A Halloween story from Miss Conduct

October 31st, 2014

I talk a lot about how art and pop culture give us narratives to shape our experience. A fair amount of recent research suggests that fiction can help empathy develop. But there are limits to how much stories can teach us to empathize, as my Halloween tale shows.

When I was in junior high I was an outcast and unpopular. In art class, some of the popular kids asked me to share a work table with them as a joke. I knew it was a joke, but accepted anyway, because no one else wanted to share with me, and because I had already learned the trick of accepting bullies’ “kindnesses” at face value, because you could often trap them into the role of the good guy and they wouldn’t be bright enough to escape it.

Near Halloween, “Carrie” was shown on television.

The next day the popular kids at my art table were talking about how scary it was, and how awfully Carrie had been treated. And how it was funny, because she wasn’t even ugly, they pointed out, Sissy Spacek was actually kind of cute, so it was weird that people would make fun and bully her.

I didn’t say a word.

And I haven’t told this story until now.

Happy Halloween. The monsters are due on Maple Street any minute.

Thinky links

October 30th, 2014

The Globe reviewsA Disappearing Number,” Central Square Theater’s new play about mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan: “This is a tone poem, a nonlinear collage of images, sounds, ideas, motivic conceits, and mere shards of narrative. Under the drum-tight direction of Elaine Vaan Hogue, it’s absolutely gorgeous, a compelling procession of rich stage pictures that make marvelous use of three-dimensional space.” I agree with the review overall. I’d rate the WQ (Wikipedia Quotient, or how likely you are to look up the nonfiction stuff when you get home from the show) higher than average, though lower than Huntington’s “Ether Dome,” which has local interest on its side.

Central Square Theater is the only local company I know that regularly does non-linear plays about science–”Ether Dome,” for example, is essentially a staged documentary, and Bridge Rep’s “The Forgetting Curve” used the story of neurological patient and research subject H.M. as the background for a drama about one of the (fictionalized) scientists who studied him. CST does science plays like that–e.g., “Distracted,” a very of-the-moment comedy of manners about coping with a child’s ADHD–but they also offer more experimental fare, where the staging itself refracts, in some way, the episodic awareness of H.M.’s amnesia or the fantastic looping beauty of Ramanujan’s equations.

Photo by A.R. Sinclair Photography

Blog readers can get 15% off adult tickets, or $20 student tickets, to “A Disappearing Number” with the promotion code ROBIN.

The NY Times reports on social-science research taking place at the Tinder offices. Judging people by their looks, it seems, isn’t quite so superficial after all:

“Research shows when people are evaluating photos of others, they are trying to access compatibility on not just a physical level, but a social level,” said Jessica Carbino, Tinder’s in-house dating and relationship expert. “They are trying to understand, ‘Do I have things in common with this person?’ ”

“There is this idea that attraction stems from a very superficial outlook on people, which is false,” Mr. Rad said. “Everyone is able to pick up thousands of signals in these photos. A photo of a guy at a bar with friends around him sends a very different message than a photo of a guy with a dog on the beach.”

Choice of background, facial expression, dress and grooming choices can convey useful information, but the article also reports on what social scientists have begun to call “face-ism”:

In one survey, women were asked to swipe through a series of photos of handsome male models. In almost every instance, the women swiped to the left, dismissing the men with chiseled faces. When asked why, the women said that the men looked too full of themselves or unkind. “Men with softer jaw lines indicate that they have more compassion,” Ms. Carbino said.

This is face-ism: the unconscious and almost universal attribution of personality traits based on facial features. In reality, men with soft jaws are not necessarily more compassionate than others. The Atlantic has a good recent piece on face-ism here. Think about the implications for casting decisions!

Speaking of the Atlantic, they also have a good piece on the affinity of millenials for science and its pop-culture manifestations:

Because of the generation’s global reach, Millennials have a greater need for things that transcend old boundaries and ideologies. Science has become a universal language, a form of information that is available almost instantly and can be shared among people who have nothing else in common. The rise of social media has also blurred the line between high-brow and low-brow, professional pursuits and personal interests. When Millennials get excited about science, they post it on Facebook—and when they see a gorgeous photo of deep space on Twitter, it can open a new avenue of scientific exploration.

Maybe millenials love science because its presentation has gotten completely awesome lately. From Wired, on the increasing importance of discovery in education and entertainment:

Discovery, as intriguing process, has become a powerful theme in contemporary culture and entertainment. In art and design galleries, and many museums, artists and designers, like Olafur Eliasson, Mark Dion, Martin Wattenberg, Neri Oxman and Mathieu Lehanneur, invite the public to explore contemporary complexities, as in artist Mark Dion’s recent collaborative work with the Alaskan SeaLife Center and Anchorage Museum on plastic fragments in the Pacific Ocean. Often they make visitors discovery participants, as in Martin Wattenberg’sApartment, where people enter words that turn into architectural forms, or sorts of memory palaces. In a more popular way, television discovery and reality programs, from Yukon Men to America’s Got Talent, present protagonists who face challenges, encounter failure, and succeed, iteratively and often partially, while online the offer is even more pervasive, with games of discovery and adventure immersing young people in the process of competing against natural and internal constraints.

And this thoughtful blog post asks how museums can “break the unwritten rules of 20th century science communication and informal science education, and collectively they’re reshaping the landscape in which adults encounter science.”

I can’t even excerpt this because the whole long, personal story is too moving. Jeopardy champ Arthur Chu writes about his depression, how games and Felicity Day helped to save him, and how Gamergate is breaking his heart. Can someone please give this man a book deal, like, yesterday?

And some Halloween fun …

Netflix online recently added “The Taking of Deborah Logan,” which I watched last night. It’s a found-footage possession story with some solid acting, but what makes it stand out is that the victim of the possession is an elderly woman succumbing rapidly to dementia. Holy crap does that make it upsetting and scary, people! The difference between what a healthy nine-year-old will say and do and what a demon-possessed one will say and do is quite stark. This is where the horror of “The Exorcist” comes from. The horror of “Deborah Logan” comes from the fact that the difference between what a demented 75-year-old will say and do and what a demon-possessed one will is … not very clear at all.

If you prefer laughs to chills, check out the Onion’s “Your Ignorance of Classic Horror Leaves You Woefully Unqualified to Run This Haunted House.” It’s alarmingly me-like.

Evidence for that assertion: I tried briefly to get this going on Twitter, but it only took off on my personal Facebook page: #changealetterspoilthescare:

The Donkey’s Paw: Terrifying tale of a mutant donkey … with paws.

Brine of Frankenstein–What? He’s a nice pickle vendor down on Delancey Street. And it’s pronounced FRAHNK-un-shteen.

Pellraiser: The harrowing saga of a guidance counselor who opens a portal to the demonic realm to get grant money for your child’s college education.

My friend Molly had even better ones:

Children of the Morn: It’s 6AM, go back to sleep until Mommy has her coffee!

Bram Stoner’s Dracula: Duuude…have you ever looked at your fangs? I mean, like…REALLY looked at your fangs?

… come on parents, tell me this doesn’t chill your bones:

The Whining: Novel about a family trapped for the winter in an abandoned hotel with nothing to doooooo, Mooooooom!

Happy Halloween!

Science theater begins at home

October 27th, 2014

… for me, anyway. If you aren’t married to one of the world’s foremost science comedians, it might be different for you. Here is Mr. Improbable’s TEDMed talk, and it’s a gem:

And then, this happened. Florence Henderson of “The Brady Bunch” was a contestant on NPR’s “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me,” and to answer questions about the Ig Nobel Prizes. From the show’s transcript:

SAGAL: And we always know Mrs. Brady always had a happy ending, so here we go. A special prize was given in Arctic Science and that was given to an international team of scientists who explored what question? A, if ice cubes taken from the polar ice cap can improve a cocktail; B, if putting up big fans on the poles to blow on the Arctic ice can help reverse global warming; or C, how reindeer behave when they are approached by humans dressed as polar bears.

HENDERSON: Oh, jeez. What was A again?

SAGAL: A was if ice cubes taken from the ancient polar ice cap will actually make your cocktail taste better.

HENDERSON: I think I have to go with that.

People often say, “It was a dream come true” when what they really mean is that something they hoped very much would happen happened. But having Florence Henderson answer questions about your husband’s business on a game show? Now that really is like a dream–a post-pizza-and-Netflix-binge dream–come true.

Sunday column: Everyone chimes in edition

October 26th, 2014

Today’s column is online here, and I’ve got yet another “Is he/Am I being greedy/cheap?” recessionista questions. (For those keeping track at home, we’ve recently had the lady who tried to cheap out her babysitter, the Cape Cod homeowners who ask guests to bring their own toilet paper, and the lesbian couple that wants to be considered as one person when making donations. And more to come!)

I’m no Dear Prudence when it comes to getting weird questions, so when I do get an off-the-wall-one, I’ll sometimes put it on Facebook to amuse my readers and do a little research on reader responses at the same time. A while ago, I posted this:

Here’s a question I’m working on right now. Can you even–?!

“Recently, my wife and I were dinner guests at the home of a new acquaintance. After dinner, a relative of the host (also a guest) approached me and told me how much had been spent on the purchase of the steaks that were the main course. He, then, rather pointedly suggested that I make a monetary contribution. As I had never encountered such a request, I complied. Is such a request appropriate? How should I have responded?”

… and here, for your amusement, is the conversation that followed:

Karen Wow. Never heard of that. Is there a cultural difference that is not conveyed by the letter? If not, a simple ‘we are planning to reciprocate in the future’ should be sufficient.

Robin “Miss Conduct” Abrahams That was my question, too. I can easily imagine some Old Country parent pulling a stunt like that.

Robin “Miss Conduct” Abrahams But damn, if you can’t afford to feed your guests steak, feed ‘em spaghetti! Just don’t CHARGE them for it!

Karen OTOH, maybe the host’s ne’er do well relative was looking for cab fare and thought this was a good way to get it. Was the relative really acting on behalf of the hosts or for his own benefit?

Robin “Miss Conduct” Abrahams Karen, I like that hypothesis! Very old-school farce.

I think the real question–and it’s not one I have the answer to, unfortunately–isn’t what the LW should have done, but if he should tell his host about what happened. If one of my relatives were shaking down my houseguests I’d want to know. But they’re just “acquaintances,” not friends, so …

Ben Pay the man, and then never come back.

Gary Of all the dozens of questions this immediately raises, the one I’m pondering is whether the host had any idea whatever that the relative was asking for contributions, or whether the relative is some kind of weird family loose cannon.

I suppose one possible response — especially if there were several other guests present — would be the entirely artless approach, calling out, “Say there, Winston, did you know that your brother-in-law Nick is actually going around asking for money to repay for the dinner?” That might solve the “do we want to be better acquainted with these people?” question right then and there.

Kellie Could the LW ask the host indirectly? Something like: Your relative let me know how crazy-expensive those steaks were. I was happy to chip in, but next time, let’s keep it simple, ok?

Kelly I would have responded to the relative in question “Thanks for letting me know, I will certainly give some money to [host]” and wait to see their response. If they backtrack or try to get me to give the money to them instead, then I’d know they were acting alone. If the relative seems OK with the plan, I would follow through and say nicely to the host “[relative] suggested that we should contribute something to the cost of dinner. Here’s some money.” How the host reacts would determine my likelihood of returning.

Marty I would offer to make a donation, and then inquire as to whether a donation might secure the hostess for the rest of the evening.

Robin “Miss Conduct” Abrahams “Money? Oh, I already left some on the dresser!”

Ed This is why I always bring my needlepoints to dinners like this. Makes a great gift in lieu of cash

Antonia ‘And perhaps you’d like a 30% tip?’ But seriously, it is difficult to field with the hosts. The problem if you bring up with Acquaintance Host is that if Relative was acting alone Acquaintance Host will probably be mortified and it can have an impact on a buddy friendship. If you’re interested in seeing these people again, perhaps let is slide this time and see what happens next time. If it happens again, then you don’t want to know them. If it doesn’t, and it seems to be Relative acting on his own, you’ll know the Acquaintance Host better and had have more of a feel of how to address it with them.

Michele They next time they invite them over, the response should be “sorry, I can’t afford it.”

David That’s so completely unexpected that I would probably have chipped in if it had happened to me. Mortifying or not, I think any host would want to know that this happened on the side of their dinner party – the question is HOW to tell them, and that depends on how well you got on, how soon will you see them, how casually you feel you can talk to them, etc.

Karen “Betty Sue– your {brother} mentioned to me your tradition of paying for our own meal when we are a guest in your home. Do you prefer paypal or is a check ok?”

Gary I just noticed that the question you actually asked was, “Can you even–?!” And my answer to that would be, “No, I can’t even.”

Margaret Mortified silence is probably not the right answer, although it is my first instinct.

Dakota What Ben said (pay and don’t come back) and then if another invitation comes along, mention that last time you were a little caught off guard by so-and-so’s request – should you expect to bring cash this time? Phrased ever so graciously, of course.

Robin “Miss Conduct” Abrahams Margaret, if people knew how often “mortified silence” was my IRL answer, I’d lose my job!

Gary I’m imagining a thing where the Globe lets you invite all your LWs to a big reception, and you get to wander about, chatting with them each, trying to figure out which one wrote which letter.

Robin “Miss Conduct” Abrahams … and hitting each other up for cash …


We’ll never know, but I still think Karen’s hypothesis is the best one–that the relative was scamming for his own purposes, and the host never knew nor saw a dollar of the poor LW’s contribution.

“Ether Dome” and boundaries

October 23rd, 2014

“L’esprit d’escalier” is French for “wit of the staircase,” or the perfect comeback that only occurs to you when you are already at home, climbing the stairs to bed. There should be a similar term for plays and movies that send audiences straight to Wikipedia thereafter, to verify their facts.

The Huntington’s “Ether Dome” has such an effect, and as far as I could tell, it hews closely to the facts of the discovery of ether as anesthetic, and good Lord what lurid and fascinating facts they are, really tabloid stuff.

It’s not good material for the stage, though. The climax of the play is in the second act, when surgery is performed with ether for the first time in 1846, at Mass General’s surgical dome (later renamed the Ether Dome).

The Ether Dome painting by Warren and Lucia Prosperi

It’s a gorgeous moment in a painting, but on stage it falls short. You can’t fake surgery, and to whatever extent you can, the audience is admiring the stagecraft rather than being in the moment. Also, the shocking, stunning, world-changing thing about this demonstration is what did not happen: It’s The Curious Case of the Patient Who Did Not Scream During Surgery. It’s hard to convey to a modern audience how miraculous that silence must have felt at the time. We may know it felt like a miracle, but it doesn’t feel like one to us, and it should.

It might have felt more miraculous if the Huntington had doubled down, in production, about the gory reality of surgery before anesthetic–graphic slides, recorded screams. Presenting that reality as far as it could tastefully go doesn’t go anywhere near far enough to make that patient’s silence the miracle it was. But you can hardly subject your audience to PTSD-inducing sounds and images to make your point.

The story of anesthetic is a lumpy one that somehow manages to hit on virtually every hot-button issue we are still talking about today: the ethics of research on human subjects, the second-class status of dental medicine, the role of profit in health care, the marginalization of women’s health concerns. Three hours–which go by at an impressive clip–isn’t enough to do justice to it all. I titled this post “‘Ether Dome’ and boundaries” because a persistent theme of the play was the defining and crossing of boundaries. Liquids become gasses. Dentists become doctors. Pregnant women become patients. Doctors become businessmen. Screams become silence.

The boundaries of theater–three hours of attention maximum, with the audience in the same room as the players–are more amenable to some stories than to others. I would truly love to see a high-gloss cable television version of “Ether Dome” that could take the its time to explore the characters–the brilliant conman, the sensitive and unbalanced altruist, the various Brahmins–and issues that “Ether Dome” presents, and that could portray the horrors of 19th-century medicine more vividly than can be done on stage.

Sunday column: Tznius (geshundheit!) edition

October 19th, 2014

Today’s column is online here. I’ve got a funny little backstage story on this one. The first question begins, “I may be old-fashioned, but it annoys me when men and boys wear hats in a restaurant.” I edited this from the original “males of any age” to “men and boys,” because I hate, hate, hate referring to human beings as “males” and “females,” and if I’d left the wording intact, I would have had to make my answer all about how we must look past aesthetic offenses–like hats in restaurants, or horrible writing style–to see the intention of someone’s soul. Which was, frankly, not the answer I wanted to write, so I edited the wording to something less egregious.

One can and should expect dignity and courtesy from men. Why would one expect anything other than barnyard behavior from mere males?

The question about fashionetiquette inspired me to go back and look up a post I wrote around last year’s High Holy Days about modesty. Modesty is called “tznius” in Hebrew, and like most modesty codes is primarily concerned, nowadays, with restricting women’s visibility in public spaces. But what would a modern modesty code based on the Torah look like? I suggested three principles:

1. Don’t dress like something you’re not. This raises modern hackles at first, because one of the few clear-cut clothing commandments is that women shouldn’t dress like men. There are also long, detailed descriptions of priestly garments that are mandatory for priests and obviously forbidden for anyone else. All very Bronze Age!

But if the particulars are no longer on-point, the principle is. Clothing often reflects social roles, and it’s inappropriate to dress for a role that isn’t yours. At a wedding, don’t be more glamorous than the bride. If you’re the teacher, don’t dress like your students. If you’re the keynote speaker, don’t blend into the wallpaper.

2. Dressing up shows respect. According to the Bible, the first thing people did after becoming morally conscious was to put some clothes on, already, and the impulse, if not always the fig leaves, stuck. Esther dressed up before pleading her people’s case to the king. Jews wear our nicest clothes on Rosh Hashanah to show our respect for God.

3. But don’t dress to incite envy. Envy, much more than lust, is the emotion that modesty codes are designed to control. A community can’t function if its members are constantly competing for status, measuring themselves against each other. So you don’t dress in a way that looks like you’re competing for status, in ostentatious clothes that are better than anyone else can afford. You know, like Joseph with that amazing technicolor dreamcoat that got him sold into slavery. Look what happens to people who dress too fancy!

Thinky links

October 18th, 2014

The Globe covers the recent autism-friendly production of “The Lion King” here in Boston:

The “autism-friendly” performance of “The Lion King” is among a growing number of theater productions in Boston and around the country intended for families with children on the autism spectrum, with quieter music and less intense lighting, plus calming areas and relaxed rules about theater etiquette.

This was Broadway in Boston’s first effort, and with 2,600 people at the sold-out show, it played to the biggest audience of autistic children and their families the city has seen. Modeled after similar Broadway stagings, the matinee was designed to create “a sensory-friendly and judgment-free environment,” said Rich Jaffe, president of Broadway in Boston.

Local theaters have picked up on this trend, too:

In spring 2013, Boston’s Wheelock Family Theatre staged an autism-friendly performance of “Pippi Longstocking” and is considering more such shows. And Trinity Repertory Company in Providence has decided to make a sensory-friendly performance of “A Christmas Carol” an annual event, after its initial success last year.

I wrote about the production, and the changing conception of autism that informs such efforts, here.

A fascinating piece on the cognitive science of Shakespeare’s language and his “garden-path sentences.” You know how when you’re listening to a bad song–pop or show tune or rap, doesn’t matter–and the last line ended with “wife” and you know, you just KNOW that the end of the next line will end with “life” so you’re sitting there waiting for it as the seconds of your one wild and precious life tick away …

Okay, Shakespeare is like the opposite of that. Read the article, it explains it more.

Speaking of Shakespeare, I interviewed Sarah Newhouse and Omar Robinson from Actor’s Shakespeare Project’s wonderful, hilarious, spooky, ingenious production of “Comedy of Errors.” The show closes this weekend, so get your tickets now!

While I interviewed Shakespearean actors, Neil deGrasse Tyson (yes, that Neil de Grasse Tyson) interviewed my husband about the Ig Nobel Prizes on his radio show, in a long and funny conversation. We are such fancy people!

I write a lot about how our brains put events in story form whether that is accurate or not. Psychologist Paul Bloom and one of his graduate students have a terrific op-ed in today’s New York Times on the tendency to assume that “everything happens for a reason”:

This tendency to see meaning in life events seems to reflect a more general aspect of human nature: our powerful drive to reason in psychological terms, to make sense of events and situations by appealing to goals, desires and intentions. This drive serves us well when we think about the actions of other people, who actually possess these psychological states, because it helps us figure out why people behave as they do and to respond appropriately. But it can lead us into error when we overextend it, causing us to infer psychological states even when none exist. This fosters the illusion that the world itself is full of purpose and design.

This is an older piece from io9 that got stuck in my hopper (oh, I’ve got a hopper, people): a group of actresses calling themselves “The Scirens”:

Scirens is a group of science enthusiastic actresses whose mission is to share and discuss science news, advocate for its literacy and inspire scientifically infused entertainment in all forms. The group consists of four core members: Taryn O’Neill, Christina Ochoa, Tamara Krinsky and Gia Mora.

There is a lot of science theater coming up in Boston. Watch this space for notes on “A Disappearing Number” at Central Square Theater and the Huntington’s “The Ether Dome” at the BCA. Tomorrow, I’ll be one of the judges for the Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses, or BAHFest, at MIT. The event is sold out, but you can catch last year’s contestants, and presumably this year’s, at some point, on YouTube.

On the etiquette front, don’t forget the holidays are coming–Get your questions about difficult relatives, gift dilemmas, and office-party mishaps in to Miss Conduct today!

And your moment of Zen: Scripture-decorated drinks coasters, for the boozy Christian in your life.

Stanley Milgram, the Phantom of the Laboratory

October 16th, 2014

Aeon Magazine has a brilliant piece arguing that the the Milgram obedience experiments are better viewed as performance art than as science:

To view the Milgram experiments as a work of art is to include the haunted young doctor as a character, and to question his reliability as a narrator. As an artwork, the experiments can tell us about much more than obedience to authority; they speak to memory, trauma, repetition, the foundations of post-war social thought, and the role of science in modernity. There is no experiment that can prove who we are but, in its particulars, art can speak in universals. Long after his tests are considered invalid, Milgram’s story will live on.

According to author Malcolm Harris, a recent book has cast critical light on Milgram’s science:

In Behind the Shock Machine (2012), the Australian journalist and psychologist Gina Perry assailed the very validity of the Milgram experiments. Although she initially came to the study of Milgram with sympathy for the haunted doctor, Perry quickly found a more worthy object for her feelings: Milgram’s subjects. Reviewing transcripts from the experiments in the Yale archive, she found a lot of disobedience hidden in the obedience numbers, and a number of confounding variables. For example, Milgram made sure subjects knew the payment for participation was theirs even if they walked away, but in the transcripts this seems to have triggered reciprocity with the experimenters. One subject continues only after the experimenter tells him he can’t return the money. Another obedient subject remonstrates after she’s finished obeying, because she quickly understands what the experiment was really about and is disgusted. In the drive for quantitative results, the procedure ignored valuable qualitative information. ‘I would never be able to read Obedience to Authority again without a sense of all the material that Milgram had left out,’ Perry writes, ‘the stories he had edited, and the people he had depicted unfairly.’

Read the whole piece, it’s fascinating. Ever since I became aware of science theater as a thing–about nine years ago or so, when I joined the Underground Railway Theater board–I’ve been surprised that so few plays focus on the social sciences, particularly psychology. It’s all wonderfully wifty mathematical metaphors or inspiring laboratory breakthroughs or medical ethics–never Pavlov or Milgram or Zimbardo. There have been a few plays about H.M., whose surgery-induced amnesia provided psychologists a chance to discover much about the workings of memory, and Freud and C.S. Lewis debate philosophy, more than science, in a popular one-set two-hander. But that’s about it.

Psychology experiments are wonderfully theatrical. Even the most boring thing you can do–give undergraduate psych students a bunch of surveys and flog the results for correlations*–requires a set, a script, and carefully arranged props. As the experimenter, you are playing a role and must stay in character. And that’s just surveys. When you get into social psychology and experiments with deception and confederates, it’s explicitly dramaturgical.

Which makes me wonder, then, if that isn’t part of the reason psychology doesn’t find itself onstage much? When the experiment itself is a little playlet, maybe that’s hard to dramatize. Except backstage dramas, comedies, and musicals are terribly popular, and twice-baked potatoes are a delicious food, so why should thematic doubling be so problematic?

Maybe the problem is that the results of psychology experiments, certainly the most famous ones, aren’t inspiring. Science plays tend to have the human being as the subject of the science, an inherently agentic and frankly inspiring stance. We are the species who figured out our origin! We can reach the stars and cure disease! Occasionally, a play will focus on people as the objects of science or technology–patients struggling with the complexities of medical science and politics, workers displaced by machines. This, too, is agentic, and if not inspiring, it can at least be ennobling. We are complex and worthy! We will fight for our rights!

Psychological science, and any stories you can think of to tell about it, has humans as both its subject and its object. It’s all us. And when it’s all about us, there’s no privileged place to put the human perspective. We are the dark continent being explored, and we are the explorers. And the bottom line is that what we’ve found in many of those explorations is extremely complicated, qualified, but undeniable evidence that under many circumstances, humans suck. We conform needlessly yet ignore important information. We literally do not see what is in front of our eyes. We are suggestible, vain, overly influenced by inappropriate cues, and wildly mistaken about our own nature. We are tribal, mistrustful yet gullible.

Discovering this does not make us feel inspired, or ennobled. The Milgram experiments can be viewed as art, and might indeed have been better art than science, but psychological science in general doesn’t tell the kind of stories that audiences want to hear. Science is about increasing our knowledge and control of the world around us. Psychological science shows us over and over how little knowledge and control we have, even of our very selves.

Do I sound like a Victorian, saying that audiences want to be “inspired” or “ennobled” by tales of scientific derring-do? Perhaps. But they do, dammit. The only possible response to learning about the Milgram experiment for the first time is “Aw, fuck. Really?”

You just can’t leave an audience in that state of mind and expect word-of-mouth to sell out your show. You just can’t.

*Needless to say, this is that thing I swore I would never, ever do for my dissertation, and then wound up doing.

Art & empathy

October 13th, 2014

I’m trying to choose reading material for our upcoming vacation, and am debating whether or not to give the “Game of Thrones” books a whirl. I like political intrigue and family drama and dark, violent themes in my books–I also read fast, so a nice long read is a good thing, for a trip. (Even with a Kindle, it’s nice to stay in the same fictive world for a while, when your external environment changes every day.) On the other hand, I’m terrible at visualizing while reading, so extended battle sequences are a no-go, and also I can never follow espionage plots, so there’d better not be any of those.

I’ve asked my friends to chime in, but of course they aren’t going to take any of that into account, they’re simply going to tell me whether or not to read the books based on whether or not they liked them.

It’s a real cognitive load, apparently, to regenerate your memory of a particular experience and judge it against someone else’s criteria. I got interested in that idea a few years before I finished grad school–the idea that most people, even thoughtful and other-oriented people, find it very hard to recommend books (or movies, leisure activities, or restaurants) that will appeal to someone else. The mind defaults to a kind of distributive property of affection: If I like Friend, and I like Book, Friend will surely like Book!

Recently I was in D.C. and had dinner with a writer friend and his wife, a lovely and gracious couple, and mentioned to them after dinner that I was planning to visit the Smithsonian Museums the following day. I must, I was told immediately and enthusiastically by my friend, must see the Air & Space Museum. As he extolled its virtues I made eye contact with his wife, and in her dancing eyes I read the following: “You’re all about the First Lady dresses and the Great Hall of Mammals, aren’t you?” Yes, yes I am. Technology and machinery do not excite me, and I think my friend probably realized that on an abstract level, but his enthusiasm got the better of him. The kind of arts-empathy I was looking for really is difficult to generate and maintain.

There are at least two reasons for this. One is the unconscious assumption mentioned above, that everything I love must also love each other. The other is that memory doesn’t work like a video recorder. We remember what we encode, and we encode what is relevant to us. When my friends with kids ask me if a particular book or play would be appropriate for their child, I usually can’t answer, because I wasn’t watching or reading through that filter in the first place. So the stuff that I’m looking for, or looking to avoid, in an artistic experience might not even exist in your memory of that experience.

I think, though, that the basic reason people are terrible at predicting what other people would like is simply that they’re not trying hard enough. Almost all social reasoning–figuring out who to trust, what social cues to mimic, etc.–is done through rough, semi-aware heuristics. You can improve your reasoning through active effort. Social interaction is so much the water in which we fishies swim that half the time we’re not even fully conscious of it.

I used to randomly shove books that I loved at people I loved, and sometimes it would “take” and sometimes it wouldn’t. In grad school, my dissertation was on mental models of literary genres–or how people think about different kinds of stories–and started using my own research to better predict what I, and my good-read-seeking friends, might enjoy. It’s a fun exercise.

Here are some questions to ask yourself about what types of books (or plays, movies, television shows–stories are stories, to some extent) you enjoy.

Do you prefer

… stories about a complex individual or stories about a whole society?
… stories in which people compete with each other or in which they cooperate to solve a problem?
… stories that are universal in theme or stories that paint a vivid picture of a particular time and place?
… stories about extraordinary, unusual people and events, or stories about the ordinary and everyday?
… stories in which people are from very different walks of life, or stories about groups of equals?

It’s a different way of thinking than the usual “mystery,” “science fiction,” “romance” categories. See if it helps you make better recommendations!

Sunday column: Ladytax edition

October 12th, 2014

Today’s column is online here, and it’s one of those odd ones with one serious and one not-so-very question. I hope they balance all right to the reader.

The first is from a woman who has overheard neighbors fighting, and seen the relationship end and then, unfortunately, renew itself. What struck me when I read it the first time was how much mental energy the LW had put into the situation already. I wrote, “First off, I’m sorry that you’re experiencing this. Intimate-partner abuse doesn’t only affect the direct victim but that person’s family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors?—?it’s not merely a private concern, but a public health problem.” The immediate evil of domestic violence, or rape, or harassment, or discrimination, is apparent, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the amount of energy even women who are not victims spend in thinking about these things. The waste of all that energy.

And this week Amanda Taub wrote a piece in Vox that sums up everything I was thinking:

Which brings us to the ways in which these sorts of attitudes disadvantage all women. When our society treats consent as “everything other than sustained, active, uninterrupted resistance,” that misclassifies a whole range of behavior as sexually inviting. That, in turn, pressures women to avoid such behavior in order to protect themselves from assault.

As a result, certain opportunities are left unavailable to women, while still others are subject to expensive safety precautions, such as not traveling for professional networking unless you can afford your own hotel room. It amounts, essentially, to a tax that is levied exclusively on women. And it sucks.

Taub’s piece focuses on rape and sexual crimes, but her point can be taken more generally. A smart analysis, and a sobering one.

“All About Emily” and acting natural

October 8th, 2014

This weekend I read Connie Willis’s novella “All About Emily,” a slight comedy of backstage intrigue, ambition, and … robots:

“Oh, dear.” Emily looked over at Dr. Oakes. “I knew I should have said I wanted to be an actress.” She turned back to me. “But I was afraid that might give the impression that I wanted your job, and of course I don’t. Artificials don’t want to take anyone’s job away from them.”

“Our artificials are designed solely to help humans,” Dr. Oakes said, “and to do only tasks that make humans’ jobs easier and more pleasant,” and this was obviously the company spiel. “They’re here to bring an end to those machines everyone hates—the self-service gas pump, the grocery store checkout machine, electronic devices no one can figure out how to program. Wouldn’t you rather have a nice young man fixing the bug in your laptop than a repair program? Or have a friendly, intelligent operator connect you to the person you need to talk to instead of trying to choose from a dozen options, none of which apply to your situation? Or—” he nodded at me, “tell you who starred in the original production of a musical rather than having to waste time looking it up on Google?”

“And you can do all that?” I asked Emily. “Pump gas and fix computers and spit out twenties?”

“Oh, no,” she said, her eyes wide. “I’m not programmed to do any of those things. I was designed to introduce artificials to the public.”

(You can read part of the story here.)

Connie Willis is one of my favorite authors for blending SF with 1940s screwball-comedy style banter. This novella isn’t great, but it’s a quick and entertaining read, and would possibly make a good stage play. Sometimes books and stories that are a little flat on the page come to wonderful life on stage or screen. Ms. Willis also predicts that “Chicago” will still be running in revival in 20 years, which strikes me as a safe bet. (Her chronology is a little dicey, but she has a good deal of fun predicting who and what will be lighting up Broadway in the near future.)

“All About Emily” is, of course, a takeoff on “All About Eve,” and the charming android Emily does ultimately decide she wants a stage career. Not as an actress, though, playing the messy heroines of Ibsen or Churchill. Emily wants to be a Rockette.

What else would a robot want to be? And yet, how unsatisfying would it be to watch the Rockettes and know that their illusion of inhuman perfection is no illusion? The whole point of the Rockettes is the uncanny spectacle of people behaving with the precision and uniformity of machines. Nobody would want to watch a robot Rockette.

A robot Medea, though? That might at least spark curiosity.

Theater, even at its most realistic, is not supposed to be indistinguishable from ordinary life. We want to be able to see a sliver of light between the actor and the character. We want to know what gap was bridged.

Stephen King is making Ebola worse

October 7th, 2014

Salon addresses Ebola panic:

Ebola, at least from the American perspective, is something like the great white shark. It’s dangerous, all right, but the odds that it’s going to get you are vanishingly small. Fear of large predators and fear of the plague are deeply encoded in human experience and handed down from our ancestors. Maybe an instinctive response is invoked that we can’t resist. But in both cases, the self-refueling cycle of media panic is an epidemic that’s almost certainly more destructive than the original phenomenon itself — and the fear is not really about what we claim it’s about.

Author Andrew O’Hehir identifies the usual suspects for our collective overreaction: cognitive biases honed by evolution, fear-mongering by Fox News and its ilk, and the fact that the Ebola epidemic fits neatly, oh, far too neatly, into the kinds of stories we’ve already learned to tell and read:

Indeed, I’d suggest that Ebola-panic (like shark-panic) is shaped and informed by fictional thrillers — in this case, yarns about civilization-destroying plagues and the zombie apocalypse and so forth. It also taps into our cultural narcissism and xenophobia, into the paranoid imperial perception that American civilization is the center of the world and also that it’s precariously balanced, and constantly under attack from dangerous outsiders. All it takes is a handful of African visitors with cardboard suitcases and undiagnosed infections, and next thing you know the cable goes out at Mom’s house and we have to eat the neighbors.

Theater and science bump up against each other in all kinds of ways, and one of those ways is understanding the psychological science of storytelling. Humans are a narrative species, we put everything in story form–but reality is under no obligation to actually unwind itself like a well-told tale. In real life events may occur that do not foretell, call back to, or symbolize anything at all. They just happen.

Storytelling can be crucial to good science, but one thing science does is to slap us out of that storifying instinct, and give us a way to demonstrate reality to other people besides telling stories about it. Artists tell. Scientists show.

I’m struggling now to have a rational response to the Ebola crisis. Practically every friend I have has posted the NPR “You’re Not Going to Get Ebola Already” graph:

… and I believe it, I really do.

But if there were going to be a zombie apocalypse … this is what the beginning of it would look like.

I’m a Stephen King fan going back years, see, and what people who think they don’t like Stephen King don’t realize is how utterly mundane and realistic his work is. Until the werewolves show up. But until then, it’s ordinary people living ordinary lives. A New England couple, say, who are doing basically okay, although she’s a little bored in her career and he’s coming off a big project and feeling burned out and they’ve both got some eldercare worries hanging over their heads and are planning a vacation in the Southwest to recharge their relationship.

And as he’s digging out from a mountain of licensing agreements and P&L statements and she’s looking up dude ranches in Flagstaff, they see the headlines and video clips from Africa … and then the quieter news of one patient identified in Dallas … and an editorial in the nation’s paper of record about what “virologists are loath to discuss openly but are definitely discussing in private.”

This is exactly how Stephen King would write it.

And stories fit in my head better than statistics. I don’t have to behave irrationally, and I can despise the fearmongering and xenophobia that people are bringing to this situation, but I can’t respond to it as though I haven’t spent decades reading and watching stories that began exactly like this.

Art will always have unintended consequences. Stephen King is a great humanitarian, a good writer, and by all accounts one hell of a mensch. But he’s taught us how horror looks–not in a Transylvanian castle, but in a Somerville three-decker. He’s taught us to see the terror in the everyday, he’s pulled it out of the gothic tradition and pushed it into comedies of manners and coming-of-age tales. So that now, when we see some loose thread of worry, it’s so easy to imagine pulling it until the entire garment of our comfortable-if-annoying middle-class lives unravels.

Sunday column: Everyone’s Poor Edition

October 5th, 2014

Today’s column is online here and, like last week’s, features a story of cheapness. Last week’s LW wanted to skimp on paying a babysitter the going rate–this week’s LWs have been “invited to spend a weekend with friends at their Cape vacation home. In addition to the request to buy and cook dinner one night, we are also asked to bring a roll of toilet paper, paper towels, our own beverages, including bottled water, and provide our own lunches throughout the weekend.”

I’ve got a few more like that in the pipeline, too. I try to keep the column balanced, with not too many questions in a row on the same topic, or too many where I say the LW is wrong, or so on. People like variety. But the money questions are coming in fast and furious. In the next couple of weeks I’ve got one about how much one should contribute to a group gift, another one about cheap hosts that I discussed on my Facebook page, and one about what to do when you’re hit up for donations by friends.

I’ll believe the recession is over when I stop having to worry about running too many money questions in a row.

Science informing theater: Autism-friendly “Lion King”

October 1st, 2014

A friend of mine posted this on Facebook* and I found it fascinating. “The Lion King,” playing in Boston through October 11, will be doing an “autism-friendly” performance on October 10. From Boston Magazine:

The show is still the same production that we all know and love, but with some slight tweaks in order to create a sensory-friendly and, most-importantly, judgment-free environment. Some of the unique elements include: a reduction of jarring sounds and overall intensity and volume level; the elimination of strobe lights focused on the audience; the addition of a “calming area” for audience members; and trained staff and volunteers to provide real-time support.

“They leave the house lights up so that people can come and go,” [director of state government affairs for Autism Speak Judith] Ursitti says. “That’s a big accommodation that they provide. Many times, people with autism need a sensory break and they need a place to go. The production itself, what you see on the stage, the changes are subtle. It’s mainly sound and lighting changes. The scene with the hyenas in the elephant graveyard where there’s a lot of little geysers shooting up and there lots of light and noise, they only do one little light, and special effects like that are reduced.”

Now that’s science theater! The idea that autistic kids might enjoy plays, but have a hard time coping with the sensory overload and the social rules of theatergoing, is frankly groundbreaking. Until recently–I mean until very recently–we were thinking of autism only in terms deficits in social reasoning. And if autistic people didn’t understand the games people play and the motivations that led them to play those games, what on earth could they possibly get out of going to a show? Increasingly, though, researchers are looking at the autism spectrum in terms of sensory processing. This is clearly the model that the modified “Lion King” is using.

This article in Salon–an excerpt from Gregory Hickok’s book on neurology and cognition–is a heavy read, but does an outstanding job explaining the various controversies in the field. Here he is on the logic of the sensory-overload hypothesis:

This kind of effect—hyper-responsivity leading to avoidance— is observed regularly and uncontroversially in the sensory domain. Autistic individuals often cover their ears when even moderately loud sounds are present in the environment and exhibit other forms of avoidance behavior. As with the rock concert sound system example at the beginning of this chapter, if an autistic person failed to get information out of moderately loud sounds or simply left the room, we wouldn’t say that he or she had a diminished capacity to hear the sound. The response is more readily explained as an increased sensitivity to sensory stimulation. As autistic author Temple Grandin said in a radio interview, “How is a person going to socialize if their ears are so sensitive that just being at a restaurant is like being inside the speaker at a rock ‘n’ roll concert and it’s hurting their ears?” Good question.

One piece of evidence cited for autistics’ supposed lack of concern for other people’s mental states is that autistic people often do not look at faces, either in social situations or in lab experiments. However, what if faces contained too much information for them to focus on?

Also consistent with the alternative, emotional hyperreactivity hypothesis are statements from autistic individuals themselves. Here’s a sample gleaned from a paper covering face processing in autism: It’s painful for me to look at other people’s faces. Other people’s eyes and mouths are especially hard for me to look at.

My lack of eye contact sometimes makes people, especially my teachers and professors, think that I’m not paying attention to them.

—Matthew Ward, student, University of Wisconsin

Eyes are very intense and show emotions. It can feel creepy to be searched with the eyes. Some autistic people don’t even look at the eyes of actors or news reporters on television.

—Jasmine Lee O’Neill, author

For all my life, my brothers and everyone up ’til very recently, have been trying to make me look at them straight in the face. And that is about the hardest thing that I, as an autistic person, can do, because it’s like hypnosis. And you’re looking at each other square in the eye, and it’s very draining.

—Lars Perner, professor, San Diego State University

These are revealing statements for two reasons. First, they provide a clear indication of an intact theory of mind in these individuals (“my lack of eye contact . . . makes people . . . think that . . .”). And second, active avoidance of eye contact provides just as much evidence for sensitivity to the information contained therein as does active engagement of eye contact. If you can’t recognize that there is information in the eyes, why avoid them?

In this piece from the New York Times, a father recounts how Disney movies have enabled him to connect with his autistic son. Owen Suskind’s extreme affinity for Disney movies gave him an emotional vocabulary, a set of images and metaphors and models for being that he could use to interact with the world around him. He learned to read by sussing out the credits.

Owen’s chosen affinity clearly opened a window to myth, fable and legend that Disney lifted and retooled, just as the Grimm Brothers did, from a vast repository of folklore. Countless cultures have told versions of “Beauty and the Beast,” which dates back 2,000 years to the Latin “Cupid and Psyche” and certainly beyond that. These are stories human beings have always told themselves to make their way in the world.

But what draws kids like Owen to these movies is something even more elemental. Walt Disney told his early animators that the characters and the scenes should be so vivid and clear that they could be understood with the sound turned off. Inadvertently, this creates a dream portal for those who struggle with auditory processing, especially, in recent decades, when the films can be rewound and replayed many times.

The latest research that Cornelia and I came across seems to show that a feature of autism is a lack of traditional habituation, or the way we become used to things. Typically, people sort various inputs, keep or discard them and then store those they keep. Our brains thus become accustomed to the familiar. After the third viewing of a good movie, or a 10th viewing of a real favorite, you’ve had your fill. Many autistic people, though, can watch that favorite a hundred times and seemingly feel the same sensations as the first time. While they are soothed by the repetition, they may also be looking for new details and patterns in each viewing, so-called hypersystemizing, a theory that asserts that the repetitive urge underlies special abilities for some of those on the spectrum.

Disney provided raw material, publicly available and ubiquitous, that Owen, with our help, built into a language and a tool kit. I’m sure, with enough creativity and energy, this can be done with any number of interests and disciplines. For some kids, their affinity is for train schedules; for others, it’s maps. While our household may not be typical, with a pair of writerly parents and a fixation on stories — all of which may have accentuated and amplified Owen’s native inclinations — we have no doubt that he shares a basic neurological architecture with people on the autism spectrum everywhere.

The challenge is how to make our example useful to other families and other kids, whatever their burning interest. That’s what Team Owen seems to be talking about. How does this work? Is there a methodology? Can it be translated from anecdote to analysis and be helpful to others in need?

Yes, parents of neurotypical kids, there are children who want to watch “Frozen” over and over again in a way that makes your daughter look like a quitter. Let it go!

From laboratory to stage to family rec room, scientists and artists and parents are using stories and theater to understand the human mind–and using our increasing knowledge of the human mind to tell stories in new ways. Ways that more of us can understand.

This kind of thing excites me, and fills me with great hope.

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Thoughts on science theater from a local actor

September 29th, 2014

Casey Preston, a local actor who excels at playing men who are not very intelligent, is in fact very intelligent (that’s the “acting” part, you see!) and wrote an absolutely brilliant response to the beginning of my science-theater manifesto. He’s a little bit skeptical of the endeavor. Here’s what he had to say–much to chew on and I wanted to make sure no one missed it:

I have a number of thoughts floating around in my head about science theater due to being an actor, having a graduate degree in the sciences, having done dramaturgy and acted in science based shows, and having watched more than a few. Mostly, I think theater about science is a trap.
Here are just a few brief thoughts:
1) Almost invariably, actors speaking about scientific concepts sound like they do not understand what they are saying. It is like speaking in a foreign language and having a vague idea of the concept, but not a firm grasp or conceptualization of the actual words.
2) When a show is about competing ideas, the director and actors often try to enhance the drama of the debate. After all, theater is about conflict, right? But, if you are having a passionate argument about science, you are doing science wrong. The scientific method is about testing ideas, not arguing about them. Turning science into a competitive debate is fundamentally misunderstanding and doing a disservice to science. This is how we end up with the fiascos of climate change and vaccinations.
3) The vast majority of audiences don’t want to go to a show whose fundamental purpose is about teaching them about science. Most people don’t enjoy science. Sure, they like entertaining shows that touch on scientific themes, but actual scientific research is boring.
4) Science and research is a very introverted activity. Therefore, shows about these topics have to find artificial ways to make it interesting. Of course, this is the nature of theater, but it also fundamentally misrepresents the nature of the scientific process. Also, most scientists are quite introverted and this can make public presentations by scientists boring.
5) Almost all scientific based shows seem to have this eureka moments of discovery. “Oh my goodness, I just cured polio!” Great theater, but it misrepresents how almost all actual science works.

All that being said, the scientific shows that seem to get produced the most and are the most successful are generally biographical in nature. The scientific themes are not driving the plot and it is still a character based show. Often these shows fall into the trap of having big arguments and conflict around scientific concepts and eureka moments of discovery, but it is still entertaining.

Most people with a decent science education have long ago learned to disregard all science in movies and television so that they can still enjoy the story. The science in entertainment is always junk. I realize that this is the basic point of your blog post- that it doesn’t have to be junk. But, as any decent writer will tell you, the reality of the situation is driven by the emotional life of the characters, not the external physics or processes of the environment. This is why I, personally, preferred the absolute scientific unreality of Snowpiercer, to the almost reality of Apes. I kept questioning the science in Apes, like why people all congregated in the fort and how their power worked, whereas in Snowpiercer I could just accept that the physics served the story and the characters.

Finally, I think the real market for science based theater is educational theater for elementary and middle school. Parents and some schools are willing to pay for theater if they think their kids will learn something. Much more so than they are willing to pay to go see science based theater themselves. Also, the basic science at these levels is much more exciting and the joy of discovery more immediate.

Good luck with your endeavor. I think it is a worthwhile cause, but I also think it can be very hard to do science theater well.

I don’t think Casey has put the bullet through the head of science theater, but he’s certainly identified a lot of the problems with it. His first point, about actors not knowing what they’re saying … yes. I’ve seen that. But I’ve also seen Bryan Cranston as Walter White. It’s not inevitable. One thing I’d like to see happen in Boston would be for actors to know where to go to research science-heavy roles, and for local scientists to open themselves up to be “shadowed” by actors looking to learn.

His points about the tension between science and story are harder to reconcile. One of the reasons I chose to study narrative in grad school was because of my increasing realization that the human mind puts events in story form–it just does–but reality is under no obligation to conform to narrative constraints. We see stories even when they aren’t there. Show people a bunch of shapes moving randomly around a screen and ask them to narrate, and you’ll get a story–”The big circle is chasing the little triangle so it’s hiding with the squares …” And we have culturally conditioned expectations of what a “good” story is. And that high-conflict, big-moment, dramatized “good” story, as Casey rightly points out, is often very untrue to the science of the thing.

Does it have to be? That’s the question. Must story always traduce science? This is what Central Square Theater’s “Emilie” is about.

And if you can tell a story about whether “storifying” is a problem in science, then obviously stories aren’t all bad. But are we making a mistake to get the concept of “science theater” all hung up on stories anyway? Maybe stories aren’t the way to do science theater. Casey is right that tales of great discoveries that are realized to be such in the moment, and scientists with bigger-than-life personalities, and vivid yet comprehensible-to-the-layperson arguments are thin on the ground in real science.

But both science and theater operate under the rubric of demonstration. Scientists have to show their results. They set the stage for a thing to happen, and watch to see if that thing does happen, and try their best to make it happen in a way that will convince everyone else that they, too, saw the same thing, and it means what the scientists said it meant. If that’s not show business, I don’t know what is. There has to be something in that.