Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Good Reads/Random Cool Sites (12/30/2009)

Even More Exclamation Points Edition!

Oh noes! Looks like Obama has lost the has-been rocker vote!

Wow, somebody actually had something intelligent to say about Tiger Woods!

Bizarro nails 2012!

Five possible scenarios for our future climate: bad, badder, badderer, baddererer, and badderererst!

The Adventures of Leonard McCoy, Space Doctor (no. 4)


"Bones, can you save him?"

Follow the adventures of Leonard McCoy, Space Doctor, as he explores the far reaches of space (and my house... and my backyard... and my kids' toy boxes) with his friends Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. Every Wednesday and Friday, right here at ToTryANewSword.com.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Good reads/Random Cool Sites (12/28/2009)

The Onion says pretty much all anyone needs to say about "young-Earth creationism": Sumerians Look On In Confusion As God Creates World.

Worldometers: world statistics updated in real time.

Ask a Nobel laureate.

Tragic baby in a bunny suit.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Tragic, epic, Benny Hill

I can't stop playing with these.

They work great on movie trailers, such as:

Napolean Dynamite,

And Twilight,

And Pocahontas.

Also on music videos, such as:

Lady Gaga,

And Fergie.

And they work especially well on babies.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Adventures of Leonard McCoy, Space Doctor (no. 3)


"There appears to have been a transporter malfunction, Captain."

Follow the adventures of Leonard McCoy, Space Doctor, as he explores the far reaches of space (and my house... and my backyard... and my kids' toy boxes) with his friends Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. Every Wednesday and Friday, right here at ToTryANewSword.com.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Good reads/Random Cool Sites (12/22/2009)

People Won't Read Something That Long on the Internet Edition.

It pains me to say so, but Drew Western might be right about Obama. Might be. I've underestimated him before.

James Cameron: Man of Extremes.

Roger Ebert's best films of 2009.

Bad Beatles covers

Because it's Tuesday.

William Shatner, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"



A Large Foreign Sailor, "Let It Be"



Telly Savalas, "Something"



Cathy Berberian, "I Want to Hold Your Hand"



Tiny Tim, "Nowhere Man"



Madame St. Onge, "Something"


Monday, December 21, 2009

If the Earth had rings

If the Earth had rings, it might look like this. (Discussion here.)



And a Uranus joke:
"Is it true that Uranus has rings?"
"I don't know."
"Show me Uranus, and I'll check."

Thank you. Thank you very much. I'll be here all week.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Good Reads/Random Cool Sites (12/20/2009)

All Funny Edition.

texts from last night. How many of these are real? Dunno, but they're funny (as well as not safe for work/children/prudes).

Why Jesus shouldn't dive.

Sketchy Santas.

The Geek Map.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Adventures of Leonard McCoy, Space Doctor (no. 2)


"I'm picking up some unusual energy readings."

Follow the adventures of Leonard McCoy, Space Doctor, as he explores the far reaches of space (and my house... and my backyard... and my kids' toy boxes) with his friends Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. Every Wednesday and Friday, right here at ToTryANewSword.com.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

My plastic brain?

In the department of "Man, that sounds like me," John Elder Robison writes,

Plasticity is the brain’s ability to form new paths. You might say it’s an essential component of learning any new skill. For example, when you learn the way up the stairs and down the hall to your room, you are using plasticity to make a path in your brain that tells your legs what to do to go from the front door to your nest.

The scientists in the TMS lab believe unusual plasticity is the reason I can learn things so fast. There have been many times that I’ve focused intently on some bit of arcana and become an expert so quickly that other people thought it was unbelievable.

That's me exactly. I don't really know if "brain plasticity" has anything to do with it, but several times in my life, in no more than a month or two I've mastered topical knowledge equal to (or surpassing) what other people have spent years learning. But this is me also:

But I’m afraid it’s not the whole story. Sure, if I get fascinated by something I devour all I can about my new interest overnight, but there are plenty of topics that don’t interest me much, and plasticity does not help me one bit if I have to study them. Is plasticity a kind of fair weather friend, something that only helps with things I like?

And maybe this is also me:

...scientists at the lab attribute much of my learning ability to plasticity. At the same time, they blame my social blindness in part on plasticity too. ...

Neurotypical people might have one path in their heads to recognize facial expressions. By the time they grow up, that path is well worn and familiar. People with high plasticity (referring to me) might have a hundred paths, or a thousand, and they are all smaller. So plasticity has put a lot more options inside our heads, but they are so complex that they don’t run fast like an NT person. The result – a social disability.

Again, I don't know if the theory is correct, but I'll give you an example from my experience that seems to fit it: waving at people. I see my neighbor outside every couple of weeks or so, and she's a nice lady, so she always waves at me. I'm pretty sure that when something like that happens with neurotypical people, they simply react: "Waved at by acquaintance -> Wave back." Simple.

But in my case, I don't seem to have a "Waved at -> Wave back" path in my brain. Instead, my reaction is a process something like this: "Waved at -> That's my neighbor -> She's waving -> When waved at, one should wave back -> Wave back." No single step takes a long time, but it takes a while to get through all of them, and in about half of these encounters my neighbor has already looked away by the time I wave back. Fortunately, she's a nice lady, so she hasn't stopped waving.

Does that mean that my reaction is jumping around through a bunch of different brain paths, and that's what makes it take so long? I don't know. It's an intriguing idea, and it seems like it would fit.

I can do better at waving in some cases, namely when I get used to waving at a specific person under specific circumstances. Could that mean that I've somehow managed to "groove" a brain path through repetition? Again, I don't know, but it seems to fit.

For example, when I pick up my daughter from kindergarten, her teacher, Eric, almost always waves at me. After three months, I've gotten pretty used to it, so the process goes something like this: "That's Eric -> He'll probably wave at me -> Waved at -> Wave back." Usually I manage to complete that process in a fairly timely way, before he looks away. Once in a while, I actually manage to wave first.

At least, that's what happens if I see Eric before he waves at me. If he waves at the same time I see him, it throws off my timing, and I might not wave before he looks away.

Sometimes, it's not easy being me.

Thursday haiku: dichotomy

false dichotomy.
anarchy and chaos aren't
the alternatives.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Adventures of Leonard McCoy, Space Doctor (no. 1)

Follow the adventures of Leonard McCoy, Space Doctor, as he explores the far reaches of space (and my house... and my backyard... and my kids' toy boxes) with his friends Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. Every Wednesday and Friday, right here at ToTryANewSword.com.


"I'm a doctor, not a bricklayer!"

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Happy in Paraguay

This is the funniest video ever. Seriously. Well, not seriously, because it's funny -- aww, you know what I mean. (Language may not be safe for work/children/prudes.)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Good Reads/Random Cool Sites (12/10/2009)

Josh Marshall asks hard questions about climate change.

Atlas Chugged: The Ayn Rand Drinking Game.

Hitler on the evidence for chiropractic (language not safe for work/children/prudes).

College football rivalry games bring out the best in people (language not safe for work/children/prudes).

Thursday haiku: again

i write and proud i
wait but so few people read
yet again i write

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Good Reads/Random Cool Sites (12/8/2009)

Sometimes "FAIL" means "worked too well," as with this Christmas decoration.

Eric Snider's rejected "New Moon" screenplay.

"Ask Richard" at the Friendly Atheist has become my favorite advice column. Usually when I say an advice columnist is good, I mean that s/he says what I would have. (Usually it's just common sense.) But Richard always gives much better advice than I could. As with this one: "Atheist Despairs for Love and Respect from Her Mormon Family."

From the New Yorker:
When the Christmas tree pops up in literature, it often does so at moments of great emotional importance. Yet the work it appears in is not always the best-known of an author's oeuvre, much as a Christmas album put out by a famous singer is seldom the work he'd stake his reputation on. Nevertheless, both Christmas albums and Christmas writings can be sweet—confections, to be placed on the tongue and allowed to melt slowly over the season until, on New Year's day, they fade away entirely, forgotten for the next eleven months. All the more reason, then, to play the classics while we can.

The unreliable author: Why Stephenie Meyer is accidentally a great writer (sort of)

Many writers try to capture the voice of an adolescent protagonist. Few of them succeed. Most of them sound like what they are: adults trying to sound like teenagers, and failing. In a few cases, in the best first-person coming-of-age novels, the authors manage to capture an authentic teenage voice.

Besides this authentic voice, however, these great novels have another thing in common: their protagonists are unusually sensitive, idealistic, mature, and/or intelligent. Simply put, they're a lot smarter -- or rather, a lot deeper -- than the average teenager.

And I suspect there's a simple reason for that: their authors are also deeper in certain ways than the average person. One of the reasons those authors can write so well is that they have much more than the ordinary amount of insight into themselves and into other people. They understand human nature so well.

Thus, even when great writers capture an authentic adolescent voice, their protagonists understand the world around them far better than most adolescents do. Even so, they remain adolescents. They don't know everything; they still have things to learn. And great writers know this. They understand their protagonists completely. They know what their protagonists know, and perhaps even more importantly, they know what their protagonists don't know.

Of course, this seems like an obvious point, but it is crucial to understanding the success of Twilight and why Stephenie Meyer is a great writer, but only "sort of," and only accidentally at that.

Because where Meyer is indeed great is in the way she captures an authentic adolescent voice: Bella Swan. Bella's voice is as true as that of any teen or child in American literature. I say that without qualification. At least in Twilight (the only one of the books I've read so far), Bella is just as real as Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield, Scout Finch, Josh Arnold, Reuven Malter, or any other protagonist in a great coming-of-age novel. She is completely authentic in her own way.

But this is not by Meyer's design. As I've said before (and as many other people have noted), in Twilight Meyer actually seems to believe she's telling a story about an intelligent, grounded, and mature girl whose self-esteem is a bit low, not a girl who is strikingly immature, melodramatic, shallow, and narcissistic. Bella constantly complains, blushes, stumbles, faints, gets tongue-tied around the opposite sex, feels embarrassed about being seen with her parents, freaks out when people look at her, and obsesses over a boy she hardly knows because he has bronze hair and golden eyes, yet every other character in the book seems to consider her mature and intelligent.

In other words, Meyer fails miserably at one of the things that the authors of truly great coming-of-age novels all do. She fails utterly at knowing her protagonist and especially at "knowing what her protagonist doesn't know." Nobody in the book realizes that Bella is immature, melodramatic, shallow, and narcissistic because Meyer doesn't realize it either.

Ironically, though, that is Twilight's greatest strength. Because think about what it's like to be an adolescent. I don't mean one of the unusually sensitive, idealistic, mature, and/or intelligent protagonists typical of a great coming-of-age novel, but just an ordinary, everyday teenager. To the extent one can generalize, "immature, melodramatic, shallow, and narcissistic" seems like a pretty reasonable description.

And lacking the unusually keen insight of truly great authors, Meyer doesn't realize that that's who Bella is. But that failure actually serves to make Bella's voice more authentic. Because typically immature, melodramatic, shallow, and narcissistic teens never realize that they are immature, melodramatic, shallow, and narcissistic. In fact, they always think that they are mature, deep, and intelligent. So Meyer's lack of insight actually causes her to accidentally capture that aspect of teenage psychology perfectly.

Indeed, almost everything that's bad about Meyer's writing makes Bella's voice more authentic. The one- and two-dimensional characters who can easily be summed up in short mocking descriptive phrases (e.g., Carlisle The Wise Leader, Esme The Motherly One, Alice The Nice One)? This reflects a typically narcissistic way of seeing the world that many teenagers have, in which people are defined solely by their roles relative to oneself: Parent, Teacher, Friend's Parent, etc. (Hence the disconcerted feeling that can arise when adolescents are somehow made to think of those people in different roles, the "Ewww!" at the thought of teachers having sex lives, for example.)

The purple prose, never having Bella "open the window and look out into the darkness" when she can have her "throw open the window and look into the night, her eyes scanning the darkness, the impenetrable shadows of the trees"? Adolescent love of melodrama.

And the odd values expressed in Twilight, the equating of beauty with goodness, and lack of beauty with badness or at least lack of any real importance, the extreme focus on romantic love as if it were the most valuable thing in the world, worth ignoring friends and deceiving family over, the viewing of unhealthy stalker-like behavior as proof of True Love? Well, how much more adolescent, how much more immature, melodramatic, shallow, and narcissistic can one get?

But Bella realizes none of this, of course. An "unreliable narrator" is


...a first-person narrator that for some reason has a compromised point-of-view. In all stories with a first-person narrator, the narrator serves as a filter for the events. What the narrator does not know or observe cannot be explained to the reader. Usually, however, the reader trusts that the narrator is knowledgeable and truthful enough to give them an accurate representation of the story. In the case of an unreliable narrator (sometimes called a fallible narrator), the reader has reason not to trust what the narrator is saying.

It's a fairly common literary device. Indeed, it's one that's been used in great American coming-of-age novels. Huck Finn (because of his age, his prejudices, and his good nature), Holden Caulfield (because of his idealism and his almost-craziness), and Scout Finch (because of her age) are all unreliable narrators to some degree.

But the use of an unreliable narrator as a literary device presupposes the author's intent. It presupposes, again, that the author knows what the narrator knows and what the narrator doesn't know. It presupposes that the author intentionally uses that knowledge to tell us something by letting us fill in the blanks in the narrator's knowledge.

But that is decidedly not the case with Stephenie Meyer and Twilight. Bella is indeed an unreliable narrator -- she doesn't see herself as she is -- but not because Meyer wants her to be. She's unreliable because Meyer doesn't see her as she is either. Meyer doesn't realize that there are any blanks to be filled in. Rather than creating a classic unreliable narrator, Stephenie Meyer has become an unreliable author.

And that's what makes her a great writer (sort of). Meyer captures an adolescent voice with a truly brilliant degree of authenticity, but she does it accidentally, with everything that makes her a truly bad writer making her even better at capturing that voice.

And that, I think, is the real reason Twilight has such deep appeal. The people who love the book so much are primarily immature, melodramatic, shallow, and narcissistic adolescent girls who recognize themselves in Bella's voice; women who have outgrown their own formerly immature, melodramatic, shallow, and narcissistic past selves and nostalgically recognize the voice of who they once were; and women who have never really outgrown those selves (including, one supposes, Meyer herself) and recognize a younger version of who they still are.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Good reads/Random Cool Sites (12/07/2009)

i can haz new moon?

How to be a hero to the neighborhood children.

Time magazine will pay freelancers promptly -- if they pay for the privilege. Matt Bors has a better idea.

Mandelbulb: 3D Mandelbrot sets.

'80s Music Monday: New Order

New Order was my absolute favorite band during the '80s. A few others came close, but they were number one.

They were the successor to Joy Division. After Ian Curtis committed suicide, the band decided to continue under a new name. Their first single, "Ceremony," was actually written by Curtis, but was never fully completed by Joy Division.

Their new sound added more synthesizer, but remained gloomy but melodic, if lacking the tone of desperation that Curtis had brought. But they quickly evolved into a more upbeat and danceable sound, although their lyrics remained thoughtful and deadly serious. They became hugely influential, especially in techno but also in dance-rock. The Killers, for example, are named after a New Order lyric.

What I loved about them was the combination of the danceable music -- synth-pop with guitar, with the bass often playing melody (like the Who) and keyboards playing the bassline (like the Doors) -- combined with the lyrics. I found lyrics like these from "True Faith"

I used to think that the day would never come
I'd see the light in the shade of the morning sun
My morning sun is the drug that brings me near
To the childhood I lost replaced by fear
I used to think that the day would never come
That my life would depend on the morning sun

or these from "Blue Monday"

How does it feel to treat me like you do?
When you've laid your hands upon me
And told me who you are
I thought I was mistaken
I thought I heard your words
Tell me, how do I feel
Tell me now, How do I feel

deeply resonant.

Here's five from New Order.

"Ceremony" (1981)



"Blue Monday '88" (1983/1988)
This is a Quincy Jones remix from 1988. I don't like it quite as much as the single or the Substance version, but it's still great.



"Perfect Kiss" (1985)
Rumor has it that this song is about Ian Curtis, but I don't think that's ever been officially confirmed. This is a unique version recorded for the video.



"Bizarre Love Triangle" (1986)



"True Faith" (1987)
A beautiful song with a very strange but compelling video.


Sunday, December 06, 2009

Good reads/Random Cool Sites (12/6/09)

Phil Plaitt at Bad Astronomy has a very intelligent, calm, and reasonable post about "Climategate." I agree with what he says.

Super Emo Friends.

Victory Science in Afghanistan.

Steel Panther: "Death to All but Metal" (language not safe for work/children/prudes. Seriously. I'm not kidding.)

Beat kuri's Quiz Score: American Revolution

The American Revolution Center commissioned the first national survey to assess adult knowledge of the American Revolution. The results show that an alarming 83 percent of Americans failed a basic test on knowledge of the American Revolution and the principles that have united all Americans. Results also revealed that 90 percent of Americans think that knowledge of the American Revolution and its principles is very important, and that 89 percent of Americans expected to pass a test on basic knowledge of the American Revolution, but scored an average of 44 percent.

I don't find that surprising, unfortunately.

Here's the quiz.

My result:

You got 10 of 10 possible points.
Your score: 100%
You have knowledge!

Yes. yes, I do.

(h/t: Little Green Footballs)

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Good Reads/Random Cool Sites (12/2/2009)

Major rightwing blogger quits the right (thus earning a spot in my blogroll).

Porn = no big deal? (h/t: Main Street Plaza).

Jesus burned my eyeballs.

Obama is only the second black president. Richard Pryor was the first.