Monday, August 15, 2011

Cats and Rabbits

Late Saturday night, after I'd lain down to bed, I heard a man's voice, screaming horribly in the distance. I sprang from the floor without a thought, tore open my doors and bolted outside barefoot. I heard a second scream, which struck my ear as less urgent, but still distressed, and closer. I moved toward the path that runs past the dead end of my street, straining my senses through the night to find out where the trouble was. But then some asshole on a bike rode past and, no doubt seeing me tense and wild-eyed, said "Sorry, that was me shouting, did you see a bunch of people go by here on bikes?" I told him that I hadn't. I'd seen nothing again.

Tonight, I had my rabbit outside, where it found a nice, comfortable spot beside the lilac bushes next to my front door. I sat on my stoop less than three feet away, but because I was out of the line of sight, my rabbit was attacked by a cat. When I saw him tackled clear across the sidewalk and heard him scream, because as it turns out, rabbits can do that, I shouted "NO" at the top of my lungs and ran at the cat, scaring it off. I rarely make so much noise. So later on, while I was inside checking the rabbit's fur for blood and doing my best to calm it down, it occurred to me that while I had shook the branches of the tree above me with just my voice, none of the several neighbors that I have in earshot opened their doors to see what might be wrong.

Friday, August 12, 2011

We Don't Need No Stinking (News) Badges

I have two Google accounts, and the one that I use less frequently is still trying to welcome me to “Google News badges.” When I navigate to Google News while signed in under that account, it shows me a helpful link to a video introducing me to this innovative new way to personalize my news experience. In all honesty, I think this is by far the most absurd in a long stream of ridiculous elaborations upon once-simple online interface. Practically every second of that one minute introductory video bothers me, and I think it’s best to attack it line-by-line.

“If you’re a regular reader of Google News, you might read dozens of articles every month, but wouldn’t it be nice to keep track of what you read most?”

Um… no? Yes? Well, towards what end? On the one hand, if I wanted to maintain statistical data on my news-reading habits, I’m pretty sure I could accomplish that just by paying close attention. I pretty sure I already have a fairly thorough comprehension of what my main interests are when it comes to the news. They are, after all, my interests. Why would I need an external mechanism for keeping track of my reading habits? Are there readers of Google News who just personally aren’t sure what they’re interested in reading about? Do some people only read their morning news before they’ve woken up, so that their acquisition of information is controlled completely by their unconscious minds, keeping the patterns of their own reading a secret to them in their waking life? Google, isn’t what you really want to ask, “Wouldn’t it be nice for our advertisers to keep track of what you read most?”

“With Google News badges, you can learn about your reading habits, create a more personalized experience on Google News, and find articles on your favorite topics…”

Can’t I find articles on my favorite topics by searching for them or adding a personalized section? I don’t see why I would create a more personalized experience on Google News by enabling a new function that allows Google to effectively tell me what I’m interested in, rather than, say, by deciding on an individual basis what headlines and topics are most interesting to me on each separate day. Suppose I’m the sort of person who likes to read about foreign affairs when I’m happy but the economy when I’m pissed off, or who peruses the entertainment section when it’s raining, but goes straight to hard news on sunny days? Can the badges system personalize my experience by gauging my mood and taking into account the weather in my locality on a given day? Ranking one’s prior reading habits and grouping every specific point of interest into broad categories is a rather shallows concept of personalization. Why call it that, when what you’re really offering me is a way to take decisions about my own priorities out of my hands? Quite the contrary to personalizing my experience, a system like this strikes me as a means of making my intellectual engagement far more robotic and generalized.

“The more you read, the more your badges will level up.”

I see, so the major selling point of this new system will be the ego of users. People will be able to compare their own news consumption with that of friends and rivals, and feel good about their informed civic engagement on the basis of how many similarly-grouped news articles they’ve clicked into, rather than on the basis of acquiring a broad range of information and demonstrating their intelligence and capability of retention in conversation or other acts of genuine engagement with issues and events.

“Badges not only help you keep track of what you’ve read, they also make it easier to add personalized news sections on the topics you care about most.”

I can already do that by typing a subject keyword. And I think that’s a far better way of going about it because that requires that I first personally recognize what I care about and make a decision to keep better apprised of it, as opposed to waiting for Google to tell me what my past clicks indicate my primary concerns are. Adding the sections according to my own initiative also allows for my interests to change from week to week, which is something I would expect of a dynamic, curious mind. I would much rather be able to decide for myself what is important to me now, even if it doesn’t match with the way I was feeling last month or last hour. I think it would be a distraction to my own curiosity to have Google constantly reminding me that, no, based on my prior reading habits I’m really interested in politics, not art.

“…You can choose to share them across your social network if you want to find shared interests with friends or spark conversations around certain topics.”

Sounds great! I love to find shared interests and spark conversations, but I do it by actually talking with people. I think it’s both more productive and more relevant for all parties involved that way, but then maybe I’m just old fashioned.

“So keep track of what you’re reading, read more of what you like, and share what you love with friends. Come badge up with Google News.”

Honestly, Google, do you think I wasn’t going to do just that if you hadn’t developed this special user interface, essentially to connect me to my own mind? I don’t know what’s worse: the idea that you were cynical enough to think that we need your guidance to find out which current events we’re interested in learning about, or the idea that the existence of this system and others like it will push people in exactly that direction, prompting them to operate on the awareness that they don’t have to remember anything so long as there’s an internet connection – not even what they’re reading, or what they care about, or what they think.

Thursday, August 11, 2011


I still get occasional e-mails from I signed up when I was living in Boise, at which time I had no money, just as I do now, but was also naive enough to believe that there might be something significant I could do for the cause besides donating cash. Requests for money comprised about eighty percent of any given message back when President Obama was candidate Obama. It's actually quite different now. There are occasionally statements of fact and expressions of position in their mass e-mails these days, but it's bad timing, because now I usually don't care to read what Obama's campaign manager, Jim Messina, has to say. I haven't unsubscribed for some reason, but I sometimes just don't open them. However, I was pleased that I opened the one that arrived tonight, which said something interesting.

That is, I found it interesting that Messina was probably able to type his commentary without any intention of irony. He was apparently writing about the Iowa Republican debate, but I prefer to take the line out of context and lightly redacted, in which case I can swear that he's talking about the entire political population of Washington, D.C. over the course of the past decade:

"What we're seeing unfold... is a race to the right, where it's becoming difficult to distinguish the candidates from each other... I suspect that tonight it will become even more clear that this whole group is way out of the mainstream."

Well put, Mr. Messina. Well put. I'll just not read any farther.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Personality of Mental Illness

On Monday’s Colbert Report, the guest was Nassir Ghaemi, who has written a book called “A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links between Leadership and Mental Illness.” In the interview he explained that certain mental illnesses can have positive effects, such as mania contributing to intense creativity and depression being associated with greater empathy. I was thrilled to hear such an idea uttered on television, because it represents an almost unheard of push towards mainstream recognition of views similar to my own on mental abnormality, psychiatric medication, and over-diagnosis of mental illness.

I feel that Americans are far too quick to see themselves as afflicted by mental states and psychological tendencies, when they might be better served by identifying themselves as being simply influenced by those things. It suggests a terrible pessimism, and a pessimism that ironically is grounded in a preoccupation with happiness. It seems to me that people look on their own abnormalities through a negative filter, noticing only the extent to which it impedes a sense of pleasure and one’s capability for thorough social assimilation.

I’m certainly willing to acknowledge that there are mental afflictions that seriously threaten a person’s life or well-being, and to which medication may be a reasonable response, but I believe that in the vast majority of cases, the impulse towards diagnosis and treatment is based on an unanalyzed desire for normality, and that this ignores the possibility of negative effects from artificially altering one’s own brain chemistry. The essence of my view is that it is extremely difficult to disembed who you are from how your mind works. My personal feeling is that no matter how serious a diagnosis I could secure for any damaging tendencies or dark thoughts that I experienced, I would never appeal to medication or even to elaborate therapies as a means of contending with them. My worry is that by making a top priority of removing the abnormality, people effectively risk using a machete to remove a tumor. Something is likely to be lost that you weren’t aiming for. Is it worthwhile to induce changes in your personality for the sake of improving your sense of comfort? Some may well say yes, but I imagine that most people to whom the question is relevant simply don’t think about it.

For my part, I think that being prone to what one could call depression is part of who I am. By definition, I guess that means that I’m not a happy person, and that I don’t have much hope of being one unless I experience some very significant changes. I can be content with that, however, because I highly value other things apart from happiness. I also believe that without my depression, I likely would not be nearly as principled a person as I am, or precisely as Ghaemi points out, as empathetic. The worst of my depression can sap my motivation, but the best of it gives me a clearer picture of what a kinder loving world would look like. I can’t fathom the idea of reverse-engineering a part of my brain so as to be able to operate more easily and more regularly in pursuit of much less significant goals.

Perhaps this commentary will be viewed as unfair because I am generalizing my ordinary experience of downcast moods and deleterious attributes, and pronouncing upon mental illness, which may be quite different, and inconceivable to me. But who, apart from a psychologist is to say that I’m not mentally ill? And even if one psychologist denies that description, I expect I’d be able to find another willing to levy a diagnosis. A great portion of the problem with this subject, to my mind, is that there is no clarity as to where the dividing line lies. I’ve always thought of the selective diagnosis of bipolar disorder as rather unfair. Defined in its most general possible terms as the vacillation between exhilarating highs and debilitating lows, manic depression just strikes me as a symptom of being alive. There are no doubt some people who barely experience those highs and lows at all, and others who are unambiguously bipolar and feel utterly out of control because of the strength and frequency of the phases, but there must be vast swaths of the population who exist somewhere in the middle ground, where those phases occur and have a recognizable effect, but don’t necessarily dominant the individual’s personality. Clinically, some of those people will end up with a diagnosis of the illness, and others will not. I surmise that that must harm the self-perception of individuals who end up on both sides of the arbitrary divide. Those who are denied a diagnosis are left with the impression that what they experience is a set of personal features that are under their control, which they can alter or overturn by their own efforts. The ones that are identified as bipolar, on the other hand, are made to think that they are sick and that their own efforts are futile without external treatment.

As I see it, the truth is both that all of us and none of us are in control of our own minds. Our own behavior can reinforce itself or contradict itself, and reason can isolate problems that need to change even within our own thinking, but our activity and our brain chemistry also have innumerable external influences, which similarly affect realization, reinforcement, and reversal. The nexus of internal and external influences provides the potential for constant change. Sometimes that change may be regressive, and sometimes it may be insubstantial, but under ordinary circumstances it can at least be assumed that it is gradual. And that fact affords people the possibility of measured change, in contrast to the option of cutting off the source of discomfort and sacrificing whatever may go with it.

Mental illness is a frightening topic. But what is far more frightening to me is the notion that such large numbers of Americans are more concerned with being normal than they are with being themselves. Mental illness and personality traits may sometimes be the same features in different degrees, and they may be inextricably linked together. I think there is too much guess work and too much alarmism involved for it to be worth playing with the fabric of one’s mind, but I am decidedly in the minority within a culture that so values the kind of happiness that is best obtained by blending in and accommodating the circumstances rather than changing them. In that context, it will be a long time before enough people change their views to reach the breaking point wherein, as Ghaemi says, we are able to, “in a matter-of-fact way, accept that some abnormality is actually quite good.”

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Analysis: Current Film Trailers and Franchises

I tend to be behind the times with respect to pop culture. Given my interests and my aspirations, that probably isn’t good. I took some time to indulge curiosity and watch a few movie trailers for coming attractions today. I confess that I had no idea what was slated for release, so forgive me if I’m talking about old news as if it’s current. But then, doing so is perfectly in keeping with Hollywood’s model for movie making.

Several weeks ago, I was walking by a local movie theater with a friend, and I stopped in my tracks and dragged her in front of the marquee and asked her to look down the list and take note of the pattern. At that time, every movie that was showing save one was a sequel, remake, or part of an existing franchise. And that one exception was just a romantic comedy that in all likelihood followed the exact formula of all of its predecessors. Even the things that don’t carry familiar names sometime appear to build on a franchise.

Observing this week’s trailers, I find that in some instances, film makers succeed in building new appeal into arguably trite concepts, but all too often they attach a dollar amount to something unoriginal and go no further than that.

Paranormal Activity 3

As I said, I have no idea what’s forthcoming on the pop culture scene, so I managed to be surprised to see this trailer on the current list. I thought the first sequel was a silly effort at capitalizing on a title that the studio didn’t believe in in the first place, but made an unexpectedly huge profit on, yet I found the film entertaining on its own merits. It demonstrated a capability for bringing a moderately larger budget to bear on elaborating on the mode of presentation that made the original film so effective. It was by no means as good as that low budget, high-concept original, but it was somewhat visually and atmospherically impressive, as I basically expected of it. What I did not expect, because apparently I am still as naive as a child, was a storyline that leveraged in small roles by the characters from the original, and established an unnecessary and ultimately detrimental prequel to the first film. Somehow I had gotten the impression that the studio was going to do the smart thing and make a sequel that created a franchise on the basis of the visual content and overall character of the films, rather than a conjoined cast and story arc.

The strength of the first Paranormal Activity was never its plot. The story was little more than an escalating series of events, and it was the vicarious experience of those events that made it frightening and engaging. The dialogue about the entity having followed the Katie character throughout her life, and other allusions to her past were interesting, but they did not need to be explained. To the contrary, they simultaneously added elements of mystery and vague explanation, which tied together the various occurrences, but by no means drove the film forward. Paramount Pictures should have recognized that they had a film executive's wet dream on their hands - a franchise to which plot is irrelevant, even to highly analytical people like me. The strength of the film was the creative and intimate presentation of its content, and further films should have carried its name on that basis, rather than on the basis of sharing characters, including an invisible demon.

Why is film and television so averse to the idea of creating conceptual sequels, as opposed to direct ones? Do they think that audiences develop loyalty to franchises on the basis of a personal relationship with the characters, rather than, say, on the basis of their enjoyment of each subsequent film in the series?

I remember when the Fox television series 24 premiered in November of 2001. It was heavily marketed for the gimmick of presenting each episode as one real-time hour in a day that was to span the season. That was so strongly emphasized that it seemed that the show wasn't strictly about about a counter-terrorism operation or anything else. It was about the day during which it took place, and audiences were expected to be interested on the basis of the unique presentation of the sequence of events. That is, that was expected to be the source of interest for two or three episodes, after which Jack Bauer, his family, the soon-to-be president and other identifiably participants in the storyline were the only thing that was expected to bring the audience back next week and next season.

But I recall thinking that that show would have presented an excellent opportunity to introduce new characters and news situations with each season that the show was renewed. If we were allowed to continue thinking that the reason for the show was to present each tense hour in a fraught twenty-four hour period, it might have provided a marvelous opportunity for the studio to offer the audience fresh new material each year under the same brand, while saving money by not having to pay increasingly large salaries to an established cast on a successful show. It might also have made the continued use of the twenty-four hour narrative device markedly more plausible. Instead, we got eight seasons of increasingly familiar and increasingly absurd situations faced by the same Kiefer Sutherland character, each of whose active adventures seem to take place over the course of one sleepless twenty-four hour period.

I still think that show was a missed opportunity to break with the orthodox practice of always keeping as much of the same cast as possible in sequels and renewals, but that wasn't so obviously preferable an option as is the case with Paranormal Activity 3. We don't need to see the characters of the first two films as children. The original storyline will not be benefited by further stripping it of the intrigue of unanswered questions, and trying to add content earlier in the overall story in the hopes that it will be even scarier only serves to make the later events seem dull and almost routine. It would automatically be a better film for leaving these characters behind and letting some other family experience paranormal activity somewhere.

The tired formula of sequels has gotten us accustomed to the ridiculous tendency of the same things to happen repeatedly to exactly the same people, but if there's one franchise-defining series of events that should be common to more than one set of characters, its the act of recording a bunch of weird goings-on in an otherwise normal suburban home. That can scare us no matter who it happens to, and it's more likely to do so if we aren't perplexed by questions about why over the course of twenty years, an entire family that is plagued by recurrent supernatural activity never calls in a bevy of professional exorcists, or goes to a university or media outlet with their absolutely copious amounts of irrefutable video evidence of malevolent ghosts.

The Amazing Spider-Man

I'm still fascinated by the idea of a series reboot coming only ten years after the first entry in the original series. I think this new film looks terrible. After a minute and a half of overreaching melodrama surrounding foundational plot points with which we are already well-familiar, the only genuinely original content that we're introduced to is a special effects cluster fuck that is supposedly intended to wow us visually and make us beg to fork over extra money for 3-D glasses. But since I first saw blind faith in computer generated magic showcased in The Matrix: Reloaded, I've been continually frustrated with the common belief among film makers that they can replace entire segments of a film with animated sequences and expect it to meld seamlessly with footage of real people and locations.

I can be wowed with pure visuals, but this trailer did not cut it for me, and regardless, I need some other reason to see the movie, and I'm certainly not getting that here, especially given the line they thought would provide an excellent final punch to the trailer at the moment that the image of a computer-generated Spider-Man was revealed: "We all have secrets - the ones that we keep from others, and the ones that are kept from us." If you think about it for half a second, that means nothing. It means less than nothing in the context of a Spider-Man story.

Dream House

I cycled through several reactions to this trailer as I was watching it. It is visually compelling from the start, due entirely to cinematography and editing, and it does a fine job of building tension through a skillful use of music, before we have any idea what we're watching. But at about fifty seconds in, I am convinced that what I'm watching is a preview for a new take on The Amityville Horror. It's that tried and true plot about a house that is so haunted by its dark legacy that it unseats the sanity of its new occupant. The similarity grows for thirty seconds up to the confrontation of the protagonist with the image of a perpetrator that looks just like him, but then this film leaps in another direction by saying that they actually are the same person and making the protagonist's conflict curve around uncertainty about what is real.

It remains grounded in an extremely familiar concept - the house with a repeating history, which terrorizes a tight-knit family, the struggle of the head of household to retain (or perhaps forfeit in this case) sanity. There is still that shouted emphasis, "There's something wrong with this house!" It builds on established tropes, but it may just build on them in creative and satisfying ways. I'd be interested to see this film. It may give me hope that Hollywood is capable of being original within the context of its love of repetition. But I worry that the best it can be is the exception to the rule.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Democrats' Notions of Dealmaking

As appalling as was the discourse surrounding the efforts to raise the debt ceiling, I am far more appalled by the dialogue that I’ve been witnessing since the bill passed the House. It disgusts me when I see this measure referred to as a “deal,” and I’m positively sickened when it’s referred to as a “compromise.” I know by now that to expect Democrats to stand up for a cause, to be proactive and take an aggressive lead in lawmaking would be asking too much, but is it really unrealistic to imagine that they might come away from one of their terrific capitulations and express a little outrage, a little anger, or even just a little definite opposition?

Instead of any of that, virtually all of the Democrats I’ve seen commenting on this 100% Republican plan talk about it as if it’s a good thing. They use those words, like “compromise,” implying that both sides gave up a little something for the greater good. But the reality is an increasingly familiar story, in which the legislators who present themselves as being a little bit closer to sharing my views give up the very essence of their position, and all of the preceding debate and rancor comes to look like nothing more than an elaborate show designed to maintain the illusion that there is an opposition party. Why doesn’t that illusion instantly fall apart when we consider that that would-be opposition party still holds control over the majority of the government, but none of the policy discussions?

Only six Democratic senators voted against a debt ceiling increase that includes trillions in spending cuts and absolutely no revenue increase. How can that be explained other than by supposing that they either tacitly accept the positions of the Republican party or that they just don’t care enough about their contrary views to fight for them or even to register them publicly. Republicans have no qualms whatsoever about casting purely symbolic votes. Why do Democrats refuse to do the same, opting instead to demonstrate complete support for legislation crafted entirely by their so-called opponents? Twenty-eight Tea Party Republicans voted against this bill, and that suggests that there are nearly five times as many senators in the minority party who are in opposition because the completely conservative measure is not conservative enough than there are Democratic senators against it because no aspect of it is liberal in any way, shape, or form. Does the Democratic Party stand for anything whatsoever?

My representative in the House voted in favor of the bill, and his subsequent remarks reflect an unwillingness to so much as discuss what went wrong, or to acknowledge that this was anything less than the best thing for the country. Representative Brian Higgins has said that what is important now is moving forward and addressing job creation. I wonder if he believes that the two issues are unrelated. I agree that job creation is of paramount importance, but I think it was important before this fiasco was completed. As a matter of fact, that’s a significant part of the reason why the means by which we raised the debt ceiling was so important in the first place. If legislators continue to push for cuts without revenue, the support apparatus for the unemployed and impoverished can’t escape the chopping block forever, and the government will have no means by which to institute genuine job creation measures. Now that a lack of compromise has been turned into a bipartisan congressional act, it’s not appropriate for Democrats with an active conscience to leave it at their backs and call the issue settled. It’s not appropriate to forget that this is a terrible deal, and to suppress anger and avoid blame. And it’s not appropriate to describe this as a compromise, as even the President has been doing.

I’m pleased that one of the senators from my home state of New York, Kirsten E. Gillibrand, voted against the Budget Control Act, but given the fact that her voice is such a small, ineffectual minority in the party that controls her chamber of Congress, she is one of the very few major party candidates who retains my support after the passage of this act. This is a breaking point for me. I never considered myself a Democrat, but naturally I voted that way more often than not. From this point on, however, I will vote for neither Democrat nor Republican unless I have a damn good reason to believe that that label does not fit the particular candidate. The very best thing that can be said of Democrats in recent years is that they’ve attached such high value to compromise that they’ve made an ideology of capitulation. I’m not interested in voting for congressional representatives whose primary legislative goals are to present an image of bipartisan agreement at all costs. I want representatives who will fight tooth and nail to pass laws that they, and hopefully by extension I, think are best for the country. Is that too much to ask?