Sunday column: Kids and art edition

Today’s column is online here. I’m working on a story for my 10-year anniversary as Miss Conduct–!!!–about what’s changed and what’s stayed the same regarding etiquette and advice. One thing in my “stay the same” category is that issues regarding kids and childraising cause a lot of stress. (My favorite book for explaining why that is is Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood.)

I especially liked the second question:

I recently went to see a critically acclaimed movie, which I hated. I didn’t walk out because I didn’t want to be rude or feel I hadn’t given it a full try. There were two children seated in front of me with their parents. The younger boy was maybe 7, the older perhaps 12. I felt horrible that they were watching scenes of attempted rape and listening to massive swearing from mean, dysfunctional people. Should I have said something to the parents, letting them know that I thought rape and misogyny might be inappropriate for their kids?

What do you think the movie was? The LW didn’t say.

I wonder what the kids took from the movie, especially the seven-year-old. How much did he even comprehend? Recently on Facebook some of my contemporaries and I were recounting our memories of the 1976 made-for-television movie “Sybil.” Our preteen selves were horrified, fascinated … and completely uncomprehending. It’s always hard to tell what kids are taking in from the swirl of stories and images around them.

It bothered me that the LW thought it would be “rude” to walk out on a movie. It’s so illogical, and betrays either the sunk-cost fallacy, or the belief that we somehow owe something to art. We do!–I hasten to add. In fact I’m working on a column in my head about what, exactly, people “owe art.” But nobody owes appreciation or attention to any one particular work of art. There’s too much of it and life is too short.

Are there any particular genres or topics that you’ve decided life is too short for? I don’t do movies (or plays) about the Holocaust. Just nope. I tend in general to avoid movies about historical–or contemporary–atrocities. And the more a movie is talked about as though it’s some kind of moral duty to see it, that if you don’t see this flick you obviously don’t care about the issue itself–boy, that is just guaranteed to keep me away from the theater.

How about you?

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Notes on four shows

After a slow holiday season things are picking up again. Four local productions have connections with science theater (or with me).

Tonight only, Poets’ Theatre will be presenting “The Word Exchange,” staged poetry in translation: “Understand the profound potency and music of language in this extraordinary evening of international poetry, including works from Vietnam, Italy, France, Ancient Greece and Rome, evocatively performed both in the original and in translations by world class poets and actors,” from the website.

I can’t go because tonight is rehearsal for the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra’s Family Concert, which I’m narrating. I wish I could, because the question of what it means to act in a language that is not your native one is of great interest. In a second language, emotion words don’t feel as strong, curse words don’t give you that little jolt of release. Swearing or using taboo words (e.g., racial slurs) in your native language registers on the body in ways that the same words in a foreign language don’t.

My good friend Catherine Caldwell-Harris does research on this–sparked when a Turkish graduate student made an off-color joke one day, then blushed and giggled and said, “I can make sex joke in English, I cannot make sex joke in Turkish”–and wrote about the topic in Scientific American:

In the last decade, however, research has shown that answers to questions can depend on the language of the question. For example, when Chinese-English bilinguals were randomly assigned to answer a self-esteem questionnaire in Chinese, they received scores indicating lower self-esteem than those who answered the same questionnaire in English. In this case, cultural differences appear to be the cause. When reading self-esteem questions in English, bicultural respondents are cued to adopt the American self-enhancing bias. When reading questions in Chinese, respondents may draw on the traditional Chinese virtue of modesty.

What, then, is it like to act in a foreign language? I’d love to hear from anyone who’s had experience with it.

“The Word Exchange” plays tonight only, at 7:30 at Suffolk University’s Modern Theatre. You can get tickets here.


Last night, Mr. Improbable and I saw “Chalk,” produced by Fresh Ink Theatre at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. “It’s the kind of thing we’d like to see more of!”–this science-theater power media couple declared. It is, too. A science-fiction play with no special effects, set after an alien invasion has wiped out most human life on earth except for one determined, resourceful teacher and the woman who may be her daughter–or may be something very different. It reminded us both of the old “Twilight Zone” or “Outer Limits” screenplays, using a speculative element to tell a very basic human story. (For a dude playwright, Walt McGough fully groks the mother-daughter thing, and I mean fully.)

Caroline Rose Markham as Cora. Photo by Louise Hamill.

“Chalk” is playing through January 24, and tickets are online here.


My talkback at the Huntington’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” went beautifully last week, and I may join some of the cast members on Boston Public Radio next week to discuss the role of family dynamics and manners in the script. The epic confrontation during the show occurs when Spike rudely texts a friend during a reading of Vanya’s play … can’t imagine why they thought to bring Miss Conduct on to analyze the crime scene!

“V&S&M&S,” by Christopher Durang, mashes his own autobiography up with a parody of classic Chekhov plays, mostly “The Seagull” and “Uncle Vanya.” In “The Seagull,” a character has a play performed–the play-within-a-play is meant to be overly intellectual and self-consciously cutting edge. For Chekhov, that’s heavy Symbolist drama–for Durang in the 21st century, it’s a science play starring a molecule contemplating the heat death of the universe.

Science theater, you have been parodied by Christopher Durang: You have arrived.

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” runs through February 1 and tickets are available here.


There isn’t any science content in “Measure for Measure,” even if it sounds like it could take place in a lab. The current Actors’ Shakespeare Project production, directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakarian, is one of the best shows they’ve done. Yesterday I interviewed ASP company member Michael Forden Walker about his role as Duke Vincentio, the Rob Ford of (fictional) Rennaissance Vienna. It’s a fantastic show.

Speaking of second languages, it’s worth the price of admission just to hear Sarah Newhouse do Shakespeare in a heavy Masshole accent.

Gentleman Client (Jared Michael Brown), Mistress Overdone (Sarah Newhouse), Lucio (Johnnie McQuarley).
Photo courtesy Stratton McCrady Photography

“Measure for Measure” runs through February 1 and tickets are available here.

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Sunday column: Party guests edition

Today’s column is here, and features two of those kinds of questions that cause me to push back when “Miss Conduct” is described as an etiquette column: How to shake an annoying hanger-on, and privacy practices in a shared home. Those do have to do with social behaviors, of course, but the “etiquette” is a word that implies a certain clear-cut-ness to me. Questions like today’s bring home the simple, existential fact that we are either a remarkably irritating or perhaps remarkably irritable species. Peaceful coexistence–I mean “peaceful” in the full Jewish sense of “shalom,” not mere absence of war but the presence of that which promotes wellbeing–is a real challenge for us. Thinking you can meet that challenge with only the rules of etiquette is like thinking Tom Brady prepares for a game by studying the rules of football.

If ordinary social interaction is football, weddings are the Super Bowl. This week’s Globe Magazine is a special weddings issues, and I’ve got an additional feature on good manners, self-defense, and enjoyment-maximization techniques for the wedding guest. A sample:

The wedding invitation says “bohemian formal” (or something like that). What does that mean?

It means there’s a high likelihood of whimsical desserts and a low chance of the Electric Slide. It means that the couple want you to dress up but also to enjoy it, and that they believe this is possible for everyone and that they believe obfuscation promotes creativity. It means nobody else will know what to wear either. It means you should wear something simple and dark with flat shoes and one boffo accessory, just like you do for every other wedding.

I don’t know anyone here. What should I do?

The instinct is to pounce on a fellow singleton, but don’t. Maybe you won’t have anything in common and then you’ll be feeling lonely and awkward with another person, which is far worse. What you want to do is find a couple who aren’t talking==a married couple with nothing to say to each other at the moment, two other singletons who tried that “find another lonely person” thing and are realizing it doesn’t always work–and start a conversation with them.

A couple, romantic or not, that is hamstrung for conversation at a wedding can be revitalized by the addition of a third party, and they’ll be desperate and grateful enough that they won’t let the ball drop. Start with “How do you know the newlyweds?” “What do you do?” and then hit them with “Do you hate when people ask ‘What do you do?’ as small talk?” You’ll charm all four of their socks off.

If you’ve suffered through your share of dull weddings, or parties spoiled by an annoying, cloying friend, you might enjoy “Women Having A Terrible Time at Parties in Western Art History” by Mallory Ortberg, who really needs to have an entire school of art criticism named after her.


We’ve all been at that party.

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Sunday column: Special events edition

Vanya.PDP1Today’s column is online here, about a topic I find perpetually fascinating: Etiquette and disability. As I wrote:

And etiquette is a set of social rules written for “normal” bodies and minds. When people are obviously incapable of following its demands, we understand. No one expects a man in a wheelchair to stand up when respected guests enter the room?—?but we can see a wheelchair. People with invisible disabilities are in the unenviable position of having to explain themselves constantly or risk being thought rude. The problem isn’t that etiquette is oppressive but that we spend so very much time, in the 21st century, in the company of strangers. This makes life a social minefield for those of us who cannot easily shake hands, eat or drink some common offerings, stand up at parties or on the subway, recognize faces, or the like.

What etiquette demands do you have a hard time with, physically or mentally? I have no manual dexterity and poor hand-eye coordination, so I only do handwritten notes when absolutely necessary, and my table manners are, honestly, nothing to brag about. Etiquette is easier when you’re good with your hands. I’m good with my heart and mind and voice, though! And if you’d like to hear me use them, you could come to Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Mike” this Wednesday, January 21, at the Huntington, when I’ll be doing a talkback after the performance on the role of bad manners in comedy. (This is a Globe insiders event, so tickets to that night’s performance are $45 for Boston Globe subscribers who use the discount code.)




Also, I’ll be narrating the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra’s Family Concert, “The Thrill of the Orchestra,” on Sunday, January 25. The concert is at the Armory in Somerville at 4 p.m. The concert is designed for children of all ages.


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Sunday column: Addiction edition

Today’s column is online here. The first question is about neighbors who smoke outdoors, and I’m sure to get angry letters about this bit of advice:

If you’re lucky, your neighbors will ask if their cigarette smoke bothers you, too, and then you can allow as to how it does. If they don’t bring it up themselves, however, tread lightly. I’ve yet to meet a smoker who is happy about his or her habit and the financial, health, and social costs that it entails. If your neighbors aren’t capable of quitting in order to improve their own quality of life, they’re certainly not going to do so to improve yours.

Tobacco is one of the most addictive substances out there and no neighborly requests, no matter how polite or eloquent, is going to change that. People like to think that their snarky comment or heartfelt plea or terrifying statistic will be the one that will Make The Difference, but it won’t. Think about how very, very many straws have told themselves that they, they would be the one to break the camel’s back. Think how many got chomped by that camel in return.

I try to give advice that will work, that isn’t overly based on “shoulds.” If the shoulds were working then nobody would have had to write to me in the first place.

What “works” with addicts is up for debate. One of the persistent themes of this blog is that stories are crucial to humans, and to our ability to understand an issue, but that stories are always a gloss on reality, not reality itself. And sometimes, a way of telling a story can be so compelling that it prevents us from seeing what is in fact happening.

This may be the case with addiction. The image of the trauma-created, spiritually bereft addict who must hit bottom, have a moral re-awakening, and struggle to achieve sobriety through lifelong abstinence and the creation of a “recovering addict” self-image … may not be the correct one. It’s a powerful, powerful cultural narrative, but the science simply doesn’t back it up, as Pacific Standard magazine reports:

The average cocaine addiction lasts four years, the average marijuana addiction lasts six years, and the average alcohol addiction is resolved within 15 years. Heroin addictions tend to last as long as alcoholism, but prescription opioid problems, on average, last five years. In these large samples, which are drawn from the general population, only a quarter of people who recover have ever sought assistance in doing so (including via 12-step programs). This actually makes addictions the psychiatric disorder with the highest odds of recovery.

Pacific Standard has more on addiction, here and here for starters. Aeon takes on the AA of addiction, which has been untouched by science since the 1930s:

The one-size-fits-all therapy of AA can’t possibly address every facet of the disease: addiction is a habit rooted in brain circuitry, but also frequently a consequence of a traumatic experience or exposure from childhood onwards. Most of us just flirt with addiction, stopping our habit without any formal treatment or intervention from self-help groups such as AA. Others struggle mightily over a lifetime, their addiction a spectre – an ever-present haunting.

Addiction, moreover, often exists in tandem with other neuropsychiatric disease – a find that the Big Book has not been revised to include. Nearly a third of adults who experience mental illness have an addiction. This number skyrockets for jail and prison inmates. Three quarters of those with mental health problems also have a substance use disorder.

AA can obviously be useful for individuals, of course–there’s no point denying those numbers–but it’s folk medicine with no empirical evidence, and that shouldn’t be forgotten, especially when judges are mandating treatment. (The program really does only work if you work it.)

Eve Tushnet of The American Conservative had a brilliant piece about what these competing views of addiction mean, in terms of storytelling and moral structures:

The two narratives have differing views of authority: The 12-Steppy model comes across as authoritarian, and can definitely be used as an excuse for cruelty, but it also has an anarchic respect for the wisdom of ordinary people. It attempts to turn followers into leaders through personal guidance. What I’m (again, super-reductively) calling the harm reduction model is simultaneously much more individualistic, and much more reliant on medical expertise. The expert-layperson hierarchy is in many ways more rigid than the sponsor/sponsee relationship. The harm reduction worldview tries to avoid the problems of class- and education-hierarchies by soliciting as much participation as possible from people on the ground, current drug users. “Nothing about us without us” is a slogan of the harm reduction movement, and one with which I agree… but it’s not a slogan AA ever needed, because AA’s whole genesis and development was by “us,” the alcoholics.

The harm reduction model is typically much more comfortable with the idea that different approaches to recovery are valid for different people. There’s much less pressure to force everybody into one method, goal, spirituality, and language.

Check out her entire piece. It’s an excellent meditation on the complex relationship between storytelling, science, morality, and public policy.

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No column today; 2014 review

There’s no column today because of the holidays–although in 2015, I’ve been told, the Globe Magazine will publish every Sunday of the year and not take the traditional Christmas and Independence Day weeks off.

2014 has been one heck of a year. Our apartment was renovated and we lived in it during the renovation, which was a test of our organizational and couplehood skills. I got cast in the role of a lifetime at the JP Footlights Club–the six psychiatrists in “Reckless,” all with different accents! and cardigans!–and had to resign when my mother broke her hip, way out in the Ozarks, the night before we went into tech. Our beloved Milo dog died of lymphoma in early April.

Instead of making my Boston theatrical debut onstage, I made it offstage when I got pressed into assistant-directing the Ig Nobel Opera this year. My husband gave a TEDMed talk. I co-authored a cover story for Harvard Business Review. The Globe and split up, so I lost my old blog, but I started blogging again here on the intersection of science and the performing arts. We took an amazing vacation to the southwest.

Mixed bag, is what I’m saying. Lots of upheaval, yet at the end of the day, we are muchly where we started. Living at the same address, albeit in a different and vastly improved arrangement of rooms. Continuing to manage our parents’ circumscribed yet complex lives, and learning more than we ever wanted to know about Medicaid eligibility. Temporarily dogless. Mr. Improbable are both still thinking and writing and saying (hopefully) funny and insightful things about science and art and everyday life, (hopefully) for money.

One of the useful concepts I’ve learned at my HBS job is explore versus exploit. No organization, and certainly no individual, can dedicate time and energy to every possible worthwhile endeavor. What you want to do is balance exploration and exploitation. Exploitation isn’t meant to have a nasty connotation–it simply means doing the stuff you, or your multinational corporation, are already doing, but doing it better, faster, cheaper, more effectively. Exploiting the resources already at your command so that they have greater impact. Fine-tuning. Exploration, by contrast, is going into the unknown, investing time and effort and resources with no clear ROI.

My New Year’s resolutions, such as they are, can all be categorized as explore versus exploit. Trying to do better at my current jobs–make more connections, increase my readership, get more publicity, throw more dinner parties–that’s exploitation. Most of my writing and thinking about science/theater–this blog, an upcoming conference on science and theater, ideas for actors to interview and stories to pitch–that’s all on the “explore” side. I don’t know what I want this science/theater business to turn into yet–an arts-reporting gig? A grant-funded blog? A part-time administrative position somewhere? And I don’t have to, yet. That’s the beauty of assigning something entirely to the “explore” side.

Get better at what you do, and then try something else. Simple, really.

What are your 2015 resolutions?

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Sunday column: Solving for the X in Xmas edition

Today’s column is here, a holiday-themed twofer of horrible houseguests and what to give the guy at the gym who lets you in without paying.

I’m also going to be speaking this afternoon at the Sunday Assembly, a humanist congregation that meets at 45 Mt. Auburn Street in Cambridge, at 4pm today about what a humanist “Xmas” might look like. Perhaps I’ll see you there!

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Sunday column: Giving edition

Today’s column is online here. It’s about gift-giving, surprise! I still think this Perspectives piece is one of the better things I’ve written on the topic:

Giving gifts serves symbolic functions—cementing relationships, celebrating life transitions—as well as the practical one of providing people with stuff they need. And this is at the crux of today’s etiquette dilemmas: For the first time ever, most of us have too much stuff and not enough money.

How are you handling gift-giving this season? My husband and I rarely buy each other gifts. The things we like–old paperback mysteries for him, art and clothes for me–are so idiosyncratic that we have to shop for ourselves. We buy each other little food treats quite often, but not actual presents.

We’re visiting my mother in Missouri this weekend, and I’d brought her a big bag of halvah because you can’t get halvah in the Ozarks. (My mother knows this for a fact because she called the only synagogue in Springfield and asked the rabbi if he knew where she could score any, a conversation that must have been truly epic.) But my mother’s taste buds have changed, apparently, because old age is a curse, and now she doesn’t like halvah.

I am getting ready to head over to her nursing home now and I suspect we might be having a difficult conversation about Christmas. My mother is almost completely incapacitated, and on Medicaid. For Christmas this year I will buy her the new shoes she wants, and a month of physical therapy, which she enjoys but which Medicaid won’t pay for anymore, because she is not improving.

No gift I can give her will make up for the fact that she cannot give to anyone, or do for anyone, any more. No gift can make up for the pain of being always a recipient, never a giver.

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Miss Conduct interlude: What about the holidays works/doesn’t work for you?

What about the holiday season works, or doesn’t work, for you?

What parts do you love and what do you hate? What do you enjoy and what do you dread? And what do you do to try to maximize the good parts and minimize the chores?

I’m doing a talk on Sunday, December 21 for the Boston Sunday Assembly, a humanist/atheist congregation. The assembly meets from 4-6pm at the Democracy Center at 45 Mt. Auburn Street. I’ll be talking about Christmas, its joys and discontents, and alternative celebrations. Come join! But in the meantime, share with me your personal joys and discontents of the season.

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Miss Conduct talkback (and discount code!) for CST’s “Arabian Nights”

Cast of ARABIAN NIGHTS. Photo: A. R. Sinclair Photography.

Central Square Theater, known for its science-themed plays, offers a change of pace with “The Arabian Nights.” This is their traditional holiday/family show, and it’s absolutely wonderful, ingeniously designed and engineered. Look at that gorgeous roc!

I’ll be doing a talkback after this Thursday’s performance, about storytelling and leadership. Blog readers can get 20% of tickets to all performances (but come Thursday! and stay for my enlightening, entertaining, and brief talk!) with the discount code ROBIN.

I hope to see you there!

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Sunday column: Holidays are here edition

Today’s column is online here, and we’ve got our first holiday question, this one about a “sibling” (left determinedly gender-neutral by the letter writer, who strove mightily to avoid giving any context at all) who won’t host or help out in any way during the holidays.

How does your family get on during the holidays?

I have eight adult cousins who are all brothers and sisters, and who live in various parts of the US with two main clusters around DC and the Ozarks, and I’ve always admired how they handle things, especially their determination not to get trapped in traditions for the sake of traditions. If one family (seven of the eight are married, and six of the couples have children) decides to visit in-laws on Thanksgiving for a change, there are no hurt feelings. This year, the cousin with the newest baby decided to bring her to meet the family on Halloween, rather than Thanksgiving or Christmas, because travel is easier and distractions fewer. It’s minimal drama, maximal crafting of good memories, especially for all the kids.

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Chris Rock on comedy and cell phones

Everyone I know and read has been posting this Chris Rock interview and wow, I can see why. Chris Rock is the smartest man in the world and we should let him do whatever the hell he wants.

The interview, conducted by Frank Rich, covers a lot of territory, from race to parenthood to money. Rock also talks show business, of course, and the chilling effect that smart phones have had on standup comedy:

A few days ago I was talking with Patton Oswalt, and he was exercised about the new reality that any comedian who is trying out material that’s a little out there can be fucked by someone who blasts it on Twitter or a social network.

I know Dave Chappelle bans everybody’s phone when he plays a club. I haven’t gone that far, but I may have to, to get an act together for a tour.

Does it force you into some sort of self-censorship?

It does. I swear I just had a conversation with the people at the Comedy Cellar about how we can make cell phones into cigarettes. If you would have told me years ago that they were going to get rid of smoking in comedy clubs, I would have thought you were crazy.

It is scary, because the thing about comedians is that you’re the only ones who practice in front of a crowd. Prince doesn’t run a demo on the radio. But in stand-up, the demo gets out. There are a few guys good enough to write a perfect act and get onstage, but everybody else workshops it and workshops it, and it can get real messy. It can get downright offensive. Before everyone had a recording device and was wired like fucking Sammy the Bull, you’d say something that went too far, and you’d go, “Oh, I went too far,” and you would just brush it off. But if you think you don’t have room to make mistakes, it’s going to lead to safer, gooier stand-up. You can’t think the thoughts you want to think if you think you’re being watched.

I pushed back on this, mentally, at first, because my knee-jerk response is to blow off anything that even smacks of a whine about “political correctness.” This instinct is usually a sound one, especially when dealing with comedians. I’ve met plenty who would rather accuse you of having no sense of humor than consider that their joke might not have been funny, and who can’t tell the difference between genuine just-heard-God’s-own-truth laughter and the nervous, tittering, just-heard-a-mother-superior-fart laughter.

But Rock is right, as usual. Some comics may merely bemoan not being able to use race and sex slurs onstage, but smartphones could have a chilling effect in other ways. I used to do standup for a while in the mid-90s, and had Twitter and smartphones been around back then, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I had a day job doing publicity for a theater company, and while an organization like that doesn’t care if you do creative stuff in your off-hours, my boss might have cared if he’d known I was making jokes about him, if Twitter had been there to make him care. How many other wannabe comedians have day jobs? You think “edgy material,” nowadays, you think of hot-button race and gender stuff, but frankly, for any given comedian, who knows what the hot-button material is? Maybe it’s talking about their families of origin, or day jobs, or the church they go to, or what their childhood was like. Something they don’t want to have be part of their Permanent Internet Record, not yet.

Chris Rock makes another point:

And by the way: An audience that’s not laughing is the biggest indictment that something’s too far. No comedian’s ever done a joke that bombs all the time and kept doing it. Nobody in the history of stand-up. Not one guy.

Yep. Audiences have only one source of power in the audience-comic transaction, but it’s the most potent core-of-the-sun power there is. The power not to laugh. That’s what you do with the guy who’s making rape jokes onstage. If you want better comedians, you have to have better audiences. This is harder. It’s harder to control your own instinctive, etiquette-trained nervous giggle than it is to shame someone on Twitter. But if you want other people to modify their behavior, you may have to modify yours as well. With bad comics, stony silence is the only appropriate response.

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Thinky links

Around the holiday season there’s not quite as much science-themed entertainment, but what a lot of thought-provoking articles on art, science, storytelling, and the self have come out lately.

Well, there is one bit of holiday time science fun–NPR’s Science Friday broadcasts an edited recording of the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony on the Friday before Thanksgiving. Makes a nice family tradition for us! And perhaps it will for you, too. Have a listen. They always do a great job.

And more …

Slate’s Willa Paskin looks at how psychology and technology combine to create the fad of “being obsessed with cultural product ‘X.'” My recent obsession was, and still is, the “Song of Fire and Ice” novels. (I finished all five of them two weeks ago, and although I have read other things, I have not wanted to read other things). She tends to attribute what gets obsessed over, and what doesn’t, to hipsterism, basically: You want to show how cool you are by discovering something, sharing it with cool friends, and moving on when the hoi polloi discover it. This may be the case with, say, cronuts, but it seems to me that cultural products that garner geeky obsession, as opposed to being merely a pop fad, are those that reward nitpicky analysis. Usually this happens because the product is complex and open to multiple lines of inquiry–like the “Game of Thrones” books–although it can also happen when the product is so utterly vapid that it provides a fertile field for improv disguised as critique, like those Amazon reviews for Bic pens “For Her.”

More on psychology and media–Americans have always felt guilty about watching TV, although the reasons have changed over time. Is science the solution?

In the late 1980s, research began to indicate the existence of consumer guilt and its useful role in capitalism (terms like “guilt market” were coined). Networks recognized their stake in easing their viewers’s collective guilt and adapted accordingly. According to Brooks, viewers tend to feel better about watching TV if they can feel there’s a mentally stimulating component—hence the eventual meteoric rise of franchises like Law & Order and CSI, with their seemingly infinite capacity to generate spinoffs.

“The police procedural mixes science with crime-solving, so you get the police lab and how they figure out the hairs and DNA or the little clues—and all of that gives it a patina of science,” Brooks said. “And so the viewer thinks, ‘Maybe this isn’t a waste of time; I’m learning something from this.’”

Speaking of what we “should” and “shouldn’t” watch, Pacific Standard–a really excellent magazine–has a great piece about when high culture and low culture have been at odds in American culture, and when they’ve converged. Here’s how Shakespeare fits in:

[I]n 19th-century America, high culture was everywhere. Shakespeare was The Avengers of the 19th century. To say that Shakespeare was The Avengers, though, is to say, in part, that Shakespeare was not high culture at all. Instead, Shakespeare was popular culture—and treated as such. Shakespearean plays, Levine writes, were advertised the way big-budget movies are advertised today—as spectacular draws filled with gore, melodrama, and special effects. Acting styles of the 1800s were broad and explosive; Whitman said that Edmund Kean’s performance “blinded and stunned the beholders, appalled the imagination, and chilled the blood.”

Shakespeare’s plays were treated as popular culture—they appeared on the same bill with farces, acrobatics, and minstrel shows. Just as studios feel comfortable reworking stories about Spider-Man or Batman ad infinitum, so did the theater producers of the time feel comfortable rejiggering Shakespeare, adding a happy ending to Lear, moving characters from play to play, shifting soliloquies or incorporating them into minstrel pastiches.

Yeah, yeah, I know worrying about authorial intent is a critical faux pas nowadays, but I have to say, Shakespeare would have loved that.

One of the most interesting psychological insights/theories of the past 20 years or so is “embodied cognition,” or the idea that our physical world structures, through metaphors, the way we think. Slate has a good piece on this, and my friend Michael Chorost introduces the concept and some of its current controversies in the Chronicle of Higher Ed.

Kat McGowan writes in Aeon about the human instinct for imitation:

Other animals sometimes copy and can learn from one another. But only humans imitate indiscriminately, persistently, and at very high accuracy. We’re compulsive about it. Even before babies can walk, they start imitating adults. In the 1930s, a pair of psychologists raised an infant chimp alongside their own baby in an attempt to understand both species better. The chimp raised in this family (and others in other such experiments later in the century) never behaved much like a human. The human child, on the other hand, soon began knuckle-walking, biting, grunting and hooting – just like his new sibling.

The article goes on to argue that progress–however defined, really–is the result not so much of innovation as imitation: “It turns out that creating something new is the easy part. What’s difficult – and what’s really important – is maintaining what we already know through copying.”

Finally, another Science Friday piece (with transcript, if you’d rather read than listen) about the collaboration of Bell Labs engineer Billy Klüver and his dedication to bringing science and the visual arts together:

Klüver came along just when Tinguely had begun thinking about this work, which was to become his most famous act of destruction. Homage to New York was an extraordinary contraption, a weird assemblage of small machines that would self-destruct one by one at preset times, sparking and smoking to an accompanying musical sound track while it rolled around haphazardly until it completely blew up in, as Klüver put it, “one glorious act of mechanical suicide.”

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Today’s column: Call nine-wine-wine edition

Today’s column is online here. The second question is from a “grandma” who is concerned that her daughter is too tense and raises her voice too much with the “cuties.” What should grandma say?

I should have used this question in my exams back when I was teaching psychology, because if you don’t immediately realize that the daughter’s tension is probably connected to her mother’s presence and reduces as soon as Grandma goes back home, you weren’t paying attention. It’s called the Hawthorne Effect: Observing a behavior can change that behavior.

The first question is from a couple who regularly get inveigled (I don’t regularly write “inveigled,” so that there was a real thrill) into picking up the tab for another couple’s pricey wine habit. They just needed someone to officially let them off the hook from their excessive notions of hospitality and fear of seeming cheap, so I did that. I hate when people feel guilty or ashamed for spending their money in accordance with financial reality and their personal priorities.

Incidentally, did any of you happen to hear this story when it broke–the guy who ordered a bottle of wine for “thirty-seven fifty” that turned out to cost $3,750? Better call Saul!

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Scheduling problems

A friend of mine posted on Facebook earlier this week,

Why do all the theater companies in Greater Boston do all their “family friendly” stuff in November and December? Most of it isn’t even holiday-related. Don’t they know there’s a vast expanse of time from January to May, which is when families actually have time and are looking for stuff to do?

What a great question! Theater companies ought to take it under consideration. So should you, as the artistic director of your own life, when you’re making social plans. Everyone’s booked solid in December, and then come long, dark January and February, with no real holidays and no special events and very few people traveling. Those are great months to throw parties! Don’t send your invites until after Christmas, though, or they’ll disappear into the general slush pile.

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