Friday, July 27, 2007

The Power of Place

The Power of Place by Winifred Gallagher (ISBN 9780061233357)
Rating: 6/10

This is a very intriguing book about the power of context and environment on our psyches. The subtitle is How our surroundings shape our thoughts, emotions, and actions. There's a good bit of the book which discusses Alaska and the effect of light on the psyche (all night or all day, every day). It dips into the psychological issues which impact people in these areas. Personally, I wouldn't do well in Alaska - I'd be depressed six months of the year with no sunlight to speak of. Different people react differently to the stimuli - some people have problems with Seasonal Affective Disorder, which would make the endless night so hard to deal with. Interesting also is the discussion of the all-day summers. These are the most productive parts of the year, where people work a lot more, and their social drive is kicked into high gear.

Then there's temperature. Some people are born cold and some are born hot, with all the gradations in between. That much be the reason why it's so damn cold in my office - the evil mastermind who sets the temperature was born a hot person. Some people naturally feel more awake and alive when it's cold, or when it's hot. And when it's the opposite, they can get a kind of seasonal affective disorder also, or just not feel quite right.

She also gets into discussions about the environment of the womb and the effect of outside stimuli (Mozart, anyone?) on a fetus. An interesting aspect of this discussion is her discussion of premies, how they are overstimulated in the NICU, they hear tons of noise around them, yet there is no visual stimuli to go with the noise, so they don't learn to associate noise with action (for example, someone says something, and you turn and look at them talking).

One of her most interesting topics is about territoriality and the power of community. When people in a community are invested in their surroundings, upkeep their area, interact with neighbors, etc, there tends to be a much lower crime rate. Take, for instance, the small town where everybody knows everyone else. It's much harder to get away with anything in a town like that, because there are more social pressures to conform because there are more personalized interactions between neighbors.

In a city, however, this becomes more difficult. The author stipulates that in areas with people of different financial means (lower class and middle class together, in an area which may be gentrifying, or on the other hand, going downhill), it can be much harder to create a sense of territory. She points to homogeneous societies (like Tokyo and Hong Kong) that she says run fairly smoothly, whereas melting pots like New York, Chicago and LA have a much bigger crime problem. Having never been to either of those Asian cities, I can't speak to the veracity of that. Any idea whether this is actually the case? What could be other factors which could make Hong Kong and Tokyo less crime-filled? Japan, at least, definitely has a culture founded politeness and respect, and because everyone comes from the same culture, perhaps this encourages lawfulness. America was founded on rebellion and encourages free-thinking and independence. This can be a positive thing in many respects, but perhaps also leads itself to more crime.

She points out the snowball effect - one person has a broken window and it creates a sense of disrepair and lack of care for the territory. So perhaps someone else doesn't have the cash (or the time or the inclination) to paint their house and it starts peeling. Fairly soon, the street starts to look more run down. And crimes moves in. On the flip side, on a run down street, one neighbor might put out a flower box, another clean up their garden. And fairly soon it starts looking more cared for and less like a forgotten street where crime won't be noticed.

It was a very interesting book - a bit slow to read, but with many thought-provoking ideas. I'm glad that I read it, though it wasn't as much of a page turner as, say, The Tipping Point, Freakonomics or Blink.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Rowling Not a Murderer


JK Rowling did it on purpose.

She purposely created all the hubbub about Harry being killed off. Props to her, it did definitely boost the marketing and make people even more rabid about getting the book. So, mission definitely accomplished. She also definitely succeeded in getting the idea across that anyone was up for grabs in the kill-'im-off spree.

I think I'm going to have to call BS on her that her audience didn't affect who she DIDN'T decide to kill off. Because the fact that she didn't kill any of the major (protagonists off (Harry, Hermione, Ron, Luna, Neville, Hagrid, with the exception of Snape) I felt was a definite nod to her young readership and the fact that lots of people would have been angry had she killed off any of those characters. But as one of my friends so aptly reminded me, Harry Potter is a classic example of a Romantic fairytale. I suppose I never should have really expected any ending other than this sugary one.

That's it for Harry Potter. Moving on to the next of the hundreds waiting for me on my shelf...

Monday, July 23, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling (ISBN 0545010225)
Rating: 9/10 majority of the book, 4/10 ending - average 7/10

This weekend welcomed one of the most widely anticipated books in recent memory. Hard to miss it, with everyone and their mother walking around reading it, sunning themselves and reading it, drinking coffee and reading it, etc. Major what? moment when I told a co-worker I was up until 1am reading last night and she asked me what I was reading. What ELSE would I be reading until 1am? I guess this weekend was a little Potter-centric, and I have to remember that not everyone got the fever :) Honestly, I kind of wish I'd stopped at 12am and not continued, because then I could just not have read those last couple chapters.

I think it's great that one of the biggest cultural events of the summer has been the release of a book. A book that millions of people read over the span of a weekend. Our short attention span nation actually sat down and read a 750 page book, expended the energy to carry the damn heavy thing on the subway with them, and in a big city, actually brought strangers together to chat about it as they were walking here and there. Massive cheer on friday night when we all got on the bus holding our books, cheering from those already on the bus who had it.

Now on to the spoilers. IF YOU HAVEN'T FINISHED THE BOOK (and plan to), you may want to stop reading now and go finish the book first, as I'll be talking about who died, who survived, and all that jazz.

Ok, all good? Those of you still with me either have read it or don't care to....

WTF was JK Rowling THINKING???!!! Did she drink Spielberg water or something? Ok, I'm calm [breathe in, breathe out].

To start from the beginning. Most of the book was what I would expect from a Harry Potter book - very engaging, a fast read, building to a big climax at the end. Mad-Eye Moody dies straight off the bat. I can deal with that, it's not like he's a big character anyway, not a lot of emotional investment there.

Harry, Hermione and Ron wander around for a while, but honestly, I think that's fairly realistic, I mean, if they knew what to do off the bat it just wouldn't seem real (I can't believe I just said that about a magical fantasy book...but I guess I'm talking psychologically real here). But that's all part of the build-up to the end. Things start moving about 2/3 of the way through when they start finding horcruxes and the sword.

Then you get to face-off #1 between Harry and Voldemort, when Harry is going to his death. At this point, I'm really liking this story, and it just feels right to me that Harry is going to sacrifice himself to kill Voldemort. Not that I want Harry to die, but it just seems to fit (the reasoning given in the book, that Harry is the 7th horcrux and as long as he lives, so does Voldemort). And going into it, I told everyone (and their mother) that I'd much prefer it if Harry died than Ron or Hermione. Plus, I was also convinced after the last book that Snape really was a good guy working with Dumbledore. So after I found out he, in fact, was a good guy, and it looks like Harry's actually going to die, I'm feeling good about the book, like JK Rowling is actually going to make it an interesting ending rather than a cotton-candy one.

No. What was I thinking? Ok, so I realize that this book is a young adult book, and is targeted towards a younger audience than me. However, it's not like she doesn't have a history of killing off main characters (ahem, Sirius, Dumbledore). Let's review who was killed off in the book:

Mad-Eye Moody - ok, yes, he was a good guy, he had a part in an earlier book. But do I really care that much? Not really.
Crabbe - yay
Lupin and Tonks - yes this is sad. But the problem with their deaths is that they didn't mean anything in the book. I mean, Rowling told us that it affected Harry, but she didn't show us. It felt like "look, Lupin and Tonks are dead, how sad, running out into the woods to continue the fight." It's not like I wanted him to fall to pieces over them. But if they were going to die, it just felt like it should have some kind of emotional impact and it didn't really - I felt like the whole thing with Lupin and his son was kind of shoved down my throat from the beginning, just to set me up for him being killed off at the end. I didn't feel like it created a real sense of emotional intimacy with the character. When Sirius and Dumbledore died, there was that sense of loss and sadness as I was reading it (not that I was just being told it was sad), and that sensation was just absent here. Maybe they're just not big enough characters.
Fred - see Lupin and Tonks above
Snape - he kind of had to die, big part of the plot. No issue here.
Dobby - I take serious issue with the fact that we see the most emotional impact on Harry being the death of Dobby. Yes, Dobby saved him from the Malfoys. Dobby was a good friend, and I don't mind that Harry was so saddened by his death. But the fact is that this is the ONLY death in this whole book that I really felt was adequately shown to affect Harry.

Maybe the book was just built up too much. Everyone kept saying the 7th book was going to be a bloodbath, that lots of characters were going to die. And as much as I like most of the characters and have built up a connection to them over the years with these books, I feel cheated. Cheated, I tell you! I was expecting some kind of emotional impact, emotional scenes, and rather than the drama I was expecting, I just got rip-roaring action instead (and lest you think I'm one of those tear-jerker chick-flick women who never watches action, I must tell you that 3/4 of my dvd shelf is action movies).

Have you seen A.I.? That movie exemplifies exactly how I felt about this book. For this movie, Spielberg and Kubrick collaborated, but they couldn't agree on an ending, so the movie wasn't made for several years. Then Kubrick died. Which left Spielberg to make his own ending. There was a point, about ten minutes from the end (SPOILER), when Hayley Joe Osment's character is at the bottom of the ocean. I'm not sure if this was Kubrick's ending, but I sure wanted it to end there. But no. Spielberg had his tentacles in it, so they had to find Hayley several hundred years later, when society accepted AIs and he could be a little boy like he always wanted. Happy ending? Yes. Contrived? Hell yes.

Now let me vent a little about the flow of the book. The book takes about 600 pages to build to its climax, and once it gets going, with the battle at Hogwarts, explosions everywhere, it seems there's nowhere to go but up. Harry goes out into the woods to face down Voldemort. Harry dies (sort of). Then there's a random, completely unnecessary chapter with Dumbledore in the train station of Harry's mind. It completely destroys the flow, is completely cheesy, and implodes the climax in upon itself. I didn't feel a need for this chapter. At all. Because when Harry goes back to his body, the climax has just had the air taken out of it (yes, this could also be partly because I've realized that Harry is not, in fact, going to die). So the last chapter with Neville killing the snake and Voldemort killing himself (this was kind of cool, that Voldemort was his own downfall) just didn't have the same impetus that the story did before the extraneous chapter.

And the last chapter. Talk about cotton candy. Spielberg. Cheesy. Campy. Come on! I mean, seriously, 19 years in the future? Harry, Ginny, Ron and Hermione sending their kids to Hogwarts? Ok, so I know they're turning this book into a movie, and that it's aimed primarily at a teen and pre-teen audience, that they want to have a happy ending, and tell people what happened to the characters after the battle ended. But seriously. This is like the French-dubbed version of Last of the Mohicans, when at the end, instead of their quiet grieving, they start saying stupid things like "Where are we going to go now?" "We're going to go to Kan-tuck-ee and summer with my father." Ugh.

All that said, I thoroughly enjoyed the book until I got to those last four chapters. I should have stopped reading at midnight, instead of continuing on until 1am. But it's still worth the read, especially if you like the Spielberg endings and don't go on crazy rants like I do when I come across an ending like this (especially when I was expecting something different).

Don't get me wrong, I'm glad there's a happy ending. Voldemort had to die, of course, and Harry had to come out victorious. I just feel like it was a bit TOO happy of an ending.

What was your reaction to the whole thing?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Scambaiting the Scammers

This just takes screwing with peoples' heads to an entirely new level! (this will take some time to read, be forewarned)

I didn't even know there were people out there scamming the scammers. I've heard anecdotes of people having fun with telemarketers, but this is so far beyond that, it's like Van Gogh compared to a 5 year old's drawing!

I must admit, I did have some twinges of sympathy for the poor guy, and if the scambaiter hadn't reminded me several times during the whole transcript, I probably would've forgotten that this guy was originally a scammer using a poor dying man's photos to garner sympathy (and hard cash). But I definitely give props to this scambaiter for following through with this, over a period of about 10 months, I believe! That's commitment!

Given all the money these guys have probably squeezed out of the unfortunate gullible, this is just a drop on the bucket, a few hundred dollars and some time costs for all the email exchanges. But that time spent writing email, creating the wooden head, the video, and so on is less time the scammer has to take grandma's life savings.

I'm also amazed that there are still people who fall for that Nigerian money scam. Hasn't it been thoroughly outed already? Besides which, even if it were the real thing, who would actually send their bank account information over email? That's one of the cardinal rules of the internet and identity security, not to provide personal details.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Anti-French-Basher Strikes Again!

I feel like I've spent the last five years defending the French. Ever since the explosion of anti-French sentiment surrounding the administration going into Iraq, people have jumped onto the French-bashing train (but not the Germans or any other state which didn't support Bush).

Why is it that Americans hate the French? They always say it's because the French hate us. But could it be a projection? Americans go over there expecting the French to hate us, and they act in such a way that just ends up creating the very situation they fear. For instance, they go into a restaurant. The waiter doesn't speak very good English, so it's a bit difficult to communicate. The waiter doesn't check in at the table every 10 minutes or so, so the Americans get very angry because they think they're being snubbed, and they act rudely to the waiter. Now, honestly, if someone acts rudely to you, are you going to be very sugary sweet back? No. The waiter is going to return the rudeness, because honestly it's not in the French culture to be friendly just for the hell of it, especially in the face of rudeness.

Some things to keep in mind when you're traveling in France (yes, French culture is in fact different than American culture, and you can't expect it to be the same as here):

1. Meals are not a quick affair. Gastronomy is a serious thing in France. And even if you're not at a gourmet restaurant, it is normal for French people to spend a hour or two or three at their dinner. Eating, drinking, and enjoying eat others' company and conversation is the reason they're there, not just to run in, eat something so they don't feel hungry later, and run on to the next planned event. The waiter does not check in every 10 minutes as it would be disruptive. He takes the order, brings the food, maybe checks in once or twice during the whole dinner to make sure nothing else is needed. He's probably not going to respond well to a loud "Garcon!" with a waving, snapping hand.

2. The French are not deaf. They also do not all speak English. Yes, English is the most popular foreign language at present (the current Lingua Franca, or should I say Lingua Anglica?). But this does not mean that they are trying to be rude or difficult if they don't speak it well. Please remember, if you are in France, you are the one speaking the foreign language, and they will appreciate it greatly if you at least make an attempt to speak French, or let them know you don't speak it. Just using bonjour, merci and au revoir will really warm the French up to you. And please please please, if someone isn't understanding what you're saying in English, this is not because they have a hearing impairment. It is because they don't understand what you're saying. So don't raise your voice, because that's only going to make them think you're an ass and cause them to act rudely to you. Try using gestures, simple words, and talk slowly. That will get you much farther than shouting.

3. There will always be rude people. Try visiting NY, LA, Boston, Chicago, or any other big city. There are many pleasant people in each city, but there are always the bad apples who are going to be rude, aggressive, nasty, and haughty no matter where you go. It just makes it harder when there's a language and culture barrier as well, so don't bring ego into it. Just remain pleasant and don't feed into the obnoxious American stereotype.

4. Definitely try out new things. You didn't go all the way to Paris to eat in Pizza Hut or McDo and get coffee from Starbucks, did you? You can get plenty of that when you get home. The French are very proud of their culture, especially their food, wine, and art. If you make an effort to try to learn French culture and interact with them on a level they're familiar with, that can only endear you more to them (as long as you're not picking the food out of your teeth, getting drunk off the wine, or talking about how the paintings would look great in your local Olive Garden).

5. If you do speak some French, try talking to them about the current events going on. For instance, if there's a presidential election happening (like recently in May), then ask who they think will win (and why). Other topics of interest might be social issues like unemployment (very high at the moment), immigration, or the cost of living (which skyrocketed after the Franc changed to the Euro). If you're not comfortable with such serious topics, or your French is a bit more limited, try asking for a recommendation for a current French movie they enjoyed, or what their favorite part of Paris is that you could visit. The French love to talk. Once you get them started, they're happy to chat for hours on end, even in retail stores.

The French do recognize that they have a bad reputation as being rude to tourists, even though they feel they do try to be friendly. There's a big push at the moment for everyone to become just a bit friendlier and more helpful to tourists, since it is such a big industry for the city. So they are trying their best to meet us halfway. But it's not going to be all peaches and cream if Americans don't bring their half to the table too.

Bounty of the Flies

Besides sounding like a William Golding-inspired Mel Gibson movie, I find this new law in a Chinese suburb to be funny just in its ludicrousness.

The article makes a good point, that this law basically just treats the symptom, rather than treating the disease. Wouldn't paying citizens money for dead flies actually encourage them to be less hygienic? That is, if they want to collect money for the dead flies they're turning in, wouldn't they want there to be more flies, so they might create an environment which would draw more flies - cleaning less frequently, leaving food out, etc.

Now honestly, I don't think this is going to create a culture of unhygienic families just to make a few cents off of a dead fly. Most people take pride in living in a clean house (or at least a passably clean one, which in my case means at least you can't really see the dirt). But it's not going to solve the problem that already exists. It's not going to encourage people to clean up their environment more than they already do.

It's like the age-old problem of feeding the hungry - do you give them a food drop, which will feed them for this week, or do you teach them how to grow their own food, which will feed them forever (hopefully, given environmental conditions)? If this suburb in China has a problem with flies and wants to get rid of them, wouldn't their money be better spent on street cleaners to clean up any insect-attracting detritus in the street, street sweepers, water flowing through the gutters (like Paris)? I don't know what the trash disposal system is in China. Is it like the American system of trash cans and dumpsters and disposal trucks coming around once a week? If residents must take their trash to a dump, it's possible they aren't doing this frequently, which would create flies around the collecting garbage bags. If there is trash pick-up, wouldn't it cut down on the flies to have the pick-up happen more often?

There are so many other ways to fix this problem than just throwing money at the result of the problem, rather than finding a working solution so the flies don't proliferate in the first place.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Cool Commercial

Watch this commercial

I'm not going to give any spoilers on this. I'll keep it short and sweet and you're welcome to comment after you've seen it.

Company and Jennifer Government

Company by Max Barry (ISBN 1400079373)
Rating: 7/10

This is the latest book by writer Max Barry, satirizing corporate America. He seems to have taken the Six Sigma model, applied it to a company (rather than technological system), and run away to an extreme with it.

The book is about Stephen Jones, a new employee at a corporate company. He is immediately promoted past people who have been working at the company for years. The thing is, none of his co-workers in Sales seem to know exactly what the company does. His department sells services to other departments within the company, other departments support yet other departments. A self-sufficient ecosystem of a business. But he starts to question what the company actually does, where they get their money, how they pay their employees, etc. As the company institutes harsher and harsher policies aimed at turning their employees into cogs in the machine, headcounts rather than happy, productive workers, Stephen gets recruited on the six-figure salary management team. As he undermines from within, Stephen has to navigate office politics and find a way to expose the company's secret underbelly. This includes a plot twist that I won't spoil, but it worth reading to find out about!

This book is well written and, while escapist, not without food for thought. Are we happier carrying on with our lives as they are, or would we want to know the whole truth about what goes on in our companies and our lives? The Matrix covered this question quite well. I honestly don't know how I would answer this question - would I want to wake up to reality if it meant I had to live in a sun-less world with slop for food, no creature comforts, and a need to fight it out with the machines? Or would I want to live a lie, even if it was real in my head (and if it were real in my head, isn't it, in fact, real?).

Jennifer Government by Max Barry (ISBN 1400030927)
Rating: 8/10

I enjoyed this book even more than Company. In this dystopian alternate reality, American corporations literally run the world. Workers take the last name of the company they work for (Jennifer works as a police officer, therefore Jennifer Government. The antagonists are John Nike and John Nike). Nike hatches an evil plan to release a new lines of shoes, while simultaneously hiring an someone to assassinate kids purchasing the new shoes as a stealth marketing technique (to add a certain amount of danger to the purchase, the idea that you shouldn't go buy something makes the desire to do so even stronger, doesn't it?). And no, this is not a spoiler (you'll learn this in the first few pages of the book).

Even before publication, this book was optioned by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney. It's set to release in 2008. Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Garner were the top choices for the lead, but IMDB doesn't have full details yet.

Definitely escapist, not perfectly written, but nevertheless this book reached out and grabbed me in the first couple pages. I couldn't put it down until the very end.

Why is Yawning Contagious?

Why is yawning contagious?

Sure, there's no hard and fast reason why it's contagious. It may remain one of those mysteries, like how to cure the hiccups. But there are several theories.

First mentioned is that it's a method of cooling the brain, to help stay alert and detect danger. So, before you get into a fist fight, try yawning to cool down your brain (hey, who knows, maybe with a cooler brain you'll start thinking more clearly) and give you an edge up on the competition. Just don't let them see you yawn, or they'll do it too and you're leg up will instantly become a level playing field.

Yawning might help maintain vigilance, especially in groups. Does this mean that in my next business meeting, I can yawn openly and widely, and tell my boss that it's a compliment, because I was making sure I remained vigilant in the meeting? On an unconscious level, we realize that our attention is wandering, we're not paying as much mental attention as we should to the task at hand. So we start yawning, not as a means of displaying how tired we are, but as a way to bring our attention back on target.

It would be interesting to know how many times I yawned while typing this post. It didn't occur to me to count until halfway in. How many times did you yawn while reading it, and the article?