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

Monday (10/10/11) 11:06am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Missed over a month, as I continue to not have time for anything.]

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Sports Night [season one], Little Dorrit [BBC 1988]
Books: Your Money:  The Missing Manual, The Omnivore's Dilemma [audiobook], What Every BODY Is Saying

Sports Night [season one]
I'm not sure why, but I decided to finally watch my anniversary-edition DVDs of Sports Night -- this, after they sat on the shelf for a year or so.

They hold up surprisingly well.  Sure, there are drawbacks to re-watching it:  the network impositions (e.g. the laugh track) feel even weirder, now that the single-camera comedy has become (for critics) the dominant form of TV comedy.  The Sorkinisms that seemed so out-of-nowhere in their first TV appearance now feel more familiar, after he's borrowed from himself repeatedly through West Wing and Studio 60.  And some plot elements, knowing what I know now about show structure, are just perplexing.  (See:  Jeremy's phobia about giving blood in "Napoleon's Battle Plan".)

But in other ways, the show is *better* now.  Or rather, the show has stayed the same, and I have changed, and it has more impact on 2011!Peter than it did on 1999!Peter.  The relationship quadrangle (Casey/Dana/Gordon/Sally) felt ungainly to me when it first aired.  Now, I'm less concerned about its logistics; instead, I'm watching a series of ghastly relationship conversations through the cracks in my fingers, thinking "Gaaah I've *been* in that conversation, and it's awful."[1]  Similarly, the office politics feels a lot more close to home, now that I'm not a wide-eyed innocent, just out of college.

Ironically, now that it's a period piece trapped twelve years in the long-ago, it feels a lot closer to my day-to-day experience.  When it first broadcast, I loved it, but I think I spent certain stretches of it waiting to get back to the parts where Dan and Casey had witty banter.  Now I see all the other notes it was hitting.

Little Dorrit [BBC 1988]
Not much to say about this, as I only watched the first half-hour or so of this six-hour miniseries adaptation.  I figured I would watch it in preparation for the upcoming Improvised Dickens show.  I tried my best to attend to it, but it wasn't captioned, and that meant that every time an accent got too far away from Received Pronunciation, it was like a radio tuning itself to static.  The production values looked cheap-ish, but the acting (Derek Jacobi plays the lead) was amazing.

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan [audiobook]
This is Michael Pollan's book about different means of food production, and why being a locovore is better than eating processed food.

A few years back, I wound up taking antibiotics for some kind of ailment.  One of the side effects was that it killed my sense of taste.  I would eat something, the texture would be right, but the flavor would be absent.  It took me several days to notice this.  And in fact, it was over a week before it started mildly annoying me. 

Every foodie I know would have driven straight back to that physician and demanded a different prescription.  And if there hadn't been another drug available, they would have just lived with being sick.  Me, I kept taking the pills and avoided eating breakfast cereal (which now seemed kind of pointless).

All of this is a roundabout way of saying, "I'm not Mr. Pollan's target audience."  Sure, I like good food better than bad food, and there are many things I flat-out won't eat.  But for me, the joys of the table are muted, and if I could take a pill that would make it so I didn't have to eat, I would.  So when Pollan righteously demands that I devote hours to finding locally-sourced mushrooms, and more time cooking it, and more time savoring it, it's like he's asking me to spend several days a month going over tax forms.

So I'll just come out and say it:  I didn't like this book as much as you did, and I was not as swayed by it as you were.  This is not to say I disliked it or dismissed it -- but I'm surrounded by people who talk about The Omnivore's Dilemma with the sort of fervor usually reserved for evangelicals intent on preventing me from hellfire.  And, as with the Bible, I found it well-written but ultimately a sort of agitprop.[2]

For me, personally, the most interesting part of this book was near the beginning.  Mr. Pollan explains that the government treats food like it follows the laws of classical economics.  The problem is, food is special.  If the price of food goes down 90%, you don't buy ten times as much food, because you have a finite stomach.  If demand for food increases tenfold, you don't produce ten times as much of it, because you only have so much land, and nature might decide, "no, sorry, you get a drought."

I suspect that these two simple facts could be the source of all the madness of agribusiness -- the massive subsidies, the bizarre reliance on monocultures, the ever-more-complicated forms of processing.  Pollan goes into extensive detail about all these *outcomes*, but I suspect an economist could have a field day explaining the *process* -- showing us what happens when you set up a free market that has topsy-turvy rules of supply and demand.

That said, it's fascinating to see this funhouse-mirror economy that we've created, where farmers create mountains of tasteless, unused corn, and food scientists come up with ever-more-complicated ways of processing it for an increasingly-fattened public.

Of course, his "them scientists think they're sooooo smart" bent got on my nerves.  Yes, I understand that postmodern enthusiasts at liberal arts colleges can lecture me ad nauseam about 'different ways of knowing' and how 'the jury's still out on science.'[3]  And yes, it was a great way of showing respect for the oppressed cultures who got stomped underfoot by the cultures that had designed guns.  But I also know that this intellectual infrastructure got co-opted by the right, and, great, now we're putting up with climate-change deniers and Intelligent-Design educators.

So it's amusing to see how Pollan goes through the usual canards that, say, Richard Dawkins has to put up with from Creationists.  "Oh, science can't even explain the <obscure thing>.  That means science is stupid."  For instance:  "science doesn't understand how fungi decide when to put out fruiting bodies -- this means that mushrooms are MYSTERY MAGICK BEYOND THE KEN OF MAN THAT CAN POWER US WITH LUNAR ENERGY".  Just because I can't explain something doesn't mean it's crazy-magical.  It just means that, hey, on one obscure point, you and I are united in our ignorance.

Or here's another lovely one:  "First scientists didn't know about protein and carbohydrates; then they didn't know about vitamins; then they didn't know about anti-oxidants.  WHO KNOWS WHAT IMPORTANT THINGS THEY'RE OVERLOOKING NOW?"  That's a FUD argument.  And the amusing thing to me is that the answer to the rhetorical question seems to be "something less important than antioxidants," since that trend-line, over time, is to less- and less-important nutrients.

Or you get this one:  "doctors think that the human body is just a system and they understand everything about how it works".  Yup, that's a straw-man argument, and one that must come from somebody who (1) doesn't know any doctors, or (2) only knows doctors who are also surgeons.  Every doctor I know has a healthy respect for the massive amounts we don't know -- because they can rattle off hundreds of things we don't understand.  The layman has a vague, "bodies are weird" feeling but no concrete sense of the *mass* of known unknowns.

This contempt seeps through the pages, *until* he hits a scientific study that supports his thesis.  Then, suddenly, science is valid, though only in a smug, "Ooh-hoo-hoo, they've been hoist by their own petard!" sort of way.

But then again, it's agitprop, so you can't really hold it to a high standard of intellectual rigor.  He's not trying to create an airtight case that factory farms are deleterious to the country and to the public.  He's just trying to get his readers riled up and angry about the topic.  But still, this intention makes it hard for me to trust the guy.  I'll read a sentence like, "In fact, this may contribute to some forms of cancer!", and I wince at that massive pileup of weasel words in once sentence.  Hell, *your mom* "may contribute to some forms of cancer."

And that's even before the risk-analysis parts of my brain light up.  What kind of cancer are we talking about?  If it's one that only affects (say) elderly Asian women, then I'm not at risk.  How much does it increase the risk?  If it's going up from one-in-a-quadrillion to two-in-a-quadrillion, then I don't care.  Who says that there's a contribution?  If it's only one study out of hundreds, then that sounds like statistical noise.

Granted, none of this is saying that Pollan is incorrect.  He could be right about everything.  It's just that he's playing so fast and loose with his arguments, and hitting emotional buttons so diligently, and working so hard to present his side as convincingly as any interpretation of the facts will allow, that I have to spend the entire book on high alert, seeing if what he says holds water.

That said, it's still well-written, if a bit precious.  He knows how to make his story emotionally resonant, down to discussing an abbatoir by speculating what an adorable steer he purchased would experience after it gets shunted into the building.  He creates sharp characters for us to invest in.

And the basic ideas make sense.  There *is* something ludicrous about constructing elaborate footstuffs out of corn (even if, in my engineer's heart of hearts, I find that kind of awesome), and then shipping them halfway around the country, when you could just buy a carrot from a farmer.  And even non-vegetarians would have to admit that CAFOs cause undue suffering to the animals destined to become lunch.

It's probably a personal failing that I don't feel inspired to immediately join a CSA at this point.  I'll probably keep drinking Dr. Pepper even though it contains unpronounceable substances.  Mainly, I just wonder what's broken in the overall system.[4]

But, again, I'm not his target audience.

Your Money:  The Missing Manual
This is the Missing Manual book about managing your finances.

A good chunk of this book is devoted to "how to get your crazy spending under control".  This section was not that useful to me -- I've always been a cheap bastard.  As my income has increased, I've found that big-ticket purchases are always disappointing, so my spending hasn't really scaled with income.  I just buy a few things, and mainly concern myself with finding enough time to put them to use.

Then there's a big chunk about how to get out of debt.  This is all sound advice, except that I've lived a cheap and shabby life, and so I haven't managed to get *into* debt.  I filed away the information, in case I someday develop expensive tastes.

The rest of the material was interesting enough.  I got some assurance that my utter indifference to buying a house hasn't been *complete* financial suicide.  I picked up some tips on short-term investments.  But generally it seemed like sane reassurances that finances really do work the way I think they do.

What Every BODY Is Saying by Joe Navarro
Joe Navarro is a former FBI agent who specializes in nonverbal communication.  This is his book about how to read nonverbal cues.

This is helpful for me, since I'm generally blind to social cues.  They say that communication is 10% what you say, 20% tone of voice, and 70% visual cues.  For me, communication comes across as 10% what people say, 20% tone of voice, and 70% MEANINGLESS, UNREMITTING NOISE.  A book like this probably won't do me any good, but it's at least nice to get a summary of the sort of tells I seem clinically incapable of picking up on.

What I found most interesting was his overall philosophy for reading nonverbal cues.  Other articles about the topic emphasize *specific* tells -- "if somebody touches his face while talking to you, he's lying!" -- but Mr. Navarro makes it clear that reading people is about finding larger patterns.  You want to get an overall sense for someone's baseline behaviors -- maybe he touches his face all the time, in which case it's not a useful diagnostic -- and watch closely for *deviations* from that.  You want to look, not for individual tells, but for 'clusters' of behaviors.  Maybe "he's touching his face" doesn't mean anything on its own -- but if he's touching his face, thinning his lips, and subtly aiming his feet towards the exit, that cluster is a pretty clear sign of discomfort.  Finally, he emphasizes the importance of context -- even in that 'cluster' case, this may not mean "he's lying."[5]  Try bringing up the topic in question a few more times, and see if it continues to lead to discomfort.  And even then, you need to figure out what this person's discomfort *means*.

As for the specific nonverbal cues, the most interesting discussion was about feet.  People trying to conceal their mood or opinions don't often think to control what their feet do.  So that's how you get the 'tell' I mentioned earlier of aiming your feet at the exit when you're trapped in a conversation you don't like.  Overall, the book talked about how the things we consciously focus on to detect moods -- the face and the hands -- are the ones that people are the best at dissembling with.  As you move away from the face and the hands, you start seeing actions that are much more unconscious and instinctive, and those are more useful to read.

For next time:  giant piles of Dickens, in preparation for the Hideout show in November.  I'm watching a BBC adaptation of Our Mutual Friend, listening to an audiobook of A Tale of Two Cities, and reading Sketches By Boz.

[1] "Wait, which person *were* you in that conversation?"  "Yes."

[2] And, like the Bible, there's a creepy obsession with avoiding sin by obeying strict rules about what you do with your body for pleasure.  Strange, how people keep gravitating to that.

[3] Okay, technically I'm quoting GOB Bluth there.

[4] Or if it's broken at all.  Pollan mentions, in precisely one paragraph, that an industrial food system may be the only way to support large urban populations.  We might just be stuck with it.

[5] Indeed, there is no tell that screams "deception".  People aren't Pinnochios.

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