Friday, February 23, 2007

Fountains of the Deep

Hat tip to Donald Sensing

Apparently there’s some water in the mantle. About an Arctic ocean’s worth, they guess—or about 1.4% of the surface water. It sounds plausible. I’d wondered where subducted water went, and so did they.

Of course, if that were to reach the surface there’d be hell to pay. Luckily it could only rise slowly—if it came up in one big gusher/fountain it’d raise ocean temperatures by 20 degrees C (35 degrees F)—eventually. Of course that much steam in the air would fry every air-breather long before the oceans reached equilibrium.


The Liberian consulate is a small counter in a rug and flooring shop down on 75’th street in Chicago. The shops all have rolling bars to cover the windows and doors—the few shops that exist in the 2200 block. It’s a mostly empty block in a sinking neighborhood.

The consular officer was friendly and helpful—he’d just driven off, but came back when he heard he had a visitor. He’d gone to a mission school in Cape Palmas, and we talked a little about mission schools and family. He was slow and careful as he made out the visa inserts and filled out the details of the forms, and we talked of various other things off and on through the process. I’d forgotten the rhythms of Liberian life.

He suggested that I take Lake Shore Drive, since it was easily reached from the south end. Most of my experience on that road has been from about McCormick place north, and I hated it. That afternoon the road was almost empty, and the view was gorgeous. The lake was blue shading to turquoise backed by towers wrapped in thin mist.

Of course I forgot that the Congress was also known as 290, and missed my turn; and wound up getting a phone call just as I was heading into the S-curve. No, I didn’t answer it. (By then there was a lot of traffic….) I turned around well north of the loop, and got off at a familiar-sounding street to try to wind my way back south. Familiar, but at the north end of the loop, it turned out. Pedestrian traffic was so heavy it took 12 minutes to go around the block.

I’d not approached Fermilab from 88 in so many years that nothing looked familiar. I navigated on fading memory of street names—and my memory for names is deeply unreliable. I guessed right (for a change that day).

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Satire v0.1

Satire requires a “normal” lead-in. Whatever is exaggerated must have a clear connection to the ordinary world, or it loses force.

At the most trivial level, suppose you want to satirize the supposed greed of the mayor. You could do this by devising a skit about a man who can’t bear to part with a dollar even to buy medicine. So far, so good. Now how does this deal with the mayor?

If he already has a reputation for intense greed you don’t have to do much, because people can guess. But if he doesn’t, or if a lot of well-known people are thought to be greedy, you have to be more specific so your audience knows who you are talking about. You can hang a sign on the actor that reads “Mayor” or dress the actor like the mayor, if that’s distinctive enough, or exaggerate some physical feature—a Pinocchio nose if the mayor has a big one, for example.

But your skit loses any satirical bite if you actor isn’t anything like the mayor. It may be comic enough, making fun of greedy people in general, but it is no longer the specific satire of a specific man that you wanted it to be.

Going further, it seems so obvious that I’m ashamed to even remark that in a satire about a greedy man, he must be doing recognizably greedy things. The key here is “recognizably.” This depends on the audience and the culture: for a poor audience worrying about whether to buy food or medicine is a real problem and not a sign of greed.

Most people will stop to pick up a coin. A greedy person might wade into a fountain to pick one up. This is recognizable, and so you can use this in your play. But a man who uses a backhoe to excavate a yard looking for dropped coins isn’t recognizable anymore, unless you append a plot-killing amount of explanation.

It is worth looking at the fountain example in a little broader framework, in terms of feedback.

Most people regard coins tossed into the fountain as off-limits. There’s a trace of superstitious regard: it seems tasteless—almost not thinkable—to grab for what somebody has thrown away as ‘an offering,’ and it is a cold wet way to acquire a small amount of money. This attitude can change. There’s a connection of the extreme to ordinary life, because your play has used one. Suppose your play is popular, and other writers seize on the same thing: diving into fountains for loose change as a sign of greediness. The shock value of the act starts to decline. It becomes thinkable, and people who want to show off by acting a little “transgressive” will start doing it more often in real life. The culture changes—and in this case changes in a direction of less courtesy and more greed.

You will no doubt complain that this was the opposite of your intention. You wanted to make fun of greediness, not encourage it. But the satire, by becoming part of the culture, changes the balance of things people are accustomed to experiencing. It changes the culture in the direction of what you are trying to satirize. Unless the satire provoked a reaction, this seems like a built-in danger—especially in an entertainment culture like ours.

Take another example: Madonna’s “Material Girl.” She pretty obviously meant it as satire—the “material girl” is intensely selfish. The song became intensely popular: part of the atmosphere and part of the language. Most people went on their usual lives, but on the fringe some took it up as a slogan: some proudly and some with a smirk. The result was a small cultural shift as the satire became an anthem. Not for everybody, but for enough people to “pull the distribution” in the direction of materialism. I didn’t observe anybody taking the opposite approach and becoming less selfish after contemplating the song. (I doubt that Madonna cared much.)

I see a serious danger that satire can provoke the attitudes it is trying to poke fun of.

But we know that satire can be effective and useful.

When doesn’t satire risk being counterproductive?

If people feel compelled to do something about the problem, the satire will be productive. The problem for us is that our culture is an entertainment culture, in which we cultivate an aesthete’s detachment and avoid commitment.

If the satirized characters are clearly vile enough that nobody wants to be like them, the satire may be productive. The problem for the artist is that the audience will laugh more heartily for a sympathetic villain. Madonna’s “material girl” is proud and content—and not shown in an ugly light, so we smile. Nobody laughs at Elmer Gantry. The trick of creating a character that is funny and despicable at the same time is a tough one.

Good satire is hard to do—and even harder when the news is so strange. When I heard the story about the proposal to ban using iPods while walking in the city, I was sure it was from Scrappleface.


So maybe Herodotus, writing about people who were alive at the time, knew what he was talking about after all.

"Open covenants openly arrived at"

It sounds like a good goal to strive for, and it certainly helps keep things understandable and defensible in general. But I don't believe it makes a good absolute rule, and I suspect the recent agreement with North Korea is an example.

No agreement with Kim is worth the effort to read unless the Chinese are willing to enforce it. Nobody else is in a position to do that, but the Chinese aren't going to publicly announce that they'll chastise their client. So the only way you can come within shouting distance of a useful agreement with Kim is for some of the provisions to be under the table.

Which means, of course, that neither all the provisions of the covenants are open, nor were they all openly arrived at. Hardly ideal, but the best we can realistically get.

I'm assuming that's what's going on here. If we don't have any sort of deal with China for enforcement, then I have to question whether the US negotiators were trying to defend the country or were pressured into posturing for local political benefit. (One reason I thought Kerry was a fool...)

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Unexpected Sounds

I haven’t seen my boots for 6 years. I think they were accidentally discarded during a cleaning frenzy. I haven’t missed them much—winters have been warm—until now.

When the Celsius line reads –25, ordinary rubber-like sneakers hit the ground with a rap like those of hard-soled shoes—and the rap sounds almost hollow when you’ve got them stuffed with two pairs of socks. Usually sneakers fit snugly around your feet, but wool socks space them out quite a bit. The sound carries clearly in the chill air of the library mall.

Saturday, February 03, 2007


I spent a little over 4 hours today emptying out a room and moving the contents to the basement. The molding around the base of dressers and the desk hadn’t been dusted in several years, and when I was done the pile of dust in the middle of the floor was the size of a cat. So what did I turn up?

  • Money (no surprise there) (about 64 cents)

  • Expired coupons (How excited they made us when we first saw them…)

  • Rusty paper clips (Why rusty? Nothing else was…)

  • Sore throat lozenges (do they crawl out of the bag?)

  • A cell phone charger that’s been missing for a year

  • A pickle jar lid (My guess is that somebody was eating pickles out of the jar, and discarded the empty jar, forgetting about the lid.)

  • Bandaids, in the wrappers

  • Hair care utensils (I’m convinced that they deliberately hide. Two years ago I bought a dozen combs to try to make sure there’d be at least one available when the girls needed one. That helped a little…)

  • A broken cup from Alaska

  • A paper guide from a printer that’s been working just fine without it

  • A decorative pull-chain handle that must have flown across the room when the chain broke and smashed the light globe

  • The manual for a short-wave radio made in the 60’s (To be fair, the radio is also in the house)

  • A title abstract for a property in Waukesha, with the last transaction dating to 1894. (The first entry is the sale from United States by the president, John Tyler)

Thing is, the condo is new and the room was empty 5 years ago. In a rather older house we once lived in I found an old iron in the basement: one of those you heated on the stove and quickly ironed with for a couple of minutes before it got cool again. “Old old ting;” maybe 90 years old at the time. Mostly what I found was old hardware, though. One apartment had a clip of about 5 8mm frames from what must have been an adult movie, buried in the shag carpet.

Some people find valuable antiques in the attic. I find old iron and title abstracts for somebody else’s land.