For Halloween, Clowns and Mimes are CREEPY

The Funeral March
The Funeral March

Check out the withered ghost clown at the top of the image.  YIKES.

The Aches and Pains Society Annual meeting

Hold still and I can pop that zit
Hold still and I can pop that zit


I feel as though this blog has wandered into the doldrums.

Becalmed on Lake Kariba" by Andrew Ashton
Becalmed on Lake Kariba” cc-licensed by Andrew Ashton

The reality, of course, is that the blog’s wind, yours truly, has fizzled in the face of unrelenting piles ofstuff I have to get done.  This includes a conference, two on-campus speaking engagements, two off-campus speaking engagements, preparations for a play on November 2 and 3, and an as-yet-to-be-announced large project that’s already eating up a lot of my time and I’ve barely begun.

I hope to get back to more regular blogging after November 3rd, but only time will tell.  Thanks for your patience.

In which I’m the “zombie dude”

It’s weird how you could make an offhand comment — I’m sure I said something offhand about being the “zombie dude” — and have a reporter decide that this is your nickname.  Anyhow, check out this piece which appears to be the front page article for the week at the Leader.

Lecture highlights reality, legend of zombies
Lecture highlights reality, legend of zombies

My favorite bit of the story:

Zombie scholar Brendan Riley, associate professor of English at Columbia College in Chicago, also nicknamed the “zombie dude,” presented “Zombies and You: Why You Should Care about the Living Dead” Thursday afternoon on Dowagiac’s campus. Described as a “devastatingly awesome lecture,” Riley highlighted the history of zombies and their place in popular culture. Riley serves as a member of the advisory board for the Zombie Research Society and teaches one of Columbia College’s most popular classes, Zombies and Popular Media. Riley said the lecture was to not only educate people on where zombies originated, but also to detail how they appear in film, literature and other media. (link)

That bit where the reporter says the event was described as a “devastatingly awesome lecture” — this implies, I think, that some student or someone made that comment.  Nope.  It was my own hyperbolic puffery.  Here’s the opening slide that sits on the screen before I talk and during Q&A:

A Devastatingly Awesome Lecture
A Devastatingly Awesome Lecture

That’s the best.

This grandma is pretty suspicious

Looks like he's about to start something
Looks like he’s about to start something

Ada Lovelace Day: Rosalind Franklin

Ada Lovelace Day is about sharing stories of women — whether engineers, scientists, technologists or mathematicians — who have inspired you to become who you are today. Come 16 October, simply 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!

Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA
Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA

Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox

Rosalind Franklin is most remembered now as the unsung fourth contributor who found the evidence for Watson and Crick’s double-helix paper in the early 1950s.  A brilliant experimentalist, Franklin actually made advances in three significant areas in her short life (she died of cancer at the age of 37): the understanding of coal, the shape of the DNA molecule, and the way RNA functions inside viruses.

A few notes about Maddox’s book and this remarkable scientist:

  • Franklin’s specialty was x-ray photography, a science that was used to analyze the shape of molecules and particles somehow.  Thankfully, Maddox spends very little time on the minutiae of how these discoveries work, focusing instead on explaining the broad outlines of what Franklin discovered.   She made her name in this field by studying coal, particularly in her discovery that there were some kinds of coal that never turned into graphite no matter how hot they were heated.
  • In the last four years of her life, Franklin made big advances in the study of viruses, findings that ultimately may have been more significant for the fact that they weren’t at such a heated centerpoint of debate.  Indeed, someone else would have proven the double-helix within a short time if Franklin hadn’t been doing that work.  Her virus work was more singular.
  • Franklin has been characterized as abrupt and cold, aggressive and unable to converse easily.  At the same time, she’s described as caring and heartfelt, passionate and humane.  While these perspectives seem at odds, Maddox describes most of the abrupt personality as tied to her workplace demeanor, while her warmer side was reserved for casual time.  Maddox suggests that her upbringing fostered a defensiveness that may have contributed to this persona she adopted. (Apparently, Franklin was particularly sensitive to anything she thought was anti-Semitic, even if the suspicions were groundless.)
  • In the last couple years of her life, Franklin gained significant recognition for her work, and did two tours of the US, where she met scientists in labs all over the country.  I was interested to read that she spent some time at Cold Spring Harbor, which was the research home for Barbara McClintock in that same era.  I like to imagine that they met one another.

The most debated period of her life stems from her short stint at King’s college, where she and a postgrad were working on x-ray photography of DNA.  At the same time, Watson and Crick were up the street at Cambridge, trying to model the structure of DNA.  Franklin’s colleague at King’s, Wilkins, was also working on the problem, but didn’t have Franklin’s technical skill with x-ray photography.  Thus, when he wanted her to collaborate with him and share information with Watson and Crick, she became defensive and territorial, feeling like a less talented superior was trying to mooch her hard-won data.  Her approach was that models could not prove anything, thatdata was needed in order to prove their case, so she pursued her data.  Then Wilkins shared her data with Watson and Crick without her permission, when it was quite clear that she would not have wanted him to.  Her data led to their breakthrough, and within months they had staked their claim to the theory.

Rosalind FranklinWhile she and Wilkins were acknowledged as contributors in the notes of their paper, Watson and Crick didn’t give them co-author status.  But while Franklin may have felt upset, Maddox points out that she didn’t seem to have any particular anger or grudge over the issue.  Indeed, she was just happy to get away to Birkbeck and begin her research on viruses.  In the years between Watson and Crick’s paper (March 1953) and her own death (April 1958), she carried on a friendly correspondence with both Watson and Crick, going so far as to spend time in a social context with each and maintain a rather hearty work relationship with Watson.

This continued collegiality makes what happened after Franklin’s death so strange.  When Watson wrote his novelistic adventurous tale, The Double Helix, Rosalind appears as a shrewish hoarder, obstinately refusing to share her data but also intellectually incapable of making proper use of it, practicallyforcing Watson and Crick to sneak a peek.  Both Crick and Watson maintained, for a long time, a recognition that her data was crucial to their solution, but withholding proper credit for her work.  Other people in the community were shocked and angered at this portrayal and have, in various places, defended her vigorously; so much so, in fact, that she has become very well known for the unfair treatment she had from Watson and Crick.  Maddox suggests that perhaps their portrayals of her stem from a deep unresolved guilt about having used her data without her knowledge, and then never really getting the chance to share that credit later on.

Maddox does a great job of presenting Franklin’s life in an even-handed way.  She’s fair to Watson without flinching at his missteps and lies, but she also acknowledges where Franklin’s own personality foibles exacerbated occasional problems with colleagues.  This is an excellent book, a strong biography with good storytelling and research.  The second half is better than the first, starting about the time she arrives at King’s college (no surprise that the controversy is the most interesting, I suppose).

See also:
2011 – Henrietta Swan Levitt
2010- Barbara McClintock

What’s the Big Idea? People, Zombies, and the Blurry Line Between Them

On Monday, October 8th, I gave a talk called “What’s the Big Idea? People, Zombies, and the Blurry Line Between Them.”  Here it is:

[youtube:] [youtube:] [youtube:]



2012-10-14 Tweets

  • At the parade in downtown Chicago with Avery! #
  • Alas, this parade celebrated the landing of the lead phalanx of 300 years of genocide by European settlers against rightful residents. #
  • 6yo is recording the whole parade so her mom and brother can watch it. Can't wait to see how Jenny gets out of this one. #mwahahaha #
  • Institute of Art family room now, looking at original work from storybooks. #dayoutwithdad #
  • Avery at the museum: "Everybody has a skin, even Dragons." #

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I have no words for this. Germans are WEIRD.


Heists and Spies

The Bourne Legacy Flypaper

The Bourne Legacy and Flypaper

The Bourne Legacy is the fourth movie in the Bourne series.  This film follows the travails of a new experiment subject, Aaron Cross, a man with a distaste for authority and some kickass punching skills.  When Jason Bourne exposes all the CIAs dirty experimental projects to scrutiny, the other programs are “closed down” and Aaron Cross goes on the run, along with a lady scientist he thinks will be able to help him.  Flypaper tells the story of a botched bank robbery in which two separate teams of robbers raid the same bank on the same day.  When a chatty, observant, slightly crazy customer gets caught in the middle of the heists and discovers that there’s a murderer among them, zany chaos ensues.  A few thoughts about these films:

  • Both films build on competing motives and multiple groups of characters with conflicting goals.  Flypaper has four groups: the two sets of bank robbers, a set of civilians, and a shadow group including some unknown characters and possibly some members of the other groups.  Bourne has similar groups: Two spy organizations, Cross on the run, and civilians.    But where Flypaper uses these conflicts for comedy, Bourne relies on them for tension.
  • You’ll enjoy seeing some actors in minor roles who always turn up and awesome the heck out of their scenes.  Among my favorites: Zeljko Ivanek, always on call to play a creepy doctor, plays a creepy doctor in Bourne, and one of the bureaucrats is Dennis Boutsikaris, whom I thought I recognized as Robin from Cheers, but was ACTUALLY the artist next door in *batteries not included.  Flypaper is full of actors you might recognize, but the winners are Tim Blake Nelson and Pruitt Taylor Vince, the latter of whom you’ll recognize because he’s had one or two-episode roles in every television show ever made.
  • Both films feature wanted lists — with Aaron Cross at the top of one and the bank robbers from Flypaper enjoying looking at the other.  In both cases,being part of the list makes the criminals targets.
  • I like how the films use smart men with good intentions to drive the story, and in both cases medicine is essential to those men. In Flypaper, the normally strange protagonist starts getting weirder and weirder as he misses his hourly dose of some medicine, which he is unable to get since he’s being held hostage.  Consequently, he says outlandish things that upset the people around him.  The Bourne Legacy involves the same kind of problem, a drug regimen that makes the subjects smarter and stronger.  Alas, while the “stronger” regimen has been installed in Cross’ body by a virus, the “smarter” one has not.  Cross worries about it because, like the protagonist of “Flowers for Algernon,” he’s a smart man who used to be not very smart, and he’s terrified of going back to that.
  • Both films are resolved with a satisfying shoot-em-up scene, though Flypaper doesn’t really have the opportunity for a good car chase, which is, of course, an essential part of the Bourne films.  Go Cross Go!

Both films were quite enjoyable.  Flypaper is a solid example of what used to be called a “B” movie, something people can enjoy but won’t be a tentpole event. The Bourne Legacy, similarly, is the fourth movie in a series and suffers the creative limitations such franchises inevitably face.  That said, it’s still pretty darn good.

Panic! The Story of Modern Financial Insanity

Panic! The Story of Modern Financial Insanity
Panic! The Story of Modern Financial Insanity

by Michael Lewis; narrated by Jesse Boggs and Blair Hardman

Panic! examines the recent history of financial scares and how Wall Street deals with them.  Starting with the 1987 (88?) crash during which Lewis was working at Soloman Brothers (and from which he wrote Liar’s Poker), Lewis traces out the causes, effects, and nature of several crashes, including the Asian currency crash, the Internet bubble, and the recent collapse of the housing market.  For each, Lewis provides some contextual commentary and then curates a number of contemporary essays from various financial newspapers and magazines.  He does this to give us a sense of what people were saying about the events at the time.  A few thoughts:

  • Lewis continues to show his prowess at explaining complicated situations skillfully.  In both Moneyball and The Big Short, he uses individual stories to craft the shape of the larger narrative being described.  He does this a bit in Panic, but the diverse nature of the stories he’s telling prods him to use the voices of contemporary writers instead.  The pieces he wrote himself are generally the best pieces in the book.
  • Jim Cramer comes up several times in the book, partly as an example of how even the really smart folks can get caught in the whirlwind of panics.  It’s amusing to see him in this light, especially the essay where he talks about the collapse of the Internet bubble and his intent to leave finance.  Since I had no idea who he was before he showed up as the Mad Money guy, this was useful.
  • In retrospect it’s easy to see just how dumb some of these bubbles were.  The Internet bubble is pretty funny in this regard, as the failures came from the shifted priority in IPOs.  It used to be “establish a good company, then go public.”  The internet bubble came with a new formula: “Have an idea for a company, raise investor financing, go public, then establish the company.”  Oops.
  • The story of the Asian currency collapse was pretty grim.  Lewis shapes it as a narrative of investor excess driving currency rates up and down, and the real-world ramifications of that speculation, which was a severely depressed Asian economy that took years to recover.
  • I really like Michael Lewis’ writing.  Alas, this book didn’t really do it for me.  It was a bit like finding that a television show you really like has decided to do a clip show.  Even if you haven’t seen all the clips, it’s just not as good as a new thing would be.  That’s how Panic! feels.  Not bad, but not nearly as good as his other writing.

All this discussion makes me even more skeptical about the very nature of the stock market as a vital piece of our culture and economy.  I’m not convinced that it actually adds very much to the value of most regular people who get involved in it, and that it allows a few insiders to make off with huge amounts of money for doing almost nothing that adds any value to the world.  And the interconnected nature of those markets means they hold inordinate sway over the drift of the real world even as they make their money by backing or trading instruments so complex only they understand them.

I want my Castle Dice

I really want this game.  One of the stretch goals involves getting larger dice made, which will make the game more fun for sure.  Please take a look and commit if you like the looks of it.

2012-10-07 Tweets

  • "Discussions about acceptance can help get our culture back to the basics – compassion." @UnityTempleUUC #
  • Our 6yo girl asks why the Chippendales on the #amazingrace dance without their shirts on. We explain that "adults are silly." #
  • @columbophile #columboday asks "What's your fav #columbo ep?" Mine is "Swan Song" with Johnny Cash. Here are my top 5: in reply to columbophile #
  • @columbophile I love seeing behind the mask. When #Columbo helps the Mexican detective, we get a glimpse of how the Lieutenant thinks. in reply to columbophile #
  • #TheBigSleep "I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it." Page 3. #
  • Super excited for #topsswim Team Red mini-meet today. Go, swimmers, go! #
  • I briefly held an apple in my mouth to free my hands as I walked. I realized that if I dropped dead right then, I'd look like a luau dinner. #
  • @briancroxall just the fire of knowledge. in reply to briancroxall #
  • "Everything you dream of is true. The baby's asleep in the shoe." It's good to have Tom Waits back in my monthly play list. #
  • As much as I believe lecturing to be ancillary to my main role as college instructor, I sure love doing it when I get on a roll. #
  • Latest ep of international waters makes me want to read HELLO GOODBYe HELLO. #
  • Great video about a college censoring a "free speech wall." #
  • Realized that I accidentally spoiled one of the short stories my Det fic students read for today. Oops! #
  • Holy cow, amazing bit of radio about ethics, truth, and the nature of investigation on @RadioLab this week. Great work! #
  • Just overheard two dudes on the train talking about the Harry Potter alt soundtrack, "Wizard People." Brings back memories. #
  • @forestparkreads "A great library provides. It is enmeshed in the life of a community in a way that makes it indispensable." FPPL to a T. in reply to forestparkreads #
  • Comparing their knowledge of the world, Avery says she "studies science of lots of leaves." Ian replies that he "scientifics all the trees." #
  • Just got the new chris ware box/book and am about to hear him speak. Yay! @UnityTempleUUC #comics #
  • Holy Cow. The Movie 43 trailer is insane. Gross. Uncalled for. Hilarious. This generation's Kentucky Fried Movie. #
  • "Little Talks" is good, but "King and Lionheart" is better. Listen to it, people. #OfMonstersAndMen #
  • Lunch at Five Guys. Mmmmmm. #
  • "@donttrythis: EXCITED for Sunday's premiere of @MythBusters featuring the @TitanicMovie?" Darn right I am! #
  • The unexpected end of HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER. #
  • How does Barack Obama find time to govern in between the constant flow of tweets? I bet after an hour he tweets to keep up his Klout score. #
  • Off to Fall Family Fun Festival at Triton for Daddy/Finn quality time. Meanwhile, Avery and Jenny attend the first swim meet of the season. #
  • At the halloween store, Avery said the talking standup zombies were so scary they made her have to go to the bathroom. #
  • NDG > DW #

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September music roundup



  • Of Monsters and Men, My Head is an Animal: This album is great, especially if you’re a fan of the new/old folk/rock trend (or what someone might call the “Mumford and Sons revival”).  The single from this band, “Little Talks,” is great, and it looks like the next single will be “King and Lionheart.” but so are many of the other songs.  I particularly like “Dirty Paws,” “Your Bones,” and “Sloom,” but really, they’re all good.  It’s been a while since I’ve been able to solidly recommend the whole album, but this is the time.  Great stuff.
  • Fatboy Slim, Better Living Through Chemistry.  All Fatboy Slim albums sound pretty much the same (though The BPA was pretty cool and differentish), and this is no exception.  A solid bit of 90s house music.  I particularly liked “The Weekend Starts Here” and “Punk to Funk.”  The weird award goes to “Michael Jackson,” a strange song that uses the words Michael Jackson and Tina Turner as rhythmic elements.
  • Queen, 4 songs: I realized sometime in August that I had literally zero Queen songs in my collection.  At least, I figured, one should have “Another One Bites the Dust,” “We Will Rock You,” “Under Pressure,” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  So now I do.
  • Flight of the Conchords, I Told You I Was Freaky: The gift that keeps on giving: another three songs from FLoC second album.  “Fashion is Danger” is pretty funny with an eighties vibe.  “Petrov, Yelena and Me” is just insane — a song about people on a lifeboat eating one another.  It feels like something from an album by the Intercontinental Music Lab.   But the winner is the single-man’s lament, “Too Many Dicks on the Dance Floor.”
  • Pete Seeger, “Hallelujah I’m a Bum” – A song I know from a Utah Phillips album, this has the excellent line: “I went to a door and asked for some bread/ The lady said ‘Bum Bum the baker is dead’. ” The repeated motif of “Bum Bum” reminds me of the Easter Island head from Night at the Museum.

Other New Music:

  • Cover Lay Down: School DaysThis mix has a nice set of covers.  I particularly like Keller and the Keels’ “Another Brick in the Wall.”
  • Three more songs from Born to Run.  “Unfit to Drive” and “Oh, Great Car” didn’t do that much for me, but I absolutely LOVE Adam Kay’s “Ranchero.”  I can’t say why, but it’s very charming.

From the archive:

  • Duncan Sheik, Humming – I can’t say I got much from this one, which I pulled from deep in the music archive.  It’s an artifact from my college radio days.  Sheik has an eclectic easy-listening style that makes nice background music, but doesn’t stand out much for me.
  • The Chieftans, Tears of Stone – a very celtic album with old school sounds.  Not bad, but not much stands out for me on this one either.  The one exception is the Joni Mitchell song “The Magdalene Laundries,” which aches with so much pain that I couldn’t help but stop and listen every time it played.

Name Dropping and the First Helpful Witness

I will be the first to admit that mystery stories tend to be a bit formulaic.  The weekly television mystery only has so many ways for the detectives to uncover the criminals at the heart of the story.  And if the show turns on the mystery more than the pursuit, it becomes even harder for writers to be innovative — the “obvious” culprit can never be the killer.  And when the show really focuses on the characters rather than the mysteries, as is the case with Bones, Castle, Psych and many more (Law & Order is the big exception here), the writers have to give screen time to these characters instead of the investigation, which leaves even less time for complex mysteries to develop.

The result of all this is that writers rely heavily on two tropes: The First Helpful Witness and Name Dropping.  Having just seen the new CBS show Elementary already resort to one of these in only its second episode, I thought it was a good time to write about two of them.

Why did we find dead body bits under your truck?
Why did we find dead body bits under your truck?

The First Helpful Witness
Worst offenders: Bones and Castle

Many police procedurals allow the mystery to develop over time as they uncover new bits of evidence.  These bits swing the finger of suspicion around wildly, keeping us on our toes until some final piece of evidence draws our attention to a minor character, someone who seemed beyond suspicion because they were helpful.  I call this the “First Helpful Witness” scenario because often it’s someone who comes up in the beginning of the investigation, a person called in to identify the body or a “character witness” whom the detectives had no reason to suspect when they first interviewed them.

(spoiler) A perfect example of this plot device appeared in “The Bump in the Road,” a Season 7 episode ofBones involving an “extreme couponer.”  Despite her rivalries with other couponers, her impending divorce, and many other good motives, it turns out that the killer was the manager of a grocery store where she did most of her shopping.  Because she used a lot of coupons.


Name Dropping
Worst offenders: Murder, She Wrote and The Mentalist

When the detective has a good idea who did it but can’t decide between several individuals with good motive and opportunity, she will often employ a “Name Drop” in which she reveals some clue the killer has missed, and then creates a window of opportunity in which the criminal can fix the problem, usually by breaking in to the place where the murder occurred in order to remove a clue.  Nearly every detective serial is guilty of this ruse at some point.  It is also often employed to catch someone the police know did it, but on whom they have no evidence.  (Even my beloved Columbo employed this ruse a couple times, most thrillingly to catch a Police Commissioner in “A Friend in Deed”.)

Name Dropping works best in cozies like Murder, She Wrote or many of the Poirot stories.  If an equally-likely body of suspects is available, baiting a trap is sometimes the best way to catch the killer within the 42-minute limit of the show.

(spoiler) My favorite example of this one was the Murder, She Wrote episode “The Dead File,” in which Jessica becomes a character in a comic strip created by Harvey Fierstein.  Alas, someone is using her character to accuse people of dastardly deeds, and someone quickly ends up dead.  Character actor (and perennial villain on MSW) George Furth is lured into a trap when Jessica mentions that a cleaner will be clearing out the apartment where the murder happened.  When Furth shows up to collect some tidbit he’d left behind, the cops are waiting for him.

The Killer was wearing a bow tie and huge glas... Oh, Hi Seth.
The Killer was wearing a bow tie and huge glas… Oh, Hi Seth.