were talking about Golden Age comics!  Sweet!  I only know bits and pieces of that story, but even I could have fun seeing how the novel lifted bits and pieces of established Golden-Age superheroes, or from Will Eisner's early career.

And it's a relief to read a novel that cares about its plot.  Mr. Chabon is (apparently) part of that cadre of literary novelists who vehemently defend plot-driven genre fiction -- so naturally, his Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel is likely to move a bit more than other Pulitzer-Prize-winning novels.  Characters want things; characters go after things; stuff happens.  Mind you, I don't absolutely *need* plot -- I may have hated The Corrections with the fiery hate of a thousand suns, but I did *not* hate the fact that it spent most of its pages on spelunking missions inside the characters' heads.  No, I'm just relieved to see that there's a *range* in literary fiction -- some writers use the novel to send stories hurtling forwards, others use the novel for exquisitely-detailed still lifes.  Good for them.

The performer, David Colacci, does great work here, if only because he manages to come up with distinct voices for the forty-odd characters with speaking roles (which requires, in turn, nailing about a half-dozen different accents).  Beyond that, I don't really know enough about voiceover to judge the performance in any detail.  I just know he didn't get in the book's way.

Anyway, I'm very happy to finally read a widely-acclaimed novel that I actually like.  I look forward to picking up Chabon's Sherlock Holmes novella in the coming months.

For next time:  I'll finally watch Team America and possibly There Will Be Blood.  I figure my next audiobook will be The 10-Cent Plague.

Not listening to classical music lately.  Instead, I'm listening to music from Noel Murray's excellent "Popless" column.  I am completely enamored of "Twilight Creeps" from week 10, even though it sounds like something you'd hear at Pottery Barn.  What can I say?  I'm old, and my taste in music was hardly edgy to start with.

Also, I've explored podcasts.  I'm currently enjoying the TEDTalks podcast as well as Grammar Girl.  The Science Show was a bit of a dud, though.  I've listened to a few more episodes of EscapePod, but none of them have really stood out.

[1] Clumsily trying to coin a phrase:  I declare henceforth that a "kettle argument" is any argument that could be easily settled by simple experimentation and/or observation, as with the kettle-boiling example above.

[2] Suddenly, I'm reminded of the dynamic between me and judovitch when we roomed together at Rice.

[3] I think this is why I tend to prefer science fiction in short story form; there, you just get in, hit the audience with one jaw-dropping idea, and get out.  Novels force me to hang around with bland, two-dimensional people for hours and hours.

[4] ... except for World War Z, which is amazing.

[5] The irony here is that Little Brother is yet another such book, but I enjoyed it well enough.

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Date:Monday (9/29/08) 9:06am
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Date:Monday (9/29/08) 10:42am
I look forward to picking up Chabon's Sherlock Holmes novella in the coming months.

I've got a copy, if you want it.
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Date:Monday (9/29/08) 10:55am
I've got a copy, if you want it.

Cool -- I may take you up on that....
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