Category Archives: books

Zimbardo on The Daily Show, Viacom vs. YouTube

For those of you who may have missed it last Thursday night (3/29), a shout out to Stanford Professor of Psychology (Emeritus) Philip Zimbardo on The Daily Show talking about his new book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil and similarities between the famous Stanford Prison Experiment and Abu Ghraib.

Note the copycat version of video sharing: Viacom’s replacement for all those video clips pulled after the mother lawsuit against Google over their YouTube clips. It’s not a bad reproduction of YouTube functionality in terms of letting me embed this clip here or pass around the URL, but I certainly don’t get my pick of clips, which I suppose is part of the point, but also the ultimate price. Case in point: again on The Daily Show, Larry Wilmore and John Oliver did a great piece last week on the proposed N-word ban in New York City. The piece quickly made it onto YouTube and was subsequently taken down due to copyright complaints by Viacom, but it wasn’t in turn made available by Viacom on the Comedy Central site. As a result, another brilliant combination of comedy, journalism, and social commentary is lost in the endless bowels of cable TV history, only to be re-experienced or heard of again by the lucky re-run watcher. Are you happy Viacom?

E.F. and the Meaning of Liff

Around my office and among my friends, we have this term called “E.F.,” which stands for “Embarrassed Feeling.” It’s basically a succinct way to refer to that feeling you get when you’re embarrassed for someone else because of the awkwardness of the situation, what that person is saying or doing unwittingly, etc. and out of politeness, there’s nothing you can really do about it other than grin and bear it. For example, when you’re in a group of people and somebody starts telling a story that becomes weirdly personal so as to make everyone else uncomfortable or when somebody is trying to tell a funny story and nobody is really responding, but the person just continues awkwardly and desperately with it anyway. E.F. is also a common phenomenon when watching episodes of Three’s Company, owing to the absurdity and general hi-jinks of their plot lines, usually based on some implausible misunderstanding and the ridiculous chaos that ensues (just look at the entire premise of the TV show itself).* There are a number of opportunities and situations in which you get E.F., but at least for me, it’s a particularly torturous feeling that I get on a semi-regular basis and it’s a small comfort to have a term with which to quickly refer to it.

Like E.F., there are a lot of common things out in there in the world that we’re all aware of, but don’t have real words or phrases to capture them with so we can refer to them in our daily conversations. The Meaning of Liff, aside from being terribly amusing, manages to capture a lot of those things, whether the word be adjective, verb or noun, made-up or real:

One who asks you a question with the apparent motive of wanting to hear your answer, but who cuts short your opening sentence by leaning forward and saying ‘and I’ll tell you why I ask…’ and then talking solidly for the next hour.

The irrational and inevitable discrepancy between the amount pooled and the amount needed when a large group of people try to pay a bill together after a meal.

To shout at foreigners in the belief that the louder you speak, the better they’ll understand you.

For the American reader, it may feel a little strange– the book was written by two Brits, Douglas Adams (of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame) and John Lloyd (who also worked on parts of the radio series of The Guide and produced all four Blackadder series, another favorite of mine), and its contents have a markedly British tone. (Of course, I opted for the authentic UK edition, shiny and new, shipped over from the UK.)

In any case, for those who love words, even made up ones, and being able to sum up the daily idiosyncrasies of life, you should take a look.

Get a random meaning of Liff

*And as my co-worker said of Jack Tripper, “he had such a 70’s f*cking haircut, I just wanted to punch him in the face.” (No offense to John Ritter, God rest his soul. Despite probably being best-known for playing Jack Tripper, he did a lot of other work that I thought was much better and certainly induced less E.F.)


Kurt Vonnegut on "The Daily Show"

I love Kurt Vonnegut and here’s another example of why I love him.

The best part of this? Vonnegut’s commentary on how good America is at democracy– after 100 years, you have to let your slaves go. After 150 years, you have to let your women vote, etc.

Just as Jon Stewart says about his own life, Vonnegut’s book helped make adolescence just that much more bearable. I’d rather forget the person who introduced me to Vonnegut, but I’ll never forget Vonnegut and his books. I absorbed his books throughout high school and have probably read almost everything he’s ever published. He introduced me to satire and black humor and that you could somehow find a balance between science and religion and that you could find fault with man to the point of utter disappointment and pessimism and yet still be a humanist.

I just picked up his newest book A Man without a Country. More hilarious insight ensues.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Kurt Vonnegut
Daily Show Full Episodes Indecision Political Humor The Daily Show on Facebook

The Great Glass Elevator

I’ve been reverting to childhood entertainment lately– buying DVDs of the Justice League series, reading all the Chronicles of Narnia books again, etc. Among those things, I picked up a copy of Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. I’m very excited about the new Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie, but I always like this book more. I haven’t read this book in over ten years and I’m sure I didn’t appreciate it then when I did, but Roald Dahl’s description of the government and characterization of the President and his staff are too funny and scarily a propos.

For example, when they discover Willy Wonka and his crew attempting to link up with Space Hotel “USA,” the Chief of the Army exclaims, “Let’s blow them up first, crash bang wallop bang-bang-bang-bang… Come on, Mr. P… Let’s have some really super-duper explosions!” And as they try to figure out who is in the great glass elevator, the Chief Spy plays a game of twenty questions and he leads the President into coming up with his own crazy conspiracy theory as to who these people are and what they are trying to do. More insanity ensues and let’s not forget Miss Tibbs, the Vice President, who also happened to be the President’s nanny. She’s constantly seen having to guide him along and actually sings a song where she laments the fact that she helped the idiot become president.

The book was originally published around 1972, but it’s strangely and frighteningly appropriate for 2005.

Serendipity: downloading comics

Coincidentally, after recently reading so much about comic books and the comic book industry, an item is circulating around the net on the issue of downloading comics versus buying the paper versions. Comic books enter the world of file-sharing! But of course, here’s one situation in which the rationale of keeping digital copies is particularly compelling– comic books, not being in a digital, non-degrading format, suffer greatly from use, both physically and in monetary value. One fan justified downloading comics by noting that it’s one way to reread your favorite comic books without having to damage the originals. Read more:

Downloading comics: threat or menace?

Comic book heroes and history

Well, the bookshelves are starting to fill up. Latest on the list: Men of Tomorrow by Gerard Jones. When I first picked it up, the colorful book jacket made me think it was a fictionalized account about comic books, the comic book industry, and comic book heroes in the same vein as Michael Chabon‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. However, instead, I was treated to an exploration into the history of the comic book industry, including the publishing industry from which it was born. The book generally follows the careers and lives of Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, the creators of Superman.

In hopes of evening out the DC-centric book, I also picked up Ronin Ro’s Tales to Astonish which focuses more on the life of Jack Kirby and, by extension, Stan Lee. To be honest, not as well written, but still an interesting read if you want to learn about how Marvel and some of Marvel’s most famous characters came to be. Next up at some point will probably be The Comic Book Makers, written by Joe Simon, one of Kirby’s early collaborators, a co-creator of Captain America and the first editor-in-chief of the company that would become Marvel, and his son Jim Simon (who has also worked in comics).

There’s so much hype around comic books again lately with the success of movies like Spider-Man and X-Men, but I’ll say this– I wonder how many people realize how profoundly comic books and the comic book industry have affected popular culture? Think about how many movies, television shows, and more are based on characters that were born over forty, fifty, sixty years ago. The stories in those cheap paper books would go on to shape filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, but, more importantly and among other things, how generations of people would think about good, evil, and all the shades of gray in between. And within the industry itself, it’s a sometimes inspirational, sometimes tragic story– they were, for the most part, poor children of immigrants, struggling kids from the streets, who received little credit or compensation but, in the end, gave birth to an industry that pervades every corner of our culture and our lives. The overarching theme of the aforementioned books, rightly so, is how these comic book artists and writers came to create such incredible, such magical, such wonderful things, but received so little compensation or credit and in many ways, we continue to do this in the back of our minds as we make fun of geeky comic book collectors and fail to realize how much the comic book industry has influenced business, art, literature, culture and, in general, our consciousness.

I’ve got a few words for you, Lemony Snicket

WARNING: This entry containers spoilers for the Lemony Snicket and Harry Potter series.

I started reading the Lemony Snicket Books a few months ago because I was having trouble finding any good books to read and, instead, had been reading the Harry Potter Series over and over again (thank God– JK Rowling has finally announced the next book will be out in July 2005). So, somebody recommended the LS series as methadone to my HP addiction. On the surface, while the two series may seem alike– bad things happening to orphans who can do extraordinary things– the similarities don’t go much deeper than that. It’s like saying the Lord of the Rings series is the same kind of story as the Harry Potter series just because they both involve magic, wizards, and the search for an enchanted object (the ring in LOTR, the Sorceror’s Stone in the first HP book). Oh, and they both have elves. But anybody who knows about both of them knows that only a layman would think the two series are the same. That’s why when Richard Harris passed away, it didn’t necessarily make sense to have Ian McKellen replace Harris in the part of Dumbledore.

In any case, after watching the new LS movie this past Friday, I went back and reread the first three books in the series. There were a number of changes when they went from book-form to movie-form, but for the most part, the key parts were there and like most firsts in a series, most of the movie was spent establishing the characters– the Baudelaire children, Count Olaf, and Mr. Poe– and the universe they live in. And while the movie only covers the first three books, it does touch on plot points that appear later in the series, introducing the pursuit to find out exactly what VFD is and its relationship to the Baudelaire family, Count Olaf and Lemony Snicket, a mystery that soon takes over the main plot line of Count Olaf constantly trying to steal the Baudelaire fortune.

But after re-reading the first three books, I find myself wanting to interrupt Snicket’s narration to ask some questions. Yes, of course, this is a children’s novel and so there are crazy characters like Uncle Monty (real name: Montgomery Montgomery) and his reptile room, Aunt Josephine and her fear of almost everything, and of course, most fantastical of all, Count Olaf with his many disguises and weird acting troupe. However, as I read along, I asked myself the following questions:

  1. Where is child services in all of this? Mr. Poe is the executor of the Baudelaire estate, but he is not in social services. If children are actually being adopted by a new legal guardian, family or not, isn’t child services usually involved? And until they find the next of kin and a suitable home, aren’t the children supposed to stay in a foster home, not the home of their parents’ banker? And when they are placed into a new home, aren’t there regular visits by child services to check in on the new situation and upon satisfactory inspection, only then can the children be legally adopted by a new guardian? Granted, the state of child services in our society is not perfect, but Mr. Poe seems to be managing the welfare of these children with wreckless abandon.
  2. Doesn’t Count Olaf have a criminal record or something that can be used to identity him other than that one long eyebrow and that stupid tattoo on his ankle? I mean, have you people heard of fingerprints, DNA, anything? Maybe if the Baudelaires lived in California, they could arrest Count Olaf, collect his DNA, and then let him walk on a technicality. Maybe then next time, Mr. Poe won’t be so stupidly fooled by an eye patch and a peg leg.
  3. Here’s another one– Aunt Josephine is afraid to turn on the radiator, cook with the stove, and open doors using doorknobs, but even if all she has is cold cucumber soup all the time, doesn’t she eventually have to chop up the cucumbers with a knife, a blender, a CuisineArt, something?
  4. Why are these children never in school? They spend some time at a prep school later, but nobody seems to be interested in sending them to school, although you are required to attend school until the age of 18 by law.

Of course, some of these questions become irrelevant because you have to remember the universe in which the LS series exists– that is, not a specific one. There’s no specific time and real world location indicators in the books. For example, in the HP universe, the wizard world exists in the same universe as the Muggle world– we know the Dursley’s live in Surrey and the fifth book is predominantly set in London where the Headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix and the Ministry of Magic are both located. And while Hogwarts was founded thousands of years ago, we know that we’re in relatively modern times because the characters mention how Muggles make up for not having magic by inventing electricity, computers, and the like. Moreover, while Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, Hogsmeade and all of that are exclusive to wizardkind, there is occasional overlap– Harry takes the Underground to get to Diagon Alley for the first time and Platform 9 3/4 exists in a magical space that lives inside the real life King’s Cross. When there are the Azkaban escapes, the Ministry of Magic notifies the Muggle Prime Minister. And finally, while magical creatures like centaurs, house elves, giants and veela exist, humans are the dominant creatures. In LOTR, there is very little relation to the “real world”– the universe exists in Middle Earth in an alternate time frame and there are a number of different species populating the universe, only one of which are men. But, when you first pick up the LS series, look at the illustration, and begin reading, you start to think that these unfortunate children are British and live in London somewhere in some distant past. Certainly, the popularity of the Harry Potter books and movies certainly add to this tendency. After all, if the Baudelaire orphans are such precocious children– Violet with her inventing, Klaus with reading and nearly photographic memory, and Sunny with her superhuman biting ability and strength– and such horrible things happen to them as they are pursued by an evil Count, they must certainly be part of the British Empire in the same way poor orphaned Harry Potter is. Apparently, orphan services have historically had problems in Britain– Oliver Twist was British. In any case, this assumption about the setting of this series carries over into the film’s cinematography, set design, wardrobe, and casting, especially with Jude Law appearing (but always partially concealed much like Home Improvement’s Wilson) as the narrator, Lemony Snicket himself. But no real-life locations are actually ever mentioned– all the places in the stories have names like “Lake Lachrymose”– and most references to real historical events, like World War I, are made by the narrator in one of his many humoring digressions.

But I digress.

The point is that the Baudelaires could live anywhere at any time and as such, there are no guarantees about how the child services works, how inheritance works, how mandatory education works, etc. It’s not so much a suspension of disbelief that allows us to believe that the children would be forced to work in a sawmill, but the idea that since we don’t know where or when they are, we don’t know if child labor laws actually exist. I mean, they pay their workers with coupons and feed them chewing gum for lunch. We’re not dealing with normal people here, folks.

Many questions similar to mine are asked in Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography, but are not answered, except in a cryptic collection of diary entries and the like. And although each book’s storyline becomes a little formulaic and predictable– the second a new character is introduced, you set to work figuring out how they are related to Count Olaf– but the teasing is nevertheless well done and the mystery of VFD and the hope that there will be some relief for these children is a compelling one that keeps you reading through the series. Sometimes though, as I discovered when I went to reread the first three books, you just want to tell Mr. Poe to quit being such a cock up, Uncle Monty to quit worrying about his herpetology career, and Aunt Josephine to sack up and quit being such a pussy.

Fan fiction hits the stands?

I was at the Palo Alto Borders yesterday and saw that it had a “Gay Book Club.” Well, being the fag hag that I am, I took a look at the book list and a particular title caught my attention: Never Tear Us Apart. From what I can tell, this book along with the others in the series contain original storylines based on the characters from the television show, Queer as Folk. Um, isn’t that fan fiction? And if it weren’t for the fact that the show is already about gay men, it would certainly be slash fan fiction.

From my experience, fan fiction writers (along with their other fan culture counterparts) have always existed in this underground realm, exchanging stories via homemade zines and now, thanks to the Internet, via chat rooms and the Web. And thankfully, most of the time, The Powers That Be in the entertainment industry usually just look the other way. While most of these works are considered “derivative” and ride the fine lines between fair use, parody, satire, and flat out copyright infringement, they are usually expressions of deep love for the originating works (not to mention the original producers responsible for those works) and drive the growth of a deeply committed fan base that, in the end, only strengthen the success of the original television series, movie, etc. The first recognized fan fiction grew out of fan love for “Star Trek” and despite what some may consider prurient use of Star Trek characters and storylines as slash fan fiction embraced the homoerotic subtext between Kirk and Spock, I would certainly argue that the Star Trek franchise has only had greater success and sustained the test of time better than any other franchise thanks to the “derivative” work of its dedicated fans.

But how strange to see a formally, officially published version of what could only be called fan fiction! Of course, this isn’t the first time this has happened– lots of entertainment franchises publish “supplementary” books, like reader guides for the Harry Potter series or the young adult novels for “Smallville.” But these, along with Quinn Brockton’s Queer as Folk books, are somehow christened and blessed by The Powers That Be and allowing them to, get this, make money off of the derivate work that thousands, millions of devoted fans have been doing underground and for free for decades! Now that’s capitalism. Too bad we can’t lift the stigma, not to mention occasional litigation, placed on the other “rogue” fiction writers who were not so lucky to have made a quick buck on their love and dedication to the actors, artists, and characters that visit our homes and grace our television screens every week.

Book piles

I went on an Ikea binge today and bought lots and lots of new bookshelf space. Thanks to the (relatively) new Ikea location in East Palo Alto, I’ve got next day delivery so I’m working on clearing off all of my books and getting rid of my old janky bookshelves. It seems like a lot of effort, perhaps, but I really do love books and I want to make sure they have a place to live and be organized as my collection grows, even if they’re mostly cheap, but much-loved paperbacks.

So, in any case, I’ve got book piles lying around my apartment now and sometimes I forget the weird collection I’ve put together over the years. Take a look (click for the whole picture):

Book pile 1

Book pile 2

Books, Part 2

A second part to last night’s entry: books as gifts. Some people might think of getting a book as a gift about as exciting as when you’re a kid and you get clothes as a gift (the dreaded sound of fabric moving around inside a wrapped gift box), but as an adult, getting a good book can actually be a very sweet thing. Or at least a very intimate thing. Yes, of course, like Jamal’s unexpected gift at an unexpected time in Finding Forrester, the gift of a rare or old book that you’re already quite familiar with is a great thing. And as you hold those delicately bound pages in your hands and run your fingers over a well-worn cover, you can think back on how much the content of those pages mean to you and you can imagine how many other people were able to enjoy the same experience each in their own way, at their own time through the book you’re now holding. The book is no longer just a bunch of pages with a story. It’s an historical artifact that carries not only the story within its pages, but the story of it’s own life as it passes from owner to owner.

But a book doesn’t have to be rare or old or even hardcover to be a great gift. If it’s something you’ve already mentioned before, when someone gives you a book, it shows that he remembers. He noticed. Whether it be a passing statement of “oh, I want to read that new book that just came out,” or a long diatribe on the wonders of a particular series: “God, I remember how much I loved the Chronicles of Narnia and got lost within it’s pages for hours…” He was paying attention and that’s what’s special. But that’s true for any gift, I suppose.

However, if it’s a book your gift-giver has chosen for you, loves himself and just insists that you read it, no matter how skeptical you are, you should embrace it and realize that if your gift-giver is as much a lover of books as you are, this gift is not just a $5 paperback (or the $25 hardcover, for those who are extravagant). It’s an attempt to give part of himself. He wants to share the experience you can get from reading those few hundred pages because it was special to him and he wants it to be special to you and he wants to have been the one who made that experience possible. (In some ways, it’s really quite sexual.) And if you love that book just as much as he does, you can keep it on your shelf and it will be a constant reminder of who brought you to that little sliver of experience that’s shaped you somehow, much like how that person probably went on to shape you and influence your life in other ways. For better or for worse.

A guy I was once involved with on and off for years during a very critical portion of my developmental years gave me two books: a copy of Cat’s Cradle that was never returned to whatever public library it came from and a copy of A Clockwork Orange (store purchased, I believe). Now, if you’ve read either one of these books, you can imagine how disturbing, or at least eye-opening, they might be for, say, a 13 to 15-year-old girl. And their darkness and strangeness captured that relationship pretty well and in the same way that relationship opened up my eyes to many things as a young woman, those books were the beginning of a serious trek onto more Vonnegut, more dark humor, more dark subject matter, more dark experiences… just more. I have to say that period of my life shaped me in a lot of ways today, but ironically enough, while I have copies of those books sitting on my shelf right now (right next to each other), they are not the original ones I received as gifts so many years ago. Instead, they have been lost in the constant moving around since then, from dorm room to dorm room, from apartment to apartment, and have been replaced with fresh copies from the store without the inscriptions in the inside covers to mock me. Those books have been lost along the way in the same way that boy/man was lost along the way, but the experiences still hold on somehow. If they didn’t, why would I be telling this story in the first place? I rarely ever look at those books compared to all of my other ones, but they’re always there, kept safe and sound as a key part of the background of my home and my life.

So, next time someone buys you a mass market paperback, don’t think of it as a cheap gift or some kind of reading assignment, but as a gift of potential experience passed from your gift-giver to you so that you might share something special. Just between the two of you.