The Dancing Plague

The Dancing Plague
The Dancing Plague

The Dancing Plague: The Strange, True Story of an Extraordinary Illness by John Waller

Waller provides a pretty straightforward account of the Dancing Plague of 1518, in which hundreds of people in Strasbourg, Germany, started dancing uncontrollably, stopping only when they collapsed out of exhaustion, and picking up where they left off when they woke.  Many people died, others spent days or weeks in constant torment.  It’s a fascinating story.  Here are a couple interesting quotes, along with my commentary:

Deep in the subconscious minds of those familiar with the state of trance and possession, there is a kind of script, specific to their culture, which channels their feelings and actions.  And just as importantly, the same beliefs that guide the trance also make the individual susceptible to it.  In super-naturalist cultures, people succumb to the trance state because they expect spirits or demons to commandeer their souls. (84-85)

Waller joins many psychologists in explaining this phenomena as a kind of mass hysteria, where the activity itself stems from a cultural expectation.  He argues that this particular dance was spurred by a particularly terrible run of harvests which left the poor even moreso, and up to their eyes in debt (often to the church).  St. Vitus’ Dance, as the disease was known at the time, was seen as a punishment for the sinful city.

Not surprisingly, when people stop believing in possession and uncontrollable dancing, they stop being afflicted by it:

The demise of St. Vitus’ Dance is at one level easily explained.  Afflictions that depend on the power of suggestion cannot survive without the beliefs that underpin them.  Deprived of the supernaturalism on which it subsisted, choreomania was starved out of existence. (187)

Waller goes on to trace the path of uncontrolled physical diseases (like hysteria, PTSD, and the like) that manifest psychological distress.  He argues these are all of a piece, and that the society one grows up in determines the expression of these illnesses.

Modern possession rituals also reveal how powerfully the participant’s thoughts and actions are guided by their culture’s beliefs and expectations; in fact, some experts argue that trance is nothing more than a state of extreme suggestibility…. The participants in Haitian Vodou rituals adopt the roles of specific deities drawn from a pantheon of gods with verying personalities. (211)

Of course, this is the explanation offered by many for the Haitian zombie phenomenon.  Someone dosed with a tranquilizing drug, and raised in a society that believes zombification is possible might very well believe him/herself to be a zombie.  But the notion that the expression of this trauma takes a shape determined, at some unconscious level, by the society around us reminds me a lot of the unconscious processes Burton describes in On Being Certain.  We don’t know what strange ideas and habits float around below our consciousness.

Rave
“Rave”by tuxthepenguin84 used under cc-license

Dancing through the night, largely heedless of bodily exhaustion, [ravers] reproduce at least some of the bizarreness of the dancing plague.  In this limited sense we might see clubbing as the chemical equivalent of the original St. Vitus’ Dance.  Certainly, anyone unconvinced that an altered state of mind could have impelled thousands of people in 1518 to dance for days on end will have their doubts dispelled by witnessing the modern-day clubbing phenomenon. (231)

Overall, it’s an interesting book, with solid research and storytelling, and interesting insight into the maladies of the past and the present.

On Guilt and Inanimate Objects

One of the last photos of Mousie
One of the last photos of Mousie, held in the preferred upside-down position.

Two events occurred recently that have spawned a ridiculous guilt process in the deep recesses of my RAM.

  1. After three years of near constant companionship, Finn lost “Mousie,” his grey stuffed mouse that looked surprisingly like a kangaroo and had jingly bells inside.  Despite our best efforts to prevent it from leaving the house, sometimes he carried it out to the van and insisted on bringing it with us.  Such was the case yesterday two weeks ago, and somewhere between the apple orchard and the gas station/restaurant oasis, the mouse escaped from the car and vanished into the Illinois countryside.  The boy is taking it surprisingly well, sad but willing to take comfort from his other stuffed animals instead.  We’ve told him Mousie is on a different adventure now.
  2. At the village campin’ out night, they showed Toy Story 3, which is about what toys feel like when their owners abandon them.  I spent the whole darn night wondering what Mousie felt like when we left him in the grassy parking lot at the apple orchard.  (I can’t bring myself to contemplate that we left him in the oil-stained concrete hellscape of the freeway oasis.)

A few things occur to me as I think about Finn, Mousie, and my own reactions to the whole situation:

  • I marvel at the powerful forces of empathy and anthropomorphism.  Of course, scientists have suggested several evolutionary advantages to our ability to empathize with fellow humans: community safety, shared resources and risk, protection for our progeny.  I can’t help but wonder if our tendency to anthropomorphize is a byproduct of the empathy engine in our brains.
  • Toys also operate within the realm of the uncanny valley, right?  The animals who resemble us more closely gain more empathy from us.  (Or, as Dennis Leary put it: “I’m an otter, I can do cute little things with my hands and swim in circles.”  “You can go.” “I’m a cow, I have a right to life too.” “Shut up, you’re a baseball glove.  Get on the f’in truck.”)  Mousie became a familiar part of the household routine, and his shape (much like the giant mouse in the Bugs Bunny cartoons) was bipedal enough that he got closer to human than a straightforward mouse would have.
  • I’m immensely relieved that Finn doesn’t seem too upset about Mousie’s absence.  He fussed about it yesterday, but today he seems to have resigned himself to hanging out with his other animals.  We’re encouraging him to spread the love around, both to avoid overly attaching himself to another comfort animal but also to avoid the situation of risking loss of “the” animal.
  • Avery, for her part, had a small Pooh bear that served a similar function.  We had the foresight to buy a couple extra Poohs just in case one went missing.  Mousie came with a blanket and is inaccessible as a stand-alone toy.

But maybe all this is too deep for the subject matter.  After all, when I mentioned this to Jenny, she reminded me that Toy Story is a movie, and that toys do not get up and move around when we aren’t looking.  Sure they don’t.

In which I gain a dubious honor

A friend alerted me that the rolling media coverage of  Zombies in Popular Media made it into Maxim magazine last month.  Aside from the odd situation of being in a magazine I’m not very fond of, I discovered that they made the classic mistake of attributing the class to “Columbia” rather than “Columbia College Chicago.”  I wonder if the press office at Columbia University has to field calls about my class very often.  Anyhow, here’s the article, with the mention of my class as number 8.

"Learn Things About Learning" Maxim Magazine, Sept 2011
"Learn Things About Learning" Maxim Magazine, Sept 2011

The text from number 8 reads:

School is cool.  Not all college classes are about econ and Faulkner.  Arguing with Judge Judy: Popular “Logic” on TV Judge Shows (UC Berkeley); Philosophy and Star Trek(Georgetown); Zombies in Popular Media (Columbia College Chicago); Far Side Entomology (Oregon State).

You’ll notice I corrected the name of the college.

Escape from Alcatraz

I see you!
I see you!

“Live” blogging event: Thoughts  written during a viewing of the Clint Eastwood classic, Escape from Alcatraz.

  • Opening sequence, which uses almost no dialogue, just foley effects and music to set the scene.  The history of the Rock has long turned, in some ways, on its use of silence to control prisoners.  The silent guards and Clint Eastwood underscore this.
  • Hey! After he gets dropped off, they drive him up the same ramp I went up when I toured this summer!
  • Castle Thunder makes an appearance.  It’s an interesting bit of Hollywood folklore to appear in a movie filled with prison folklore.  In fact, the full movie so far is built on iconography of place.  It started with the Golden Gate Bridge, then the iconic elements of Alcatraz, then the iconography of the prison itself.
  • Whoo! I wonder if naked Clint Eastwood caused a sensation.
  • The men standing at attention when they come out of their cells have a fascist rigidity and image, reminds me of Reifenstahl.  I think the Reich would have admired Alcatraz, with its orderly shaping of human experience and its architectural lines.
  • It’s a nice surprise to find Patrick McGoohan as the warden.  I wonder if he appreciated the irony of playing this role after playing number 6.
  • “Sometimes I think that’s all this place is.  We count the hours, the bulls count us, the king bulls count the counts.”
  • The cruelty of a place like Alcatraz in these kinds of movies is really interesting, because it helps us see prisoners as people.  Yes, they’ve done wrong, but does any human being deserve the indignity of life this way?  It’s not hard to see the bulls as inhuman monsters.
  • Most badass moment so far: Clint picks up the fingers Doc chopped off, puts them in a box and gives them to the bull and says, “Put that in your report.”
  • I’ve spent most of the movie so far wondering where I’d seen Larry Hankin (the man who plays Charley Butts) before.  Finally, I worked through the list on IMDB and found him listed as “Kramer/Tom Pepper,” and that’s when I remembered that he played the psychotic stalker cast to play the Kramer character on the Seinfeld show-within-a-show.  I have no memory of why, but I know that I saw that particular episode several times, and Tom Pepper took up some valuable bit of my brain.  I probably forgot some crucial quote from Deleuze because Larry Hankin was still hanging out in there.
  • I can’t help but wonder how much of the escape stuff is true.  Did they weld the nail clipper and the spoon together?  I only remember the spoon bit from my visit to the prison itself.  I suppose, since they didn’t catch the prisoners, that they can only surmise just how the details of the escape went.
  • The success of the papier mache heads really speaks to the Gorilla effect — the idea that we only see what we want to see.  A couple bits about the escape from this movie that were not depicted accurately.  First, the movie (and the Mythbusters episode) makes it seem like they only worked during the night.  The ranger who took me up into the gun gallery told me that they got permission to “clean” up there during the day, and even hung up curtains to hide what they were doing.  The guards thought they were cleaning.  The ranger told me all this was kept secret for a long time to hide the poor decisions that led to the breakout.  Also, the prison was more poorly staffed by the 1960s, and the gun gallery at the end where they worked was unpatrolled.
  • I love that Fred Ward is in this movie.
  • The movie scene is inaccurate — at least according to the ranger I talked with.  The movie they showed was a war movie.  Our ranger told us that the prisoners were only allowed to watch movies with no violence at all, no crime.  The movie should have been a comedy.  The ranger said that after one particularly funny Laurel and Hardy movie, the inmates spent a week trying to recreate their antics.
  • The actual escape sequence makes me want to watch The Shawshank Redemption again.  I like the storytelling in that one better, the reverse-engineering of the escape, rather than the follow-along.
  • The Anglin brother who isn’t Fred Ward has a weird, floppy kind of hairstyle that reminds me, for some reason, of Ben Horne’s younger brother in Twin Peaks.
  • I haven’t read any books or anything about this, so I don’t know whether Butts and his plight as the fourth escapee is a real part of the story.  But boy, do I feel sorry for that chump.
  • Worst part of the escape process: having to blow up the raft when you get down to the water.  Geez, that would suck.  This is especially true because the raft in the movie isn’t anything like the raft that Adam and Jamie make in Mythbusters.
  • As with Independence Day and the dog, the best part of this sequence is that Frank Morris saved the mouse.

The Lock Artist

The Lock Artist
The Lock Artist

The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton

The Lock Artist follows the adventures of a ‘boxman’ named Mike, a seventeen-year-old whose innate skill with locks and inability to speak get him tangled up with the criminal element and lead him into life as a safe-cracker.  It’s a fast-paced read, with strong character development and a plot both gripping and intricate.  The ending feels a bit light for the intense quality of the rest of the book, but otherwise, it’s great.

A few more thoughts:

  • I read this book for my mystery book club, and we spent a fair amount of time talking about how this isn’t really a mystery.  There are mysteries about the narrative, sure, but all novels have that to one degree or another.  But there’s no detective trying to solve the case, there’s no enigma the audience needs to puzzle out alongside the narrator.  Indeed, most of the narrative tension comes from the narrator’s reluctance to reveal the facts he knows.  Hamilton also uses the ‘jump back and forth between two plots’ device that we’ve seen in so many other thrillers (Dan Brown’s books come to mind here).
  • The safe-cracking scenes are pretty darn entertaining.  Notes from the author suggest that they’re accurate enough that people who know locks will understand the details, but you couldn’t use his book to learn how to open locks.
  • The main character teases us with the mysterious trauma of his past for most of the book, acknowledging that his experience is the reason he isn’t able to talk, but unwilling to tell us about that experience until the narrative DEMANDS it.  Like A Cold Day in Paradise, Hamilton uses the young man’s physical ailment to augment the psychological problems he has.  Mike isn’t able to connect with people, and his silence underscores that effect.
  • As with A Cold Day in Paradise, the end feels a bit rushed and undercooked.  I haven’t read Hamilton’s other books (of which there are a few), but I’d be interested to see if this is an anomaly, or just a quirk of his writing style.
  • In general, the book club felt sorry for the uncle and the girlfriend, the two people who cared most about Mike’s life and the ones he had to abandon to protect them.

The Lock Artist is a good read: gripping, evocative, emotional, and balanced.  Well worth a look.

Ada Lovelace Day

Finding Ada
Finding Ada

Ada Lovelace Day is coming up.  Are you ready?

This Ada Lovelace Day on October 7, share your story about a woman — whether an engineer, a scientist, a technologist or mathematician — who has inspired you to become who you are today. Write a blog post, record a podcast, film a video, draw a comic, or pick any other way to talk about the women who have been guiding lights in your life. Give your heroine the credit she deserves!

I have a tradition of reading a book about a female scientist I hadn’t known about before and posting a discussion of her on Ada Lovelace Day.  I’m ready to go!  Are you?

2011-09-25 Tweets

  • Hitler learns of the changes in the Star Wars blu-ray discs. (via @boingboing ) http://t.co/stzkTtjJ #
  • Squirrel Nut Zippers song "Put a Lid on It" reminds me of Carrie Anne Moss dancing w/ the zombie in FIDO. http://t.co/UBT0hdMt #
  • Fire alarm at my office, three engines and fire marshall truck show up. #
  • Considering home birth? Amy Tuteur gives some advice about picking a midwife… http://t.co/9ziL1G1n #

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Conflicts of Interest- midwifery edition

Belly Silhouette by bettina n
"Belly Silhouette" by bettina n used under cc att-nc-sa license

For some reason, I’ve started reading THE SKEPTICAL OB, even though we’re done having kids and weren’t homebirth kinda people anyway.  That said, I think this is one of her best posts  — not too caustic, but straightforward about her ideas and the real risks people take when they choose home birth.

You’re thinking about homebirth and you are interviewing the midwife. Or perhaps you’ve already decide on a homebirth, but you have developed a complication and you need to decided whether to deliver in a hospital instead. Maybe you’ve decided on a homebirth, but you haven’t decided whether to have the tests routinely included in MD supervised prenatal care.

You’ve asked the midwife for her opinion, but before you decided to accept it, you need to ask yourself a critical question: What’s in it for the midwife?

For better or for worse, most obstetricians have no vested interested in how you end up with a healthy baby. Most obstetricians make no extra money for a C-section, and they certainly don’t profit from fetal monitoring, routine prenatal tests, ultrasound, induction, just about any intervention you can think of. Homebirth and NCB advocates routinely deride “defensive medicine” but even that it about giving you a healthy baby. They order tests and recommend interventions because they think it will increase the chances of an excellent outcome, not because it will line their pockets.

The situation is entirely different for a homebirth midwife. She stands to make money if she can convince you that you need nothing more than what she knows how to provide. She stands to lose money if she can’t provide what you need. Therefore, it is important to understand that an inherent financial conflict of interest exists for a homebirth midwife at every juncture requiring a decision. (read the rest)

I happened upon this blog through Orac’s Respectful Insolence, which regularly focuses on issues of alt medicine debates.  (I found my way there because of my interest in the anti-vax movement).  For Dr. Tuteur, the home birth movement is annoying because, as I understand her arguments, the practitioners are both dangerously undereducated and dangerously over-confident.

The parts of her arguments I find most compelling are the simple discussion of motives — most professional home birth advocates (and midwives) make money off the home birth movement, but often deploy arguments suggesting that the medical establishment has been sullied by money (while they have not).  We see this rhetoric at work in the anti-vax movement as well.  The best example she wields is the fact that NAMA (a midwives advocacy and research group) has a huge database of information about home birth safety track records, but to get access to it, individuals and groups have to go through a significant vetting process and then sign forms bascially saying they won’t use the information to say anything bad about midwifery.  As Tuteur points out, if the data on birthrates and safety were good, they’d be trumpeting it from mountaintops.  One wonders, then, if the information is bad, how any ethical person could continue hiding it?

The post I’ve linked above is especially great because I think someone considering (and even sympathetic to) home birth could read this without being scared away with the more aggressive language she uses in writing about the more egregious stories that come up about unsafe births.  It’s a sound evaluation of the way midwives have to tackle medical questions, and a good bit of advice for someone considering home birth.  I hope it gets lots of press.

On Navel-Gazing

"Navel Gazing" by Erik Veland (used under cc-license)
"Navel Gazing" by Erik Veland (used under cc-att-nc license)

My friend Dan posted this on his blog, This Man’s World, yesterday, writing about a book called Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers, which is sitting on my shelf right now and has moved up on the ‘to read’ list.  Dan writes:

The crux of the book is that in all of our attempts to be connected in this world, especially via social networking in combination with smart phones, we’re losing our inner connectedness – that is, our connectedness with ourselves.  Since interactions are so quick and there’s no break between them, we have no time to reflect on how something affects us or how we’re doing internally.  Some would probably call it navel-gazing, but I think that’s harsh.  If you don’t know who you are, how can you expect anyone else to?

One of the parts of my job that I find most interesting is the momentary clause in, say, a conference presentation, when I take a minute to sketch out the rough trajectory of the “ages of human communication.”  Here’s what I say, roughly:

A number of scholars smarter than I have proposed that the rise of cinema and digital networking technology represents a shift in the way human beings communicate, one so significant that it parallels the shift from oral to literate culture.   In oral cultures, knowledge is limited by time, geography, and memory.  Everything that is known must be kept alive and in shared memory, and transmitted through these unreliable and unverifiable media.  Literate culture brings with it not only the ability to transmit knowledge accurately across time and space, but also attendant social structures (like bureaucracy, which depends on the ability to list things).

Additionally, we can trace significant changes in how we think and how we understand the world around us to the rise of literacy.  As a quick example, when members of oral cultures learn knowledge, it is always already internal–they must comprehend it immediately and their memory of it is the only recourse they have to understanding it.  By contrast, learning after literacy can involve the abstraction of ideas because it externalizes knowledge, giving the learner recourse to the original text.  What we lose in our ability to ask questions directly to the author, we gain in the externalization and standardization of knowledge.  By separating knowledge from the individual, it ceases to be situational, and becomes something we can think about.  Some scholars have even suggested that the very experience of the internal dialogue that accompanies abstract thought springs from the patterns of thought afforded by literate culture.  (This part gets difficult to accept in many ways, not least because it sounds paternalistic, perhaps xenophobic, culturally arrogant, and technologically deterministic.    That said, the goal is not to place value judgment on these traits, but just to understand them in the context of societies pre- and post- literacy.

So if cinema and computers represent a quantitative and qualitative shift in the way we create and disseminate knowledge, we ought to see the same kinds of shift in society, sense of self, and our relationship to the world that we saw in the rise of literacy. The new era brings with it challenges to all the old models: we can now copy infinitely, publish in two directions, distribute expansively, and capture visuals and audio with high fidelity.  Each of these challenges old constructs and old circuits.  Each of these is rebuilding the world around us as we speak/write/tweet.

We’re entering a third age of human communication.  Electracy (to use Greg Ulmer’s term) is upon us, and the best we can do is to look at how things changed last time so we can anticipate, a bit, how things will change again.

So to return to Dan’s point, I can’t help but recognize in his description of Powers’ argument a lament for the literate mindset.  This is not to say it’s without merit–the rise of the new often overshadows pieces of the old that were valuable and helpful.  For instance, from the value judgment perspective, the individualized mind-state that some scholars attribute to the rise of literacy reminds me of the line drawn in the strange, ethereal, poetic book about a philosopher gorilla, Ishmael.  Ishmael argues that human society has had two perspectives, leavers and takers, and traces that division to agriculture.  The leavers tend to recognize their place in the larger world and see it as something they need to respect and sustain, whereas the takers see the world as a divisible resource, ripe for the plucking and over which they must fight.  I would argue that division arises from literacy.   To oversimplify: when all knowledge is situational, your own experience of the world is necessarily connected to the world around you; when knowledge becomes abstracted, your experience of the world becomes similarly abstracted and your sense of the relationship between you and the world around changes.

"Book of Answers" by Caro's Lines
"Book of Answers" by Caro's Lines (cc-at-nc-sa license)

But the rise of electracy is changing us, and is shaping the minds of those growing up in it in fundamentally different ways.  We’re all facing these questions, considering how the new social structures shape our real social lives, considering how the quality of our lives is shifting under the pressures of the technological infrastructure under which we live.  I look forward to Dan’s experiment in self-control:

So anyway, I am going to make more of a concerted effort to only do the things on the internet that I enjoy.  I’ll still blog, because, comments or not, this kind of thing gives back to me, if only to allow me to articulate thoughts and feelings.  And I could really not give up on e-mail.  But I may have to severely curtail Facebook and Twitter.  We’ll see.

I hope he writes again, later, to say how it went.

Side Jobs

Side Jobs
Yes, I like my hat too.

Side Jobs (The Dresden Files) by Jim Butcher

A short-story collection of Harry Dresden stories from throughout the run of the book series by the same author.  An enjoyable romp, though I think I would have waited to read it until I’d read up to the publication date in the series, as it gives away some plot points.  Since I’ve only read three of the books so far, there were quite a few points available for spoiling.  The Dresden stories range all over Chicago as well, and it’s fun to see events happen at Millennium Park, or Wrigley Field, or the Woodfield Mall.  Pretty enjoyable.

A couple thoughts:

  • In the first three books of the series, Butcher’s need to escalate tension by putting Dresden in more and more danger makes the stress he undergoes a bit outrageous.  It’s nice to see how he grows as a practitioner of deadly arts as the books progress, and he’s less often stuck reaching down to the depths of his soul to find the magic he needs.
  • I’ve always thought Dresden reminded me a bit of a certain kind of high school outcast, and this book reinforced that aspect of the book’s fantasy for me.  He’s a thin, gangly, tall dude wearing a duster and carrying a staff.  Of course, he can make fire shoot from the staff, but still.
  • I love the short story where Dresden and his friends are playing Dungeons and Dragons.  He’s constantly bitching about how the magic works in the game, since it doesn’t work that way in real life.  Now I know what it’s like watching television with me.
  • I also like the way Dresden pulls in all sorts of diverse mythologies: they’re all real in this world, folks.  The best example of this practice is in Fool Moon, which features no fewer than three different kinds of werewolves.  Throughout the short stories in the book, we see vampires, werewolves, Valkyrie, handmaidens to Dionysus, Grendelkin, and some watery Lovecraftian gillmen straight out of Innsmouth.
  • Finally, in one story, Dresden’s tracking spell gets threatened by rain (which can apparently disrupt magic).  He comments that he needs to “get a hat.”  I couldn’t help but comment on that idea, since the staff-wielding scowly dude on the cover of the Dresden Files books always wears a hat.  I think they should airbrush the hat out of the early art in favor of a mop of Hansen hair.

See also the discussion at my book club website about Side Jobs, Grave Peril, Fool Moon, Storm Front

Yes, you darn well better be psychic

After reading The Monster of Florence, I knew the Italian judicial system was completely messed up, but this takes the cake:

Italy Actually Going Through With Manslaughter Trial of Seismologists

Several Italian scientists have been charged with manslaughter for failing to predict a 6.3 earthquake that devastated the town of L’Aquila in 2009 and killed dozens of people…. The journal Nature reports that six top scientists and one government official will actually be put on trial starting this week for manslaughter in connection with the quake. The thinking, apparently, is that had they provided accurate risk information to the public in the days before the quake, citizens might have done things differently. The main problem with that thinking is that providing sufficiently accurate risk information would have been impossible because no one in Italy or anywhere else knows how to predict earthquakes. (link via Lowering the Bar)

Next medical researchers will be sued for not having solved certain diseases yet.  “What do you mean, he died of cancer?  We should have cured that by now.”  After that, Meteorologists get sued for droughts and  environmental scientists for not solving this pesky global warming problem (at least, not solving it in a way that lets me keep all my creature comforts and wasteful ways).

Astronomers are safe, though.  If the world-killer asteroid arrives, civil suits will be the last of our worries.

 

Re-reviews

Pirate Radio
Pirate Radio

Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus
Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus

Quick double review of two films previously viewed and covered on this blog, Pirate Radio and Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus.  I recently re-watched both of these films (Pirate Radio because it played on HBO, Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus because my kids got it for my birthday (what treasures litter the $5 bin at Wal-mart, eh?).  So I thought I’d do a quick double-review for your amusement:

  • Both films turn on the dangerous unregulated ocean poses to the landbound.  At least in Mega Shark the menace stays over the ocean, rather than invading houses.  Interestingly, the trouble in both films begins because of sounds — the low-frequency sonar starts an iceberg cleaving that leads directly to the shark and octopus escaping.
  • Both films feature star-studded casts, or at least people you enjoy seeing.  Pirate Radio had a much more star-studded cast, but it also had a much higher budget.
  • In each film, a crucial moment arrives when the cast are saved by a just-in-time fleet of support ships.  Pirate Radio’s ridiculous arrangement of one boat per deejay (easily rescued by same) mirrors the ridiculous American submarine ‘wolf pack,’ who are immediately knocked aside by the Giant Octopus.
  • Our heroes in each film are stupidly brave, daring the waters of the North Pacific to plant an underwater bait cannister (which should have been able to be dropped from a plane, as far as I can tell) or jumping from a radio antenna to avoid being called a chicken.
  • The sets for both films seem pulled from other places.  Nearly all of Mega Shark‘s military installations and ship-board scenes seem to have been shot inside a single empty industrial plant (which also probably provided the exterior for the naval base).  Similarly, the radio studio and a number of other sequences may well have been real radio stations, rather than sets.

Upon second viewings, I’d say Pirate Radio holds up for its tidbits of comedy, its stellar cast, and its soundtrack.  Mega Shark does not hold up very well.  On second viewing, it was really slow, and could have probably been trimmed by 40% without detriment.

 

 

Zombie Spaceship Wasteland

Zombie Spaceship Wasteland
Zombie Spaceship Wasteland

Zombie Spaceship Wasteland written and narrated by Patton Oswalt

I don’t know what I expected from this book, but it sure was fun.  Oswalt’s book is part memoir, part humor pieces, and part nonfiction narrative.  He has a strong, writerly voice with well-crafted sentences and a good sense for storytelling.  I enjoyed both the humor pieces and the memoir pieces, particularly his story about working at a suburban movie theater and the chapter about his first headlining gig, at a bad comedy club outside Vancouver.  A few more thoughts:

  • I really like the role literature seems to play in Oswalt’s life.  He’s constantly comparing the situations around him to fiction.  My favorite reference, offhand, is his envy of 1984‘s Winston Smith, who never had to decide what he was going to wear.  “The same pair of overalls every day?  Sign me up!”
  • Each chapter has a “full disclosure” clause at the end detailing things Oswalt did while writing the chapter.   These sections don’t work very well.  They’re sometimes funny, but usually not.
  • An early section is built around an R.E.M. album, and Michael Stipe appears to read lyrics from songs off that album.  Oswalt apologizes for the contrast between his nasally voice and Stipe’s velvety one.
  • The anthropological analysis of lyrics to Hobo songs from the 20s is hilarious.  The phrase oatmeal pants is tattoo-worthy, I think.
  • The title of the book refers to Oswalt’s theory that high school geeks fall into one of three categories, each with its own attitude about the future and what that means for the present and their approach to the world around them.  “Anything we create has to involve simplifying, leaving, or destroying the world we’re living in.”  He’s a Wasteland, apparently.

I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would.  Oswalt’s tight writing and solid use of metaphor push it beyond the average book written by a comedian.  I’m going to have to seek out some more of his stand-up, I think.