Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Dead Man Walking

There's a rare neuropsychiatric condition called Cotard's Syndrome where a person holds the delusional belief that they are dead or decaying, have lost their internal organs or blood, and even more rarely, can include delusions of immortality.

This is like the opposite of Sixth Sense syndrome, where a dead person thinks they're really alive (though who knows if that happens, I'd love to find out, but not the hard way).

So it seems that the people who suffer from this feel like they're dead (or ghosts?) and that everything around them isn't real. I'm sure that seeing movies like The Matrix doesn't help if someone does lean towards this condition - there are enough people already who are using the Neo defense, saying that they don't believe the world around them is real.

I'm wondering whether the people who think that they're decaying can actually see the decay, whether they have the visual hallucinations to reinforce this, or whether it's just a vague sense that they're decaying from the inside out.

This seems related to body dysmorphia, where healthy people wish to have a limb removed (dramatically exaggerated in Grey's Anatomy when someone takes a chainsaw in the ER that came in with another patient and saws off their own leg).

The brain is a strange beast, and sometimes produces strange results.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Baby Got Book

There's a new genius on the scene. A 17-month old girl has figured out how to read. Her parents taught her sign language right from the get-go, as is a common trend nowadays. Parents teach their kids to communicate in sign language because their verbal skills aren't progressed enough to express their needs, which can lead to frustration. So this little girl was taught sign language, and the only tv she watched was a sign language show. They never focused on teaching her letters (she's not even 2!), and don't know quite how she picked it up. She can even read cursive, which they didn't realize until they were at the Today Show interview!

While this is an amazing feat for a 2-year old (I remember teaching part-time at a Montessori school where 5 year olds were still having trouble with reading and letters), I do hope that it doesn't impact her childhood too much. Let's just hope that she stays grounded and is given a real childhood (go out and play!) rather than having her parents stuff her nose in the books all the time or send her to college when she's 10 (while great for the intellectual part of her, it is nevertheless socially isolating in her formative years). Still, the fact that she just "picked up" reading, just up and reading a cereal box one day? Amazing.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Everything Bad is Good for You

Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson (1573223077)
Rating: 8/10

The basic premise of this book is that video games, television and movies aren't necessarily the Big Evil that critics currently dismiss them as being. The author's main idea revolves around the Sleeper Curve - the fact that many of these games and shows promote critical thinking to such an extent that IQs have been steadily increasing over the years (they have been constantly reassessing the IQ so the average is always 100 - so someone with a 120 now would have been much higher several decades ago). This hasn't translated into better performance in school or the job market, just a reflection of IQ (and this isn't just a familiarity with IQ tests, as that levels off at about 5-6 points).

TV shows used to be limited to a plot-line encapsulated into one show. There were very few overarching themes (this is the Law & Order model). Dragnet was the previous incarnation of this. Then Hill Street Blues came on the scene, and with its 4-5 concurrent threads (plotlines), it was confusing for people at first. Looking back now, when we have 24 and the Sopranos (with about 20 threads), Hill Street Blues seems rather simplistic. This is the reason there are so many shows you just can't come into the middle of the season without being seriously confused. But modern audiences are used to keeping track of a lot of information at once, and it's what draws us in, makes us discuss it with friends, and spawns thousands and thousands of posts in online forums. And anything that spawns that much writing and interaction can't be all bad, right? Similarly with reality programming, the complexity comes not from the threads, but from all the various social relationships being built (Survivor, not Fear Factor). A quote from the book:

"Reality programming borrowed another key ingredient from [video] games: the intellectual labor of probing the system's rules for weak spots and opportunities As each show discloses its conventions, and each participant reveals his or her personality traits and background, the intrigue in watching comes from figuring out how the participants should best navigate the environment that's been created for them. The pleasure in these shows comes not from watching other human beings humiliated on national television; it comes from depositing other human beings in a complex, high-stakes environment where no established strategies exist, and watching them find their bearings. That's why the water-cooler conversation about these shows invariably tracks in on the strategy displayed on the previous night's episode."

So we're not dumbing down to the lowest common denominator, necessarily. Sure, there are plenty of stupid, brainless shows out there. But as a whole, shows are considerably more complex and intellectually and emotionally stimulating than they used to be. My generation grew up on the Flintstones, not by any stretch a very complex shows. This generation is growing up on Toy Story and Finding Nemo - movies from which you can find new allusions and jokes on every viewing.

I highly recommend this book.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Oscar critics are out of touch

So, I understand why people don't really like it when the Oscar winners are for little indy or niche films that hardly anybody has seen - you root more for the movies you've actually seen and when it's this random person you've never heard of, it can be irritating and you start saying that the Academy is out of touch with the people. And that's exactly what they're saying. There was a very similar article in the Metro this morning as well. Yes, it's true people are going to care more about the Oscars if they've seen the movies that are nominated, and yes it's true they'll care more if the people nominated are very well known and popular. But come on! The Academy should nominate movies that are popular so there's more of a buzz and more people are interesting watching? I don't think so. The Academy votes on the movies that were released this year, and if the best performances happen to be indy or niche movies, then so be it. This is why I made the decision (this was the third year now) to see all the major Oscar nominated movies (Leading Roles, Supporting Roles, Director and Picture). That way, I can watch the Oscars with a really good idea of how everyone did, root for my faves, but if they don't win, I can understand how well the winner actually did.

And I must say, my fave pics this year (with the exception of one category) perfectly lined up with the winners. As depressing and dark as this year's Oscar movies might have been, I must say in the past three years, it has been the best quality collection of nominees. As to the winners:

Best Actor - Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood). I was rooting for him, but didn't feel very strongly about it. He did an incredible job in the movie and certainly deserved the award. I would have been happy with Viggo Mortensen or Johnny Depp too. There Will Be Blood was a very looong movie and I can't say as I really enjoyed it (though I did quite like the ending), but the acting was definitely worth an award.

Best Actress - Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose). If she hadn't won this award, I think I might have thrown something at the television. I honestly think that all these women deserved an Oscar - Laura Linney and Julie Christie both gave wonderful performances in their movies and I would have grudgingly accepted those wins. I didn't have to though, since the Academy recognized Cotillard's breathtaking portrayal of Edith Piaf. When I saw it, I had to keep reminding myself that it was Cotillard (who was also in A Good Year), because she had so immersed herself in her character that it was hard to recognize her (think Jaime Foxx in Ray).

Best Supporting Actor - Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men). Ditto above. My hands down favorite. His portrayal was so so creepy that I felt like I had to check every corner in my car on the drive home. And what was even more amazing is that he turns out in real life to be Denny's (Grey's Anatomy) Spanish doppelganger.

Best Supporting Actress - Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton). The only award I didn't agree with. I think my voice shrieked up a couple octaves with my "what?!" I didn't have a really strong preference in this category (I was leaning towards Cate Blanchett's portrayal of Bob Dylan), but Swinton was probably my least favorite of the bunch (except maybe the girl from Atonement).

Best Director/Best Picture - No Country for Old Men. Is it something subconscious that I just typed "No Country for Old Mean" instead of Men, then corrected it? Anyway. I loved this movie. Freaky as hell, yes. But since it's the Coen Brothers, it's not the same old Hollywood crap you always seem to get, and it's got an interesting ending, an intriguing plot line. Very happy that it won (though I think that the shorter Coen brother could have come across as a bit less patronizing and superior).

All in all, I'm very happy with the Oscar picks. Can't wait until next year's Oscar season (though I'm not unhappy to be able to take a break from seeing 2-3 movies a weekend!)

Monday, February 18, 2008

It's a Dog of a CD

A new product has hit the New Zealand music charts - music for your dog.

It's out of the range that human can hear (do you remember that exhibit at the aquarium, where they had a machine which played tones that could be heard by different animals, so you could "listen" to one that only dolphins could hear, but you couldn't actually hear it yourself? Kind of like that). It seems to have gotten mixed results thus far. Ranging from a dog attacking and killing the stereo, to dogs lying down and being still, the "music" doesn't have a standard across-the-board reaction. I'm wondering if the dogs different reactions are due to different sensitivities in their ears - you have someone with really acute hearing and play some really high pitched noises, they're going to do anything to get it to stop. Play the same thing for someone deaf, they might just sit down and chill, not realizing it's even there. Or maybe different breeds react differently. Or who knows, maybe it's a preference for the music genre - if you play me a capella or rock I'll stay calm, but if you play me a nice loud jazz or heavy metal CD, I might just go ahead and break your stereo if I don't know how to turn it off.

On the one hand, maybe some dogs would enjoy this. But isn't it kind of anthropocentric, to presume that our pets are going to enjoy a series of high pitched notes? And why don't they just have dog music in human ear range? Obviously dogs can hear in our range, since they respond to our voices. It just seems like another excuse given to part people with their hard earned cash.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Carnivore vs. Herbivore

Do you eat big, bloody, juicy steaks dripping in fat, glistening in gristle? Do you gravitate towards tofu and veggies, the light dishes and shunning anything remotely related to any animal byproduct? We have here the classic meat-eater vs. vegetarian/vegan debate.

People get really intense over this issue of what people put in their mouths. Take, for example, the proposed bill down in Mississippi to ban people with a BMI over 30 from eating out at restaurants. Now, totally ignoring the logistical issues (what about people on vacation, or at business meetings, or on dates, where do they eat?) and the scientific issues (there are people who are very fit and have a real BMI of under 30, but taking their weight and height into consideration would be considered obese), and the host of other random objections you could have (and there are many many many), why do people get so up in arms over what people eat? Yes, there are too many obese people in this country, yes they put a drain on our health care system, yes there are things that can be done about it (uh, say, education, or addressing poverty). But people get so uppity about what other people eat (there was a huge thread on The Straight Dope a few years ago where people were bashing a fat person for having had the audacity to buy ONE dough nut at Dunkin Donuts, geez). For instance, I know people on certain diets who insinuate constantly that their way is right and if you eat otherwise, you have a horrible diet.

So this brings me back to the question of meat vs. veggie. Personally, if you want to eat steak or veggies or cupcakes or frogs legs or chicken feet, I don't really care. Perhaps that's because I eat everything (yes, I've had chicken feet), though I do try to keep the fat and refined carbs out of my diet. Basically, I feel like it's none of anyone else's business what I want to eat (now, if I were 300lbs and my health was being impacted and my family and friends were afraid for my life and health, then intervention would be understandable, but I'm taking the obesity picture off the table, nevermind my Mississippi ramble last paragraph).

I've run into several militant vegetarians. I understand that they've gone vegetarian for health and ethical reasons. I'm fully aware of the chemicals in the meat, the horrible slaughterhouse process we have in this country, the sometimes inhumane treatment of animals, and the potential for foodbourne pathogens. I choose to eat meat anyway. Some of my very good friends are vegan or vegetarian, and the reason the it works is that non of us try to convert the others. Then these militant vegetarians come along and it seems like every conversation has to include vegetarianism at least once.

There are people who won't even date someone who eats meat, or who doesn't (see this discussion). And I respect that. I think everyone should make the decision whether it's important for them that the person they're dating has their same diet. I wouldn't have a problem dating a vegetarian, but honestly, since I cook a lot, it would make an impact to always cook vegetarian, though I have no problem with it on occasion). I've even heard the term Vegisexual used (people who only sleep with vegetarians). My problem arises with people who only want to date vegetarians, but they go out with meat eaters and then try to convert them. Same thing with smokers. I'm not a smoker, and I would prefer dating a non-smoker, though I could deal with it if someone did smoke. But I'm not going to try to get them to quit. Smoking, like vegetarianism, is a very personal health decision that shouldn't be made under pressure and should be made for the good of one's own health, and not for someone else.

Can't we all just get along? Live and let live? To each their own? (Fill in your own appropriate cliche hackneyed phrase here)

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Spend your NYC

So, what with the weakness of the dollar right now, some shops in Manhattan have begun accepting Euros as payment.

This is amazing and awesome - maybe this will encourage the US government to print up some money that's actually visually appealing, instead of plain old greenbacks (yeah yeah, they put a hint of pink in the new $20, but that doesn't hold a candle to the Euros' vibrant blue, pink, green and yellow).

I imagine this must make checking out at the store more of a hassle, unless they post the Euro price as well as the dollar price - they'll have to sit there with a calculator, figuring out how much it'll be (unless they're totally gypping buyers by having them pay 10Euros ($15) instead of the $10 ticketed price).

At the Canadian and Mexican borders, they've been accepting Canadian dollars and pesos in some of the stores for years, but this is the first time New York has gotten in on the action.

I'm all for it!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Flying the Friendly Skies - Naked

A German travel company is now taking bookings for holidays flights in Germany. Nudist flights.

The flight is very short, but quite expensive - $735. They insist that they're not charging for the privilege of being naked, just because it's a small plane (I don't recall the short hop from Boston to NY ever being that expensive, so I think this is a smile and nod moment). And that they're not countenancing entrance to the mile-high orgy club, just a normal flight where everyone (except the flight attendants) just happen to be naked.

All well and good. If they're happy being naked in the company of strangers, more power to them (they do make people aware of the nature of this flight when they buy their ticket, I trust?).

The thing I'm having trouble wrapping my mind around is this - how sanitary is this? I mean, who knows what kind of diseases people might have (and perhaps I'm betraying my scientific naivete here), but wouldn't someone who has something potentially get it on the seat and pass it to someone else? They must use some pretty strong disinfectant in between flights. And no matter how tolerant I am with the idea of people walking around in sanctioned naked areas (too each their own), I think it might just give me the willies to think that someone's bare butt was on the seat that my clothed butt is now sitting on. That's kind of like sharing my pants with someone else's butt. Blech.