Male Singers I Enjoy

I am not an immensely musical person. I took piano lessons when I was younger (parental requirement) and a musical instrument (trumpet; also a parental requirement), so I can read music (which is surprisingly helpful) and I understand meter (also surprisingly helpful when teaching poetry). But my skills are less than amateurish, and I can't sing in tune unless I'm sitting next to someone who can.

I do enjoy music very much, especially musicals. And yes, I sing along, and yes, it makes listeners beg me to stop.

However, when I'm singing, I don't hear myself. I hear the singers. And the singers I love the most are singers whose voices have personality. That is, my favorite singers are singers who don't sing full-time. Or rather, they do, but they are primarily known as actors before singers (the major exception here is Colm Wilkinson).

So, for instance, I hugely enjoy Alun Armstrong's singing voice which has a nice burr to it (you can hear the accent). (Alun Armstrong is one of those actors whose genre largely depends on how you "met" him--through New Tricks or through Les Mis.)

I greatly admire Tim Curry's singing voice and "I'm Going Home" from The Rocky Horror Picture Show is one of my favorites. He sounds like Tim Curry (which isn't always true; sometimes a person's singing voice is quite different from his or her speaking voice).

I admire Ewan McGregor's melodious, unaffected voice. Here he is in Moulin Rouge. He sings quite often in movies even if  just a few minutes. He does not, as far I as know, sing in the Star Wars movies. Well, maybe.


Truth is, I never really got into American Idol because the singers (with a few exceptions) always sounded like what they thought singers are supposed to sound like: digitized.

I think singers should not only be powerhouses (like in musicals); they should also sound, well, like people.

Colm Wilkinson as Valjean has that "real" sound--that lilt at the edges of the lyrics is fantastically gorgeous.

I know that almost everyone posts "Bring Him Home" as an example of Colm Wilkinson's amazing ability.

However, in "One Day More," one can really hear Wilkinson's range--plus I like ensemble numbers. And there's Philip Quast as Javert! Because one powerhouse deserves another.

The Murderer is Behind You! Serving You Tea!

I mention in a prior post the underlying assumptions of a culture--the questions that don't get asked. I close with a reference to making assumptions about servants.

Agatha Christie made a living out of the failure of people to notice servants. Of course, that was rather the point of servants, at least in the late 1800s to early 1900s. Darcy (from the early 1800s) could know all his servants' names and still feel an inherent superiority to them. But later English aristocrats and gentry-folk were more self-conscious. Servants were supposed to be seen and not heard, all to preserve the superiority of class.

Consequently, Christie was able to get her detectives to (correctly) argue in several short stories and novels that a murderer in servant dress can slip in and out of places easily without being noticed, precisely because the surrounding witnesses don't register "murderer" or "visitor" or even "person." They don't register the individual as someone specific at all.

I would love to now be able to argue that this is a product of class prejudice but according to current research, human beings are impressively horrible at recognizing their surroundings. It goes back to the gorilla costume video, which I never really believed in until I showed it to my students.

Another study had participants stop to talk to a tourist in need of directions; the participants were temporary distracted; when they turned back, a large percentage never realized that the tourist had changed to a different person.

Some people noticed, of course, but a substantial portion didn't (the percentage of recognition increased if the tourist changed sex or race--but still not to 100%).

This gets some social psychologists all bent out of shape ("Why didn't New Yorkers notice the world-class violinist playing in the subway?!!!!") I think all this angst is silly. The brain has to winnow out information to survive. We can't notice everything about everyone and everything all the time. That would make us crazy.

Of course, on the other hand, all that winnowing makes us rather susceptible to grifters and murderers--at least Agatha Christie murderers.

Non-Fiction Review: Simply Good News

My decision for what to read in the 200s is a great window into the difficulties of categorizing books.

I considered reviewing N.T. Wright's Paul: A Biography which I'm currently reading. In Worldcat, some libraries list this book under the 200s (religion) while others list it under the 900s (history) while still others list it under "Biographies" (which makes sense, considering the title).

Since my local library places it in "Biographies," I decided that using it as my 200 book would be cheating. So I got out another N.T. Wright book (230 Wright).

All in all, the experience reminded me of Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, a book that ended up being categorized as both adult and teen--such are the vagaries of determining audience!

N.T. Wright is a Anglican bishop/writer about Christianity. He is a cross between Rodney Stark (history in context) and C.S. Lewis (ecumenical gospel explanations). I quite liked Simply Good News which points out that Jesus and the apostles perceived the events of the New Testament precisely in those terms: "news" rather than "advice." The news? The Messiah Jesus Christ fulfilled ancient covenants in order to be present to the entire world. His object is not (necessarily) to take us to heaven, but to bring heaven to earth. Isn't that amazing?!

This summarizes much of Wright's view.
Sounds fairly simple (hence the title). N.T. Wright argues that most Christian churches spend too much time translating "gospel" into "advice" and also fail to teach the historical context for "Messiah" and "covenant." Therefore, most Christians don't know what the "good news" actually is.

I didn't entirely disagree with him regarding this last claim, but since I knew the context (I was raised by amateur--in the best sense of that word--Bible scholars), I bridled a little at the beginning of the book when he kept telling me that I didn't.

In other words, Wright uses a fairly standard teaching approach of "most people don't know!" to prepare the ground for his presentation. I'm always skeptical of this approach. In grad school, I had a professor who used in and when I protested that I did, in fact, know the information, he snapped at me, "That's just you!"

Eh . . . no. But then, too, most people's understanding of anything is piecemeal. If the grad school professor had used the "most people don't know" approach about Antarctica (rather than American history), I wouldn't have protested! (I know nothing about Antarctica. Yet.)

Charlie (voice over): Entropy. Parameter of disorder...energy
broken down in irretrievable heat. What might appear to be
chaos, even decay, is really a system's way of smoothing out
differences--its search for equilibrium. Uncorrelated parts
interact...find their connections in an evolving system...
so, from one perspective, entropy is a clock...charting
the irreversible.
I also disagreed with Wright's insistence that Christianity holds different principles from those of the Enlightenment. Granted, proponents of the Enlightenment tend to also see themselves as distinct from proponents of Christianity, but I've never been a fan of the either-or version of history. As people like Rodney Stark and Karen Armstrong point out, the beginning of the Common Era saw a change in perspective within religion, which sent ripples throughout the human experience. Claiming that this change had no impact on later human developments, good and bad, is foolish, both for secular humanists and for religious apologists. And wrong. History doesn't work in compartments.

However, Wright does do a decent job pinpointing the flaw in much secular humanism, basically the self-centered Victorian belief that humans have reached some pinnacle of perfection or degradation ("it was the best of times; it was the worst of times") and the unfortunately still prevalent belief that "theory" can be plastered onto human behavior.

Well, that's like just so much hokum, isn't it? I mean,
Maxwell's Demon is a thought experiment, right? Granted, there
 are theoretical applications, but, um, when the window breaks,
the cold air still rushes in. Gears fail, oil leaks.
Sooner or later, that engine is gonna break down.
Wright wraps up by discussing the human tendency to not think outside the box, to insist that God is one way, namely an angry, absent, vengeful landlord rather than a loving creator. Instead, Wright argues (echoing Paul), God loves us so much He sent us Jesus Christ and when we love God we'll be happier because we'll be closer to God as He truly is--and our happiness will affect others.

Or to put all this in C.S. Lewis's terms, God is not a tamed lion.

The Good News isn't something we can categorize; it simply is.

Overall, I recommend N.T. Wright as a sincere believer who is neither too cloying nor too erudite. Overall, I find his works quite refreshing despite continuing to disagree with some of his more dogmatic statements.

Great Action Sequence: The Closer

Great action sequences are usually described as huge events: big explosions, leveled buildings, massive body counts, endless minutes in which viewers like me check their watches.

Elsewhere I commend Die Hard for being remarkably brief in its action sequences. Although I love The Lord of the Rings movies, I tuned out a sizable portion of The Return of the King. One reaches a point where one just doesn't care about one person shooting or punching or stabbing another person.

I'm a big fan not only of short action sequences but of plausible, even slowly paced ones. One of my absolute favorites takes place in The Closer, "Waivers of Expedition," directed by Kevin Bacon.

Major Crimes chases down a serial killer driving a car trailer. He is not driving slowly but is also not driving tremendously fast, which makes the maneuvering of the chasers possible. There's never any question that the killer will be caught--even if Sanchez didn't succeed (which he does)--yet the sequence is still riveting.

And, yes, that's Xander Berkeley (hooray). 

This is the way action should be! Scarecrow & Mrs King has an equally awesome sequence in the episode "Burn Out". It isn't a big deal, just a truck smashing through a shack.

It's enough!


Historical Principle: The Power of Cultural Assumptions

In a prior Daughter of Time post, I address the issue of age in the Middle Ages:
Warriors in the Middle Ages started quite young. Edward, who became Edward IV, was leading wars at the age of 18...Since the average life expectancy was about 40, 18 obviously meant something different than it does now although this is complicated by math. So many children died in childbirth, 40 is low almost by default. However, the fact remains that nobody took for granted the expectations of our modern age regarding life and death. On the other hand, sources have pointed out that members of the merchant and peasant class did not treat 18 as adulthood in the sense that reaching 18 automatically meant ALL the accoutrements of adult life. Outside the upper classes, people in the Middle Ages actually did wait to get married until their mid-20s, mostly for financial reasons. As far as Shakespeare is concerned, Romeo and Juliet truly are as young as we think they are.
In other words, the operative difference between how age was treated in the Middle Ages and how it is treated now is not that people in the Middle Ages weren't aware of prepubescence, pubescence, and full adulthood. One reason Henry VIII was able to annul Catherine of Aragorn's marriage to his brother and marry her himself was that most people believed Catherine's assertion that  Arthur had not reach the point where he had matured enough to consummate anything.

The differences lie not in supposed medieval stupidity (oh, they thought child were little adults!) but in the underlying assumptions of how children and adults should be treated. As I state in the original post:
What strikes me in any overview of the Middle Ages is the sheer expediency of the ruling classes: the kid looks old enough to be married even though he hasn't hit puberty? Hey, let's marry him to a princess. The young man can lift a sword, so give him an army.
In sum, a major part of understanding history is understanding the questions and issues that don't get asked, don't get raised. Why didn't medieval people send their kids off to craft camp? Or give them Montessori-type educations?

I currently completed a response to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's utopia novella Herland (1915). I was struck by two of her assumptions (one modern; one medieval):

(1) Gilman promotes childhood as a time of growth that contains specific characteristics, characteristics that should be nurtured and allowed to thrive.
(2) Gilman believes that children can be formed by education.

Gilman also believed in "breeding." But that belief never extended beyond producing "blank" material from which to nurture citizens. It is an incredibly medieval idea and highlights the problem of progressive thinking in the early 1900s.

Of course, the fundamental problem of any utopia is the belief that the system can override normal human tendencies and idiosyncrasies--as His in Herland addresses.

Another fundamental problem with utopias is the lack of awareness regarding actual work--see Fruitlands. But then Gilman was a woman of the upper classes and appears to have made all the usual assumptions of her class when it came to servants.

Assumptions of a class/time period are incredibly powerful, so powerful we might not see them until aliens show up and are shocked--shocked, I say!--by our weird tendencies to assume that children should interact with other children or that babies should be carried or...whatever. It isn't so much how society raises our children that tokens the time period but all the things it never occurs to that society to do--

Like give the kid a sword and put him in charge of an army.

The Reason I Don't Buy Apple Products

It isn't the products. The truth is, some day, I probably will buy an Apple product. In fact, I probably already have! (It's not the kind of thing I keep track of.)

But I don't actively buy Apple products--and it's nothing against Steve Jobs. I'm not sure I would have invited the guy over for dinner when he was alive, but I admire his achievements, and I'm sorry he's dead.

The reason: whenever I encounter Apple product users, they encourage me to buy Apple products, which is nice, except that within a very short period of time (i.e. about three minutes), their encouragement begins to remind me of missionaries trying to get me to join their religion.

I'm a religious person, but I figure I already have a church; I really don't want another one.

I felt the same way about Volvo commercials (excluding Jean-Claude Van Damme), back when I watched more TV (i.e., the 90s). I have nothing against Volvos, but it always seemed like I couldn't simply buy the car; I had to sign up for the lifestyle.

Any commercial that tries to persuade me to buy a product because it will make me a good person, give the finger to "the man," or save the world---?

Eh.


Tell me the product works. Tell me it's cheap (or worth the price). Tell me it fits my needs. Make me laugh.

Don't try to save my soul.

It isn't that I won't make decisions about where to shop or what to buy based on ethical considerations. It is that confusing sensible buying habits (compromise based on ethics and personal needs) with political goodness/utopia has never struck me as particularly moral. "Virtuous people buy these products" is a little too close to "Virtuous people vote this way" which is a little too close to "Let's kill the non-virtuous people."

In Leverage's "The Low Low Price Job," Hardison is allowed to defend the mega-store (Walmart):
And thanks to their low prices, my Nana was able to feed all us kids when money was tight, and money was always tight. So what are you saying about the people who shop there?
The team still takes the store down because, well, it's fun. But Hardison's point remains a touchstone of reality.

Because Hardison is all good.

Great Dialog in Kojak

I'm not a huge Kojak fan, but the following dialog is perfect. It appears in "Web of Death" starring the amazing Hector Elizondo (looking very, very young).

*Spoilers* (sort of--this is a Columbo-type episode; we know who the murderer is upfront)

Kojak has realized that Detective Nick Ferro, played by Elizondo, is the murderer (he killed his wife's lover):
Kojak: It was the silencer. I should have picked up then.
Captain Frank McNeil: What?
Kojak: Well, there was no way he could have known. He hadn't seen the ballistics report. But I figured when he mentioned it, after 16 years on the force, a man's entitled to an educated guess. There were other signals too. I was just slow in tuning in.
Captain Frank McNeil: A day? You call that slow?
Kojak: Oh, Frank, it hurts. I pinned the gold on him myself.
Captain Frank McNeil: Theo, don't gouge yourself. He kept it polished.
The brilliance of the dialog is that it is completely comprehensible, yet uses the kind of short-hand that detective shows often sacrifice for the sake of audience comprehension. The opposite of heavy handed, the dialog assumes smart viewers will pick up on context/in-between-the-lines meaning without it being spelled out.

Rather than saying, "Come on, Kojak. You figured out the identity of the murderer faster than anyone could expect. And even though you are the one who promoted him, you shouldn't blame yourself; he was a good cop up until recently. It isn't like any of us could have guessed how bad he would go..."

Instead Captain McNeil and Kojak employ terms that carry more weight with each other than they would with outsiders: You call that slow? Pinned the gold on him myself. He kept it polished.

Because the dialog carries weight with the characters, it carries weight with the audience. Meaning is determined as much by context, reaction, intonation, and individual word choice (entitled, slow, gold, gouge, polished) as by any insider knowledge.

Of course, this kind of thing can go too far. The audience has to comprehend something; dialog can't be all connotation and jargon. It's impressive when it can find the line between letting the audience in and retaining the characters' world.

Gomer and Goober: Let's Hear it For Goober!

I've put off writing this particular post because I didn't want to make value judgments between the two characters. Although I don't personally understand why Gomer was so hugely popular (enough to earn him his own show), Jim Nabors is a decent character actor, and Gomer was a fresh addition to The Andy Griffith Show.

The later non-Don-Knotts (and non-Gomer) seasons are not as good as the earlier seasons, as many critics and fans of the show (including me) will attest. Actors like Andy Griffith require someone to act against. Without Don Knotts, Andy Griffith as Andy Taylor continued as credible straight-man to the town's idiosyncratic citizens (Howard, Floyd). But Don Knotts was the perfect foil--plus a sheer comedic genius in his own right--so his absence is noticeable, and Andy Griffith as Andy Taylor is a little off his game.

The latter seasons did produce decent episodes, however, and this is where I must put in a word for Goober. Although Goober is often seen as part of the decline, replacing the "better" Gomer as the town jester, he has always had a charm of his own for me. He reminds me of Dauber from Coach, being sweet, physically down-to-earth, and quite good at his job. Unlike Gomer, who is perceived as a clumsy innocent (more intuitive than Barney and less likely to shoot off his foot but actually far less efficient), Goober can do all the things he is supposed to do, like take apart a car inside the court house.

Actually, Goober is rather like Dauber plus all of Coach's players rolled into one.

My favorite Goober episode occurs in the last season when he ends up dating a woman with a Ph.D. that he met through a service. The "computer" match is entirely believable. Goober is a warm personality, a sweet-heart whose lack of "smarts" is the result of lack of education, not lack of interest or capacity. While Gomer seems to stumble over the truth, Goober, his cousin, seems to have instinctive commonsense, not to mention a sense that the world is in fact more complicated than so-called "smarter" people realize.

When Goober explains to Opie how he filled out the dating service's questionnaire, it is clear to the teen-Opie that Goober refused to accept the socially-acceptable interpretation of the questions. But Goober, like many male Ph.D. holders I know, argues against multiple-choice questions: Why can't all the answers be right? Why shouldn't there be more options?

Interestingly enough, the episode also points out--and marriage experts now agree--that superficial resemblances (we both like art, we both like opera) are not entirely helpful in determining what actually brings people together. How Goober and the Ph.D.-wielding woman interact actually matters more.

Both Gomer and Goober blunder when faced with more worldly characters, including Andy, who supposedly know what's what. They doesn't mean Gomer and Goober are wrong in their assessments. The two cousins fall into the trope of canny dopes, yet they are quite different in interpretation, proving that a trope is a useful starting place, never an end point.

Reviews That Make My Eyes Roll: Getting Mad at Imperfect Characters

How the whale SHOULD have behaved.
Reviews can be helpful. In fact, I have found that the "better" books (i.e. books that I personally think are well-written) inspire better reviews. (Yeah, yeah.) By that, I don't (automatically) mean reviews that agree with me. I mean reviews that are thoughtful and intelligent, well-written and free of multiple grammar errors. Such reviews I trust. To inspire such thought-out, considerate responses, the book must be okay!

In comparison, I pause over a book when it is followed by a review like this:
"The character feels guilt about his spouse's death--I wish people understood that they don't need to blame themselves for things that aren't their fault!"
Ah--but they do . . .

Such a review is not necessarily the writer's fault. There are cases where writers unfairly expect readers to understand a character without establishing the background that would justify that understanding.

In this case, however, I'm talking about reviewers who are offended that a character in a book behaves and thinks in ways that they, the reviewers, personally think people shouldn't behave or think--which makes me wonder what those reviewers read. Okay, yes, I dislike dystopia novels and never read them. However, if I only read books where characters did and said things that I think people should do or say . . . I'd never read anything.

Seriously.

When Frodo accuses Sam of betraying him, am I seriously supposed to stop reading or watching because That's SO wrong! Doesn't he know how great Sam is? How could he be so MEAN?!
Is Frodo wrong in his accusation? Absolutely! Is he currently under the sway of the ring? Yes. Is his attack on Sam an example of the ring's terrible power? Yes. Is Frodo's accusation a way for the reader/viewer to see the terrible toll the ring is having on an otherwise good and sweet man? Yes.
For non-fantasy lovers, let's examine Elizabeth from Pride & Prejudice. She angrily accuses Darcy of hurting her sister.
Did Darcy hurt her sister? Yes. Did Darcy do it intentionally? Eh, kinda sortof but not really. Is Elizabeth overreacting? Maybe. Does Elizabeth use Darcy's actions in this one case to create an over-arcing narrative about him and refuse to see his side? Yes. Is she being unfair? In a way. Did Darcy bring this on himself? Yes.
If Darcy's behavior was too egregious, I would have a tough time with him and Elizabeth getting together at all. But it's not. What I find weird--puzzling, bemusing, STRANGE--is when reviewers aren't upset because Elizabeth had the wrong idea and then got over it but are upset that someone would behave like Elizabeth in the first place. (Doesn't she know how great Darcy is? Why can't she understand?!)

Um, character arc, anyone? Growth? Change? Improvement?

In a way, these reactions are a testament to a good writer (I suppose). The characters are so real, the readers react to them as they would to real people: Oooh, it so bugs me when people act like that!

Still, such reviews give me pause, as in, Um, are crazy people reading this book? 

I take a deep breath and read a different review.

Scarecrow & Mrs King: Funnier Than You'd Think

On the surface, Scarecrow & Mrs King appears standard 1980s fare: handsome man, pretty woman, spy stuff, chase scenes, and so on.

What makes it stand out from many of the other spy-detective-fisticuff-car-chase shows of the same time period is the wink-wink dialog and off-the-cuff interactions. The plots are fairly unimaginative, as far as weird spy plots on television tend to run along the same lines (I actually find it rather believable that spies would congregate around Washington, D.C., convinced that their tiny world of several square miles is the only reality).

Scarecrow & Mrs. King has a large number of "muttered" lines (like Lex Luthor's in Superman II), the ones that are given almost absentmindedly in passing. These are my favorite pieces of dialog (I still consider Tony's comment in NCIS about the ship the Dwight D. Eisenhower, "Shouldn't it be called Mamie?" to be one of Bellasario's funniest lines).

The surprisingly funny and clever moments in Scarecrow & Mrs. King totally pay off the effort of listening closely:

The pilot:
While trying to escape in the helicopter, Lee pauses to ask Amanda, "What are you wearing?" referring to her cub scout/den mother uniform.

"What do you care?" she squawks.
In the "A.C.M. Kid":
"Ham," Lee mutters in response to Amanda's undercover act as his ex-wife.
In "Saved by the Bells," one of my favorite episodes in which everyone thinks Amanda is The Scarecrow, top secret agent:
"I don't know how anyone could mistake me for you," Amanda tells Lee in Jackson's husky voice."You're so much taller."
"Don't forget to frisk the bad guys," she tells him later (pretending to be him). He gives her an exasperated look.
In "Sudden Death" when the bad guy instructs a football player to kill another player during a scrimmage.
"In many ways, that's much simpler than our usual play," muses the wonderful Jerry Hardin as the villain.

Chivalry Continued

In a prior post, I comment on Sherlock's wonderful sense of chivalry (as depicted by Jonny Lee Miller).

Here are some additional non-Elementary examples:

In Season 6 of Coach (all seasons are finally available but not through Netflix!), Hayden's team is on a winning streak, mostly due to lucky breaks. He isn't thrilled. Christine, his wife, comes home to find him watching a previous game that he coached. She assumes that it is a game that he won (he does like to win!), but he says, "No."
"We played great. They played better. That's what football is supposed to be about," he tells her.
In Last Man Standing, Mike Baxter is immensely proud of his daughter, Eve, for running a Sno-No-Mo business. He encourages her to compete with an older male neighbor who wants the same business. However, when Eve stoops to publishing lies about her competition (claiming he killed a cat with his snowblower), Mike puts a stop to her behavior:
Mike: The free market is the greatest thing that ever happened to this planet, but it only works if there's some moral compass to it. You start lying and cheating about it, it defeats the whole purpose. Go take them down right now.

Eve: Great, perfect. Just when you get an edge, the man hits you with regulations!

Mike (muttering): Boy, I love that kid.
This is chivalry at its best. It's not about NOT competing. It's also NOT about being a sore loser or complainer. It's about respecting the opponent without giving up.

A darker version of this behavior occurs in Black Butler, Volume VII, when Ciel comments that he doesn't blame his enemy (not Sebastian in this case) for protecting "his own." Ciel still burns the man's home down, takes away his livelihood, and orders his personal devil to remove the man and his evil acts from existence. But hey, all's fair in love and war.

Granted, it's a tad psychopathic. But it still resides within the chivalric code because there is no malice behind it. Righteous anger, yes. You fight. I fight. I win. Game over.

A-Z: Dewey Decimal 100: Figuring Out Our Futures

For the fourth A-Z list, I'm tackling non-fiction, Dewey Decimal style.

For the 0-99s, I read Abominable Science by Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero.

For the 100s, I read Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert: 152.42 Gilbert at Portland Public Library.

The title sounds like a self-help book. It isn't. It belongs in the section that tackles philosophy. In this case, Gilbert is discussing the science of how people make decisions, how the brain operates. He doesn't actually get to happiness until almost the end of the book.

His ultimate point: human beings are exceptionally good at imagining the future; since they are also exceptionally bad at imagining the future correctly, they are exceptionally bad at predicting what will make them happy.

Gilbert's point is the reason that science-fiction, even Asimov's, revolves around the world the authors know; thus, 1960s Star Trek has beeping buttons, and 1990s Star Trek has flat computer screens, and so on. (The most truly prescient part of 1960s Star Trek were the communicators, but even those had a kind of current-day cousin in the form of huge walkies-talkies.)

Gilbert details the reasons that humans are so bad at imagining the future by referencing multiple studies as well as studies combined with neurological scans--quite frankly, it's the kind of sociology I can get behind.

It comes down to something that proponents and antagonists of AI often seem to misunderstand. However Spock-like/Sheldon-like human beings pretend to be, emotions are a part of decision making. The reactions we have to events in the real world and to imagined events both involve emotional judgment; until computers can mimic this, they truly can't form judgments at all.

Gilbert doesn't talk about computers; he talks about the brain's remarkable ability to separate an imagined emotional judgment from an emotional judgment related to reality. That is, when we are faced with a real choice--a red light--we hugely favor it over an imagined choice--a green light--because the brain wants us to survive.

However, since an imagined event and a real event both entail actual emotional responses, those actual emotional responses can get massively confused, especially since human beings are remarkably bad at realizing that time will alter an emotional response. Gilbert shows that people often feel far less awful after a traumatic event--losing a job, receiving a terrible medical diagnosis--than they imagined they would.

Humans rely on comparisons to understand the value of things, but those comparisons, by necessity, are all performed in the present. That is, we compare experiences to those we are currently undergoing or have already undergone, not to experiences that may or may not happen in the future even when we are imagining the future

Unfortunately, when we imagine future experiences by comparing them to similar past experiences, we encounter the problem not only of confabulation (mixing up memories) but of cropping those past experiences, even to the point of employing a narrative. In one study, men and women recorded their emotions during a period of time. When they were asked to look back and remember how they felt, they remembered their past feelings based on gender expectations (women "remembered" feeling more sensitive; men "remembered" feeling less) even though at the time their feelings were far more gender neutral. The same type of thing happened between Asian Americans and European Americans. The Asian Americans actually recorded more positive emotions but "reported that they had felt less happy and not more." (Ah, European Americans and their endless pursuit of happiness.)

In sum, people are BAD at predicting what will make them happy.

The solution: since people are relatively good at knowing what they feel in the present (if not the future or the past), the best approach is to request impressions ("How do you feel?") from someone currently experiencing what we might want to do in the future. Studies have shown that this is a remarkably effective tool (i.e. people actually do feel better for knowing spoilers).

I used this technique when I contemplated getting a Ph.D. On the one hand (negative), it would entail far more debt, which makes me want to die inside. On the other (positive), it could mean working at a university, which could entail (supposedly) greater job security. On the first hand, I would be competing with people with three Ph.D.s and four M.A.s (how many degrees was I going to have to get in this rat race?). On the other, I would satisfy social pressure (which is quite powerful) by becoming a "real" professor who worked at a "university". On the first hand, I would have to move, which I had no desire to do, and go through another bout of being a student. On the other hand, I would prove that I was ambitious and could accomplish a long-term goal.
Who decides what is relevant?

I could imagine myself doing what I currently loved, working at a community college, teaching
English classes.

I could imagine myself teaching at a university like Barbra Streisand in The Mirror Has Two Faces.

I knew enough to know that imagination wasn't going to help me. I could end up totally miserable in either case. So I went online and did research. Truthfully, I knew where I was heading. The negative column obviously increased my tension and the positive column seemed mostly comprised of making other people happy--which my personal philosophy says is a bad reason to do stuff (though Gilbert points out that believing untrue realities--such as "children make us happy"--prove beneficial to society overall).

However, I wanted to be sure, and I continued to waver until I came across well-written comments by a person who had gotten a Ph.D. in the Humanities; he or she (I can no longer remember) clearly and non-aggressively expressed the downsides and upsides of that decision and wrapped-up with how they currently felt. It was the final push I needed to make up my mind.

And now I get to teach people who truly need help rather than being tied to a higher educational  system that increasingly fills me with dismay as students pay more and more money so that system can continue to charge them more and more money. 

Gilbert is right: asking advice works!

Of course, Gilbert would point out that once people make decisions, their brains expend extra effort to justify those decisions.

Or, as a children's counselor once told me, "Children and adults do things for the same reasons. Adults are better at rationalizing those reasons."

Ah, well, whatever works.

Great Character Actor: Hattie Winston

Hattie Winston is Dr. Becker's no-nonsense, dryly ironic nurse, Margaret, in Becker. Her character is absolutely necessary to the sitcom since without a Hattie Winston, a Dr. Becker becomes simply Yelling Man (or, as one episode is titled, "Angry Head").

Margaret calls Becker on his crap, perceives his "heart of gold," and delivers to-the-point insights. Okay, yes, she is something of a trope. Hattie Winston makes her real, likable, and hilarious.

My favorite Margaret line occurs when she is trying to hold a staff meeting with Becker and Linda, who keep talking about the Krispy Kreme donuts--
Linda: They're more fluffy, like a croissant.
Becker: Mm, I think they're much fluffier than that.
Margaret: When was a little girl, I had a dog named Fluffy.
Becker: What does that have to do with anything?
Margaret: I had him neutered because he kept interrupting me.
It's not just the line, of course, but the way she says it--with punch and an evil eye.

Hattie Winston has a long career, starting with The Electric Company (remember that show?!). One of my favorite Hattie Winston guest star appearances is in Castle's "Kill the Messenger." She plays the sickly aunt with tons of cats, who serves Castle et al. tea while they fix her door.

Television Houses I'd Like to Live In

As a negative example:

I wouldn't want to live in The Golden Girls' house: two much pastel and wicker (though I do like the lanai).

TV houses or apartments I would like to live in:

The Baxter House in Last Man Standing: Great decor. A very nice master bedroom that reminds me of the large, warm parents' bedroom in Family Ties. Plus little nooks which make sense in terms of drama (overheard conversations!) and give the house personality. Plus I like brick.

In addition, the outside of the house more or less matches the inside (as far as I can tell). This is not true of the Golden Girls' house, by the way. 

The brownstone in Elementary: I covet this house. And I love the fact that neither Sherlock nor Joan feel any need to prettify it. Its bones are gorgeous--it doesn't need prettifying.

The only downside: Lucy Liu always makes me feel so cold. I realize the house might be better heated than it appears--and some people run hot--but I can't help but shiver when she walks around in shorts and bare feet. But then I wear multiple layers except in the warmest part of summer.
From Howl's Moving Castle

Because I love NYC so much, I must admit: Monica's apartment in Friends (and yes, I prefer it to the "boys'" apartment).

Not television but . . .

Just about any part of Hayao Miyazaki's creations.


Chivalry Isn't Dead: Sherlock in Elementary

Sherlock doesn't even turn Clyde into soup.
In Elementary, Sherlock (Jonny Lee Miller) claims that he isn't kind. This is mostly accurate. He doesn't experience an upwelling of warm emotions in reference to people's circumstances. (And although Joan harasses him about this--she is more imaginatively empathetic than Sherlock--she is essentially more like him than she realizes).

Despite the lack of upwelling emotions, Sherlock is actually impressively kind. The word that describes his behavior best is chivalry.

Pilot
 
In the pilot episode, the villain deliberately manipulates his patient into killing his, the villain's, wife. He puts his unaware patient on steroids to exacerbate the poor man's violent nature, then places him in the victim's way.

"He was your patient," Holmes chides the villain, "and you took advantage."

Take into consideration that this is Jonny Lee Miller saying "took advantage" in husky, drawling, entirely English tones that indicate absolute consternation at the other man's acts. The phrase is also rather old-fashioned: "took advantage" as Austen would have meant it.

Using other people's weaknesses to commit crimes is the opposite of chivalry as Holmes makes clear when he calls the villain out.

"You Do It Yourself" 

My favorite example. Joan helps an ex-boyfriend, who is also an addict, get clear of a crime he didn't commit. She knows he is a lost cause but she still goes to the rehab center where she arranged for him to have a bed. Sherlock joins her.

He doesn't scold or remonstrate or point out the pointlessness of what she is doing. He simply requests the privilege of sitting with her. 

Granted, Sherlock has an investment in this matter; just as Joan isn't giving up on the ex-boyfriend, Sherlock doesn't want Joan to ever give up on him. Yet he doesn't behave selfishly. He sits with her while she waits, stating that he has nowhere else to be that night. His chivalry is the chivalry of letting the situation be what it is.

"Dead Clad Walking"

Sherlock makes arrangements to meet a woman with whom he has been exchanging erotic letters. She is also an expert in antiques. She is a sophisticated, elegantly coifed woman at least 20-25 years his senior.

Sherlock doesn't guffaw or act embarrassed or snigger. He is polite, respectful, and gives her the ultimate compliment: "You have a rare gift [of writing], madam. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance."

Chivalry isn't dead!

Historical Principle: Face It, People Don't Think Abstractly

My favorite Last Man Standing episode is "Renaming Boyd's School." What makes it such a fantastic episode is the reason that Vanessa (Nancy Travis) doesn't want to change the school's name.

The argument: Clark Elementary School is named after Clark of Lewis & Clark, and he owned slaves. The argument against keeping the name is that Clark wasn't the greatest role model when it comes to diversity and understanding the modern world. The argument for retaining the name is that Clark was a product of his past--lots of people (including George Washington) owned slaves--plus changing the name will cost money.

Vanessa Baxter doesn't want the name to change because changing the name could lead to the school painting over the Lewis & Clark mural that she and other parents painted years earlier--it is part of her legacy.

She makes the clever argument that the name "Lewis" should be used instead--which would lead to the mural being preserved. The name is PC because Lewis was gay--or not.

But the real reason for Vanessa's argument is the mural. She's invested in it; she wants something she worked on, her legacy, to survive.

Encapsulated in Vanessa's argument is the reason that Marxism failed: People don't think in the abstract. Ultimately, familial, religious, and local concerns and needs matter more than any amount of "poor people will rise up against their overlords" theorizing.

In the previous Daughter of Time post, I address how Tey's character Grant reduces the War of
the Roses to a local affair. He is wrong (not all of the book's history is accurate). However, while the messiness of brawling royal families hurt everyone from farmers to merchants (the ramifications weren't limited to a group of cliquey aristocrats), the short-term politics of the war had sudden and explosive ramifications for the aristocratic families involved--the ones who invested themselves in one dynasty or another by trying to marry their children into particular families or by backing a particular power-broker. 

Pick the wrong side in modern-day America, and you have to wait four more years. Pick the wrong side then and wave goodbye to your entire family.

The point: people back then (and now) didn't think in philosophical terms or theoretical terms or historical terms. They thought in terms of what the leaders and battles and wars meant to their current needs, wants, goals. As Spike says in Buffy about the vengeful Native American ghost, "You exterminated his race. What could you possibly say that would make him feel better? It's kill or be killed here. Take your bloody pick."

Bad behavior can result from Spike's mindset, but the underlying reality--people care about stuff--is not inherently greedy or evil. It's normal. And everybody does it, even people who think they are above it all. As I tell my students, "Everybody has a bias because everybody has an invested interest."

Each of us cares about something: reputation, paying the rent, kids, getting funds for this particular program, a house, a car, a garden, a piece of art. Cats. We care about the next ice cream social or the next religious service or the neighbors next door. We care about the coffee shop we want to save or the building we want to preserve, the television show we really love or the traditions that have helped us and our family. We invest in a particular recipe or website or leader or brand. 

Claiming abstract motivations (I want the world to be a better place! I want to save the nation!) sounds good, and the human brain works overtime to make such abstract claims sound good. And I'm not throwing out the possibility that people are motivated by virtues and empathy and bigger pictures (I think they are).

The point is that no amount of abstract belief will wipe out the things and people that humans attach themselves to. As sociological analyses show time and time again, people join causes and religions and political rallies through word-of-mouth and family ties--personal investment--and very rarely through abstract argument.

We are social animals, whether we want to be or not. We are wired to care about what's in front of us, not to robotically (my apologies to robots) unravel the present into relativistic non-being.

There's a reason that philosophers like C.S. Lewis believe that the present, now, is the closest tie to eternity. Imagine the future all you want--the present is where thought and belief and the physical, material world in which we invest ourselves actually come into contact. 

Beware Stamps.com (Audience Studies, Inc. Updated)

Dealing with scammers . . .
This is a repost from 2007, updated to address Stamps.com.

It's embarrassing to admit, "Hey, I was snookered," but I figure doing so may do someone out there some good.

I am fairly savvy when it comes to buying things online (truly!). I don't give my credit card to just anyone; I check for hidden costs before I sign up for anything; and I stick to credible websites.

I hate to admit: I fell for Stamps.com mostly because I associated it directly with USPS. I like the United States Post Office. Over the years, I have found it a reliable handler of my mail.

Two months ago, I received an offer from Stamps.com to get "free" stamps. I went online and printed them. I ended up printing more, which involved entering my debit card information at the same time that I set up a profile.

Unknown to me, I was then also automatically signed up on A Plan.

I must emphasize: this was ENTIRELY unknown to me. (1) I never sign up for "Free 30-day" offers that end with me being charged a monthly fee; nope, not even Amazon Prime. I either sign up for something or I don't.

(2) The plan I was automatically assigned to involved spending $16/month. I don't spend $16 on stamps in an entire year. I would never have agreed to such a silly waste of money.

So a month later, a charge from Stamps.com showed up in my bank account. I was totally surprised and not a little freaked out. What on earth did I check or not check that would let this happen?

I signed in to Stamps.com, and there it was: me on a plan I didn't even know the name of, being charged $16/month.

I set about cancelling my account immediately, but when I tried to delete my card information, the system wouldn't let me "for verification purposes." There were no pending charges (at the time); I had not used the site since my initial show of interest.

Keep in mind, every single billing/commercial online system I use, including Amazon and Central Maine Power, lets me delete my checking account/credit-debit card information whenever I wish. But Stamps.com wouldn't.

I called. Instead of an agent handling my call, or even locating my account, I was told off-hand that I would have to be transferred to "Tech." I'm not kidding. According to the person on the phone, only some computer programmers were able to remove my card information from an account that I was cancelling. Because, you know, it's just so hard to do something that every single credible commercial website allows its consumers to do themselves

So I cancelled the account and then the card.

I have since learned a few things: (1) a number of small businesses use Stamps.com; (2) Stamps.com offers services that other agencies now offer cheaper or for free; (3) I'm not the first person to be dismayed by Stamps.com's reluctance/claimed inability to make cancelling an account easy--in fact, a small business owner on Consumer Affairs.com states that even after he cancelled his account through Stamps.com, he continued to get billed until he stopped things at his end, through his bank (which reminds me of the Friends' episode where Chandler hollers, "We want to quit the bank!").

My theory: Stamps.com decided to move beyond small businesses to individual consumers but made zero effort to adjust its website for people who don't actually spend $16/month on postage.

So it's not a scam; it is sleazy. 

Note the ambiguous wording: "taking the time to try"
Update: Here's the embarrassing part--apparently, I signed up for the plan when I clicked on the Terms & Conditions (that nobody ever reads). So I would lose my case in a court of law.

But not ethically. 

In all of my subsequent correspondence with Stamps.com (basically an email and a package of labels, which I believed were related to an earlier complaint), the company never told me directly, "Hey, you signed up for this plan!" "Hey, welcome to the plan!" "Hey, we're going to start billing you for this plan!"

I can think of no single online company that I do business with--companies that are constantly offering special deals and plans--that behaves in this way.

What doubly astonishes me is that while Stamps.com used small print to charge me for a service I don't use, it is oh-so-innocently shocked when I react as if it has hidden fees and nasty extra billing items lurking in its small-print. So the company snookered me like a good scammer into paying for its plan but doesn't want me to behave as if that is exactly what it did. (Where's a smug grifter when you expect one?)

When Walmart failed to inform me that I couldn't easily return an item bought online to the physical store or through its website, it fell over backwards to reimburse me for postage. That's how a good company behaves. (And I still shop there.)

In the "misery loves company" category, I have discovered that consumer reviewers--the kind of people who read Terms & Conditions--agree with me: it is very, very difficult to figure out the hidden fees and conditions on Stamps.com.

So beware!

Below is the previous time I was snookered by a less than an upfront business.

* * *

In writing this post, I am joining several bloggers who have posted about Audience Studies, Inc. Thanks to said bloggers for helping me track down the information posted here!

I recently joined the odd 400 people or so who agreed to watch a sitcom and then report back to Audience Studies, Inc. I was wary when I took the initial call but agreed, mostly because, as I told the young man on the phone, "You can always get my address out of the phone book."

(That poor young man: I don't think his heart was in the call; when I questioned him as to Audience Studies, Inc.'s resume, he said, in a very embarrassed voice, "I can give you a 1-800 number to call." The young man knew, as I discovered, that Audience Studies, Inc. only communicates what agrees with its "story." )

So, Audience Studies, Inc. sent me a DVD as well as two booklets with pictures of products. And I immediately figured out that Audience Studies, Inc. wasn't interested in learning about my reaction to the sitcom; it was doing product research.

Now, I have no trouble with product research! If Audience Studies, Inc. had called me up and said, "We're going to send you a failed CBS pilot from 2005 that we purchased for a nominal fee as well as a bunch of ads and commercials and frankly, what we really want to know about is your reactions to the ads and commercials," I would have said, "Oh, sure, that's sounds interesting. Go ahead." I like commercials.

What is bizarre about this whole thing is how completely Audience Studies, Inc. created a fake story in order to try to get (supposedly) unprejudiced reactions to products. First of all, the company went to the trouble to obtain the sitcom (why it didn't simply create its own is beyond me--the episode was so bad, at first I thought it was a basement production, which kind of impressed me. But the episode I was sent, which I turned off five minutes in [because that's what I really do with bad sitcoms] was from "The Rocky LaPorte Show." Don't blame Rocky. It was the dialog and plot that stank.)

Second, the booklets of products were printed as "Prize Booklets" complete with "Prize Entry Forms" that I was supposed to fill out (multiple choice fashion) and just coincidentally keep by the phone for when Audience Studies, Inc. called.

Third, the "Program Evaluation" was not in any way designed to solicit survey responses. It contained questions like "Which character did you like best?" "What parts of the show or the idea should be changed or updated?" No survey company of this type asks such open-ended questions!

I can't figure out whether Audience Studies, Inc. honestly believes that people won't see through this charade or whether people honestly don't see through it. All the bloggers I read had seen through it, but then bloggers already show a degree of media awareness and savvy. (Which is why they are susceptible to viewing the sitcom in the first place.)

Again, the irony is that I'm a big fan of market research, and I would have helped a request in that area. But I draw the line at so much icky snake-oil salesman patter. Either cough up the dough for a non-failed pilot, people, or come up with a better shtick.

Note: A year or so after I did Audience Studies, Inc., I warily agreed to track my viewing--or non-viewing--habits for a week for Nielsen. The difference in professionalism was startling! I reference this experience in the comments.

Villains You Gotta Love: Rupert of Hentzau

Prisoner of Zenda is a great example of a novel where the author loses interest in his hero, giving his villain more and more space on the page.

The villain of Prisoner of Zenda is not the traitorous Duke Michael, half-brother to the king. It is Michael's henchman, Rupert of Hentzau. He shows up soon after the book's hero Rudolf of Rassendyll is coronated as a temporary replacement to the king.

It is possible that Anthony Hope, the author, allowed Rupert to take over because he realized how completely silly the book's plot is--but I doubt it. Yes, all Michael and Rupert have to do is kill the king and then concurrently unmask and blame Rudolf, who after all is the guy pretending to be the king! So basically Rudolf plays right into their hands. (And why don't Fritz and Sapt bring the king with them to the capital in the first place? Seriously, how hard could it be? Stuff the guy in a trunk!)

And how on earth could a conspiracy to plant a false king in the place of a real one even exist, especially one carried out by three people? (Too many people, and someone spills the beans; however, royal personages are usually surrounded by dozens of people who are intimately acquainted with the royal body, so who exactly is being paid off here?)

In fairness, I doubt Hope was crafting a politically astute novel. I think he was writing a romance (in the old meaning of the term): kings! femme fatales! sword-fighting! midnight meetings! castles surrounded by moats! sarcastic villains!

In the book, the sarcastic, lively, handsome and frankly admired villain, Rupert, gains more and more page space. He is one of the few villains left living at the end of an adventure novel of this type (though I understand he dies in the sequel).

In the 1937 David O. Selnick movie, the part of Rupert is perfectly cast with Douglas Fairbanks. Fairbanks barely avoids taking over the film and only because Ronald Colman plays Rudolf.

In the 1952 version, both Stewart Granger as Rudolf and James Mason as Rupert fail. The latter failure surprised me--it's James Mason!--but Mason does far better as a sincere and brooding villain with depth than a lightweight, amused villain with verve.

Douglas Fairbanks as Rupert is excellent and Ronald Colman matches him with a twinkle in the eye. Colman has this delightful Robert Downey, Jr. ability (or Robert Downey, Jr. has a delightful Colman ability) to throw out single seemingly thoughtless lines in an incredibly funny way (in comparison, Stewart Granger is wooden). Colman and Fairbanks' scenes together become the best in the film--just think of Tony Stark facing down Hiddleston's Loki. Everything else comparatively pales.

Except a very young David Niven as Fritz--that was a surprise!

If you want to watch one of the inspirations for
Princess Bride's swordfighters-with-quips, check out
1937 Prisoner of Zenda.