Friday, February 28, 2014

"Ghost hunting : true stories of unexplained phenomena from the Atlantic Paranormal Society," Jason Hawes

This is a 2007 book by the people behind the SyFy "Ghost Hunters" show, which I have never watched and which this book did not in the least increase my desire to watch. It's incoherent, frequently thoughtless, consists of a long series of short (2 to 4 page) anecdotes about individual "investigations," and occasionally veers over the line into what I would consider outright shocking behavior from the author and his team. It is interesting, though, as the best example I've seen lately of the practice of cargo-cult science. Mr Hawes is obviously very proud of his team's "scientific" approach to ghost-hunting, which appears to involve making some attempt to verify experiences, rule out natural causes of mysterious sounds or visions, and collect evidence of unusual phenomena on recordings. Unfortunately, he never seems to be clear himself on whether his purpose is to collect his evidence or to provide solutions and comfort to the people who are distressed by apparent hauntings in their homes. This leads to that incoherent approach -- he approaches the question of whether a home is haunted by placing video cameras everywhere and staking it out for a night, but once he's caught something fuzzy on tape or seen an object move in a way he can't explain, he begins to recommend remedies like exorcism, listening to white noise to try and confabulate words and determine the ghost's wishes, and so on. Furthermore, he appears to buy general assumptions of the ghost-hunting community hook, line and sinker, without any attempt to test them or collect systematic information about them. "Ghosts draw on energy to appear," for example, is an excuse repeated several times to explain suspiciously convenient equipment failure that lasted only long enough to make it impossible for events he claims to have witnessed to be recorded. Do they really? Are power failures consistently associated with paranormal phenomena? How is that consistent with their equally authoritative insistence that all the lights need to be out to increase ghostly shenanigans, even if that requires disconnecting the power to the area they intend to investigate? Maybe Mr Hawes and his team are in fact a shining light in the darkness of paranormal research, and his claim that "other" teams simply tell everyone who calls them in that they have a haunting without any attempt to check for other causes is true. If so, this is not exactly an endorsement of Mr Hawes; rather, it is a denigration of the field as a whole. The worst story of the bunch -- and it came early on, unfortunately biasing me against the authors right off the bat -- was one in which unusual behavior (screaming, fits, throwing things, a change in vocal timbre and verbal aggression and threats) from a young girl was proclaimed an obvious case of demonic possession, and Mr Hawes, deciding that something must have "caused" the "possession," first prescribed an exorcism and then questioned family members until discovering that the girl's older sister had done something he considered to be playing around with black magic with her friends. He promptly told the family that the older sister had opened the doors and given a demon permission to possess her younger sister, even if she didn't know that's what she was doing, because older family members hold spiritual dominion over younger ones. The book was very nearly a wall-banger at that moment. It's bad enough to respond to distress in a child by calling in paranormal investigators and priests instead of pediatricians and/or pediatric psychiatrists: what is this, the Dark Ages? It's worse to not only conclude that the distress is due to demonic possession, but to explicitly, in front of other family members, blame the possession on the older sibling trafficking with dark powers. I'm working my way through an older book on witch-hunts in the colonial United States as well (interesting information, seasoned with too much Freud) and the echoes were distressing. Overall I wouldn't recommend this book except as something to make you angry; the attempt to be "scientific" ruins any good ghost stories it might contain, and the author's massive biases and blind spots ruin any value it might have had as a discussion of the evidence for paranormal phenomena. As someone who likes a good ghost story and would love a good scientific discussion of the evidence for paranormal phenomena, I was disappointed on two fronts at once. Deborah Blum's "Ghost Hunters" is on my to-read list, and I'm hoping it gives me a reading list of better quality along those lines.

Monday, February 24, 2014

A Place of Confinement, Anna Dean

Here on Amazon -- To be honest, I grabbed this book off the new arrivals shelf at the library as a result of the historical fiction kick I've been on lately, and have not read any of the earlier books in the series, but I think I may have to return to the earlier ones now! (A side note: since I'm so bad at remembering to blog, I'll be making myself briefly review the books I read, as that sort of commitment comes with a built-in blogging timer. Finished a book? Write something about it! And so on. We'll see if this works any better than the last blogging commitment I made... the one in 2011.) The protagonist, Miss Dido Kent, is an unmarried woman in her mid-30s; the year is 1807, and Dido has therefore been compelled to act as chaperone/companion to her aging, wealthy, widowed aunt in hopes of cozening the lady to leave most of her fortune to Dido's part of the family. She finds the motive mercenary and the aunt intolerable, but the strange disappearance of a young heiress from the home where they are staying catches her interest -- especially when the wastrel son of the man she loves is implicated in the disappearance and a following murder.... The period details are charming, but decidedly secondary to the murder mystery; I was soundly convinced by a few red herrings that I knew what was going on, only to be proven completely wrong in the end. The plot is quite tight, with a wealth of interesting supporting characters, a dark family secret or two, and a dash of 1800s vintage feminism adding color and detail. One scene involving Dido, her aunt, and Mary Wollstonecraft's On the Education of Women in a false binding took on a new and funnier light after the ending. Overall, recommended! It's not a novel to change anyone's life, but it's much better than I was expecting of a random snowy-day read.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Chocolate chip bars!

...Yeah, I know I never got around to blabbing about the Oscar Wilde essay more. ONE OF THESE DAYS.

In the meantime, a recipe to soothe the sting of betrayal:

Chocolate-chip bars:

Grease and flour a 9x9 square pan. Preheat your oven to 350 F.

In a small saucepan, heat 1/4 cup butter over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the butter has completely melted and browned. It will bubble vigorously; when the bubbles turn tan, you can turn the heat off.

Meanwhile, put in a large bowl:

1 c brown sugar (I like dark brown sugar for the extra flavor)
1/4 c vegetable oil
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt

Pour the browned butter into the bowl with the other ingredients and mix well. Add:

2 eggs
1 c unbleached flour
1/2 tsp baking powder

Stir well. Add 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (or chunks, or milk chocolate if you really want, or butterscotch chips would probably be yummy too), stir only until mixed, and pour the batter into the pan.

Bake at 350 F for 30 - 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.

Remove from oven and cut into 16 pieces with a sharp knife once cooled. Small pieces are better than big ones for this recipe, guys. It's all butter, sugar and chocolate.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

How could I have not found this before?

Oscar Wilde essay on socialism.

Like almost all of Wilde, for me, it's beautiful, but the real value of it lies in what you find yourself saying when you argue against its ludicrousness and its impossibilities. The man was the best devil's advocate I have ever read.

I'll probably have to write something about this once I refine my reactions into something sensible.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

continuing the link spam...

Excellent article about that "conservatives and liberals have different brains!" thing.

Neuroscience reporting usually bothers me immensely, because there's a tendency to blow the most minor statistical findings ridiculously out of proportion -- you see this with gender and sexuality especially; it seems to bring out every reporter's inner love of the Mars/Venus metaphor. "Gosh, men have slightly more active ___ than women. BLAH BLAH CAVEMEN SMASH MEN ARE MANLY MEN AND WOMEN ARE GIRLY GIRLY GIRLS."

Or in this case, "BLAH BLAH LIBERALS ARE SUPER EVOLVED LOGICAL THINKERS AND CONSERVATIVES ARE OVEREMOTIONAL SCAREDYCATS," which (1) I might be a liberal, but wow, way to be an insulting asshole; and (2) doesn't science have a bad enough rep with the Republican party as it is? Let's not undermine ourselves here.

...Not to say that every reporter (or blogger) does this, but when people have their biases apparently supported by Hard Scientific Data, it's amazing how fast the stereotypes and just-so fairytales appear.

Anyway, this article does a very good job of explaining the observed patterns in the data, links to a good critique of the studies involved, and finishes by suggesting some implications for cross-party communication and framing. It's cogent, well-researched, reasonable and actually useful - very worth a look!

Friday, September 23, 2011

...oh god

The Postmodernism Generator

I actually wrote a paper that read like this in an upper-division English class once. I was trying to satirize the Godawful theory readings that our professor was loading us down with.

... got an A+ and my professor asked me if I'd considered grad school.

It's a shame I'm not cynical enough to keep it up, really.

(via pharyngula's comment section)

Barry Hughart, "The Story of the Stone"

Whoops. Hello there, blog!

I happened across the first Chronicle of Master Li and Number Ten Ox, Bridge of Birds, several years back in a used bookstore in Arizona, but I wasn't able to get my hands on the others until I recently found an excellent deal for the Kindle omnibus - $9.99 for all three books. At less than $3.50 a novel, this is right in my preferred used-bookstore price range, so I sprang for it...

And an excellent choice it was. Those who've already read Hughart's work will be waiting for me to say something new already, to which all I can say is these books are new to me. Also, they're awesome, so if you (like me) haven't happened across the three, I highly recommend picking a few of them up.

Bridge of Birds, the first, is probably the best; the underlying story has a power and grandeur that is echoed but not matched in its sequels. Divine love, plagues, heartless noblemen and faithful ghosts, all wrapped in a world and style as raucously alive and farcical as Terry Pratchett's - it's frankly a masterpiece. This is about the second, though, and so: first, a very brief summary.

Number Ten Ox, our narrator, is an orphaned peasant from Hughart's "China that never was," a world built on legend, fairytale, and folk story. He encountered Master Li, a scholar with a slight flaw in his character, while searching for a sage who could cure a plague that had struck the children of his home village. After an adventure that started with a plague and ended with their trying to restore a betrayed goddess to the heavens, Ox went back to the capital with Master Li, to serve as muscle, handsome sidekick, and deadpan Dr. Watson to the brilliantly crooked sage.

The slight flaw in Master Li's character turns out to be his unfortunate tendency to cheat, lie, steal and murder whenever it seems like a good idea: there's no questioning his genius, but his methods are highly questionable.

In The Story of the Stone, Master Li is hired to investigate a ghost story complicated by a brilliant forgery: the librarian of a temple in a rural valley was murdered, with a scrap of a scroll written by an ancient calligraphy genius left in his hand. Or it seems to have been written by that genius; the script is perfect, but the content is that of an obvious forgery, since it breaks taboo to refer to the writer's father by his name. Master Li is far more interested in the forgery than in the ghost, that of an ancient, mad, cruel lord of the valley who supposedly committed the murder and then extinguished the life in vast swathes of the valley in his passing.

There certainly are strange dead areas in the beautifully landscaped path concealing the old lord's mine tailings, and Master Li's initial suspicion that perfectly normal crooks had used herbicide quickly turns out to be false. He and Number Ten Ox are drawn into a wild chase across China, involving a cheerfully debauched sound master and the whip-smart prostitute with whom his soul is entangled, a children's cult, a hallucinatory journey to Hell, and the very wall that holds chaos back from the universe.

There are a lot of thematic and plot similarities to Bridge of Birds - Mr. Hughart had initially planned a much longer series, but stopped writing due to issues with his publisher; in his introduction to the Kindle version, he says that "the Ox/Master Li format had become just that, a format." While the formula is uniquely Mr. Hughart's own, it's also noticeable by the second book. Sometimes the repetition works just fine, as in the centrality of the peasant children's club story that Ox can understand and interpret. Master Li and Ox clearly have a closer and more interdependent relationship in this book, with Ox helping to plot and to explain when his own experiences are useful. (Ox being definitely my favorite character, I appreciate the fact that his competence gets plenty of screen time here!)

Only a few things about this book bothered me; first, I felt that the love story wasn't sufficiently integrated into the mystery. It becomes highly relevant to the solution, but the elements integrated at various points in the explanation felt sort of tacked-on to me. Your mileage may well vary; I don't have any solid reasoning behind that objection, and there's no obvious rough spots I can point to, but the climax of Bridge of Birds grabbed me by the throat and gave me a good shake. The climax of The Story of the Stone put pieces in place without the same emotional impact, and reading both in quick succession I found myself a little disappointed.

The second thing that bothered me - and that still bothers me a little, because I haven't sorted out how I feel about it - is this book's treatment of homosexuality. One of the major characters, Moon Boy, spends literally every spare minute jumping into the bushes with someone, or something male, and he liberally wields his apparent superpowers of seduction to save the group on more than one occasion by dragging menacing males offscreen and "distracting" them. It's a woman, though, with whom he has a powerful emotional relationship (they have declared that their souls' fates are bound together, though there's no concern for sexual fidelity between them; they seem to be dearest friends with occasional sexual benefits.) Laid out in a paragraph, there are a million problematic things about Moon Boy, but in context, he's completely charming, good-natured, and his "superpower" of promiscuous gay sex is treated in the same amiable, tall-tale-telling manner as Li's superpowers of deduction and deception. On the other hand, Ox is irresistible to women, and his frequent liaisons (with married women, rich daughters, prostitutes, goddesses...) never define his character; Moon Boy ends up pursued by pitchfork-wielding mobs of people whose sons he's seduced, and solves the problem by seducing the guy leading the mob.

Overall, though, I appreciated the fact that there's an unambiguously "good guy" in this novel who's unambiguously gay, not a tragic figure, and not a complete walking stereotype. I have my misgivings: like, why is it necessary for a character who seems exclusively interested in men to have his "deathless bond of love" plot involve the one woman in his life? Are we supposed to assume that gayness is just about sexual debauchery and you need hetero emotional bonds to fulfill you? -- But Mr Hughart is no Orson Scott Card; I never got that squidgy authorial-intervention-to-deliver-a-Message feeling about Moon Boy. He might be a problematic character, but he's true to himself, he's not a villain, he's not tragic, and ludicrous though his sexual adventures sometimes become, they're never portrayed negatively.

Frankly, Moon Boy is camp. I like camp. My misgivings mostly stem from the fact that camp, done by somebody who Gets It, is awesome; but camp done by somebody who doesn't quite Get It turns into stereotype so damn fast you wouldn't believe. And, again, there's no sense of any wink-wink-nudge from the author, either the Getting It variety or the stereotypical sort... so the interpretation ends up left to the reader.

I did love the book, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to someone who's very sensitive about gay stereotypes. My misgiving was the equivalent of stale sprinkles on an awesome sundae. Somebody else may find that, instead, their awesome sundae is topped with anchovies. And a third person entirely may spot the Getting It wink-nudge that I didn't, in which case TELL ME PLEASE, so that I can get the stale sprinkle taste out of my mouth.

Monday, September 12, 2011


This week I learned what "fiberglass rash" is.

I wonder if scratching open ALL the itching little bumps (seriously, I look like I armwrestled a nettle patch) will get rid of the glass fibers in them.

Get back to me Wednesday. I'll probably have tried by then.

(we now return you to your regularly scheduled whatever, Imaginary Audience)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Remarkably, the cover of my copy seems not to be anywhere on the web. I'll add a picture when I get around to it.

Spoilers follow, but the book is approaching eighty years old: I'll just say read with care.


George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying is lauded in the cover copy as "in his best satirical vein," but despite the incisive wit of Orwell's language, this book is more reminiscent of Of Human Bondage than it is of Animal Farm. Gordon Comstock, only son of a struggling family, is obsessed with the power of money: he recognizes it as a God and he hates it. He deliberately sacrifices his opportunities to earn or save, sponges off his desperately poor elder sister, and does his very best to go down in a storm of blazingly pure self-righteousness, refusing to the very end to "worship the money-god"-- and refusing to the very end to believe that anyone else judges him on anything but his own poverty.

The man's utter pettiness and self-absorption are stunning, and yet, despite the repellent way he behaves toward everyone he knows, there remains the niggling feeling that Gordon has a point. He recoils from the soullessness of advertising, he's striving for success as a poet, and he's fighting to survive on unbearably little while still trying to interact with the moneyed classes that control the publishing and artistic circles he needs to break into. The struggle, slowly and believably, wears him down. The book is a coldblooded deconstruction of the romantic ideal of a starving artist in his cold garret: Gordon is angry, and unpleasant to be around, and frequently hungry and ashamed. His dream eventually falls into shreds around him, and he insists - demands, even, over his faithful lover's objections - that his surrender be complete.

The aspidistra, a houseplant colloquially known as the Cast-iron plant for its near invulnerability to poor care and poor conditions, becomes fixed in Gordon's mind as the symbol of the cast-iron middle-class respectability he flees from. It haunts him to the end, from the healthy plant he deliberately neglects and abuses to its dying replacement as his life collapses.

I find it oddly fascinating -- perhaps it's just me -- that aspidistra leaves were the precursor to the green plastic picket-fence dividers one finds in a modern commercial bento box. The poor plant is saddled with its bourgeois, commercial image in West and East alike.

This is not a novel to read if you want to be uplifted. It's Orwell, after all, and it's Orwell taking his brutal cynicism to a scenario that is all too real and everyday. The painfully unlikeable main character rang more than one personal chord in me, and his final decision made me feel a little sick to my stomach... but it's powerful, for all of that, and deeply human.


Recommended chaser for those of you who don't have time to go chop down a billboard afterward.

Scene: 9/11 on NPR

If you live in the States, you've probably been inundated with ten-year retrospectives of the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon this week. I know I have, despite my determination to avoid that kind of thing.

Solemn remembrance is one thing. A cousin of mine lived very close to the WTC at the time; she wasn't hurt, luckily, but I remember how I felt before the word got out to her extended family that she was okay, and I sympathize deeply with those whose loved ones weren't so lucky.

Our country's actions afterward... well, political rants seem a little gauche on the occasion, but suffice it to say I'm not a big believer in revenge killing.

What really bugs me, on the ten-year anniversary, is all the bereavement porn that the mainstream media throws in our faces. Children of 9/11: Look at the adorable nine-year-olds who had not yet been born when their fathers died! What does that news story do for us? What does that do for them? The exploitation bothers me far more with children, granted, but how can anyone build a normal life with the media trying to mine their personal loss for the vicarious entertainment of millions?

My car's CD player was screwing up more than usual on Friday, and so, as I do when it bugs me, I switched it off and turned on NPR. They were interviewing people who had lost their twins in the WTC collapse.

The first woman they interviewed described her twin brother, did the trying-to-do-things-he'd-be-proud-of bit, tugged at your heartstrings plenty.

But, said the interviewer, what about the twin thing? How does that feel?

That's when I put the CD back in. Someone in the newsroom was really reaching.

I'm down with helping the people who were affected -- maybe we could actually take care of the health of the first responders, instead of compensating them only for conditions that they can prove are directly connected to that single day (but then I'm one of those crazy people who think that health care is something a functioning modern government ought to oversee for its people) -- I'm down with remembering and mourning the dead, both in the initial attack and in its dragged-out aftermath. I just don't want my TV, radio and print news to drag out every last iota of private grief and misery from the sufferers so that we can really feel it.

It's just not any of our damn business.