Archive for February, 2013

Brow-Beating by Facebook

SCENE:  [A Subcommittee hearing room in the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.  The Subcommittee on Violence Against Women is just coming to order.  On the Subcommittee are seven women senators, four Democrats and three Republicans.  They take their places at the hearing table and all sit except the Chairwoman, The Honorable Gertrude (Trudy) Schmidlapp in the center.  The table is covered with a large green cloth and a vase of flowers sits at each Senator’s place.  A name plate identifies each Senator, but the states the Senators are from are not revealed.  Each Senator also has a microphone, a glass, a pitcher of ice water and a personal coffee cup.  Across from the Senator’s table is the witness table with the only witness, a man, John Smith, about twenty years of age, dressed in an ill-fitting suit and tie, though the suit is clean, not mussed or dirty.  He sits at the middle of the table which is about twenty feet long, not covered.  He looks out of place and forlorn.  The only other things on the table are a microphone and a glass of plain water.  The rest of the room is packed with photographers and reporters and visitors, mostly women.  The Chairwoman calls the meeting to order.]

SENATOR SCHMIDLAPP:  This meeting of the Subcommittee on Violence Against Women will come to order.  [She strikes the gavel once.]  Our first witness today is Mr. John Smith.  Mr. Smith, will you please stand and raise your right hand.  [Smith stands, his hand raised.  Sen. Schmidlapp recites the oath rapidly, in a barely audible voice, and without emotion.]  Do you solemnly swear that the testimony you are about to give in this hearing will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

SMITH:  [Tentatively.]  I do.

SCHMIDLAPP:  Please be seated.  [Smith sits.]  We will dispense with the opening statements and move to the interrogation of the witness.  Now, Mr. Smith, I call your attention to the list of postings on your Facebook page of last Wednesday.  Do you remember scanning that page?

SMITH:  Yes, Ma’am.

SCHMIDLAPP:  You will address me as “Senator.”

SMITH:  Yes, Ma’am, er, yes, Senator.  Sorry, Ma’am, er, Senator.

SCHMIDLAPP:  [Frowning.]  That’s better.  Now, on that Facebook page was an entry from the United States Foundation on Violence Against Women.  Do you remember seeing it?

SMITH:  Yes, Senator, I do.

SCHMIDLAPP:  That entry contained a picture of a battered woman and some words.  The words stated “Like if you abhor violence against women, Ignore if you don’t.”  Do you remember seeing that?

SMITH:  Yes, Senator, I do.

SCHMIDLAPP:  And you ignored it, didn’t you?

SMITH:  Er, well, Senator, I passed it by, but I didn’t really ignore it, I mean the picture was graphic and I couldn’t really ignore it–

SCHMIDLAPP:  But you didn’t “Like” it, did you.

SMITH:  Er, no, but you see–

SCHMIDLAPP:  [Raising her voice.]  You didn’t “Like” it at all, did you?  You passed it by, didn’t you?  It was clearly stated on that image of that poor woman [she taps the table with one finger] “Like if you abhor violence against women, Ignore if you don’t,” and you ignored it, didn’t you?

SMITH:  Er, yes, well, no, you see–

SCHMIDLAPP:  Are you in favor of violence against women, Mr. Smith, if that really is your name?

SMITH:  No, no, of course not, Senator, but you see–

SCHMIDLAPP:  That image gave you a very definite choice.  All you had to do was click “Like” and you could have stood with all of us against violence against women.  But you didn’t, did you?  You chose to ignore it.  The choice was yours, Mr. Smith, and you took the worst choice of all.

SMITH:  Ah, Senator, yes, of course  I’m against violence against women, but I see a lot of postings on Facebook.  I don’t “Like” all of them.  That is, every one of them.  Not all, just the ones I believe strongly in–

SCHMIDLAPP:  And you don’t believe strongly in stopping violence against women?  Mr. Smith, you appall me.

SMITH:  Yes of course I believe in stopping violence against women, but I also have my own regular set of beliefs and…and, well I just didn’t “Like” it.  I just passed it by.  That’s all it means–

SCHMIDLAPP:  It said quite clearly on that image that if you ignore or pass it by that you don’t–and I emphasize DON’T–support efforts to stop violence against women.  It was clear, very clear.  You had a choice to make and you made it.  The wrong one.

SMITH:  But Senator, just because I passed it by doesn’t mean I don’t support efforts to reduce violence against women, it just means I passed it by.  That’s all.  I have my own regular set of things I “Like” and–

SCHMIDLAPP:  And violence against women isn’t among them, is that it?  I remind you, Mr. Smith, the choice was clear.  Either you are against violence against women or you are for it.  It was your choice and we all know what choice you made.

SMITH:  No, Ma’am, er, Senator.  That doesn’t reflect who I am.  I just didn’t press the “Like” button, that’s all that means.  I’m against women, er, violence against women, but I…I–

SCHMIDLAPP:  Then why didn’t you “Like” it?  All you had to do was press the “Like” button.

SMITH:  I don’t always “Like” everything I see on Facebook.

SCHMIDLAPP:  [Exasperated.]  But you were presented with a very simple choice.  A very clear, simple choice.  You’re either with us or against us.  There cannot be any other alternative.  [She looks both ways down the table.  An audible murmur of consent comes from all the other Senators at the table.]  I can see that you are very definitely against us.  [She stands, leans over the table and shakes her finger at Smith.]  You are a despicable human being, Mr. Smith.  A very despicable person.  I intend to introduce legislation in the Senate this very afternoon proclaiming you and everyone else in this country who didn’t click “Like” on that image of that poor, battered woman to be hateful, contemptible, heinous, malevolent individuals, and I will petition the President of the United States to issue an Executive Order ordering the Secretary of the Army to round up all you disgusting people and have you incarcerated in an internment camp somewhere in the wilds of, of, well, we’ll work that out.  Do you understand, Mr. Smith?  You had a choice.  A clear choice.  And you made the wrong choice.  You have to live with that, Mr. Smith.  Shame on you, Mr. Smith.  [She stands upright and relaxes a little.]  We are through with you, Mr. Smith.  You may go.

SMITH:  [His mouth is open and he can barely speak.  He swallows hard.]  Er, yes sir, er, Ma’am, er, Senator.  Thank you, Ma’am, er, Senator.  [He rises from his seat and leaves the room, defeated, his head bowed.  The press follows him, photographers and cameramen snapping images as he walks through the door and down the hall.]

[Schmidlapp remains standing and the others Senators leave their chairs and gather around her.  They hug her, pat her on the back, give her and each other high fives, and generally congratulate the Chairwoman for her performance.  The visitors in the room stand, cheering and shouting “Schmidlapp for President.”  The scene fades.]

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Why Science Fiction?

What is it about science fiction that makes those of us who like to read and/or watch it (and would otherwise be described as nerds) actually pick up a sci-fi book or watch a sci-fi movie or TV series?  I’ve asked myself this question numerous times and have never come up with a really good answer.  I like science fiction (but not fantasy) and don’t read or watch much horror, crime, detective, romance or other stuff.  I will watch a good detective story if it’s well written and acted, but I just don’t get the thrill out of them that I do from SF.  Why should that be?  What is it about science fiction?

I can’t give a definitive answer to that question, but I have some ideas.  First, I think the science factor has a lot to do with it.  I’ve heard that a larger proportion of sci-fi readers are scientists than for other genres of literature, and I believe the “science” angle has something to do with sci-fi’s appeal.  These are people who are familiar with science and feel at home talking about it and reading about it in their off-time reading.  The type of science doesn’t play a role; I’m originally a biological scientist, but I read sci-fi with a large amount of physical sciences such as physics, astronomy and mathematics, though much less than I would have to learn for a career in one of those math-heavy fields.  I guess it’s a vicarious way of being a physical scientist without the trouble of having to study nuclear physics or quantum mechanics or gravitational field theory.

Second, it’s fun.  Like the teenager in the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus, when asked why she likes to listen to rock and roll, she says, “Because it’s fun!”  I liked the first three Star Wars movies (in the order they were made, not the order they are now arranged) because they were a great adventure.  Different planets, different characters, wildly different animals, situations and predicaments–they all contribute to a great time.  From deserts to ice to forests to jungles to spaceships and fancy battle gear, how many non-sci-fi movies spanned that broad a range of situations?  Sci-fi takes you into a realm where no one has been before.  A new sci-fi book or movie can introduce us to a completely new world and totally new characters.  Star Trek, the original series or the second, The Next Generation, for example, visited a new planet practically every week.  I was always intrigued by the characters the writers thought up.  Imagination at work.

And, that brings up another point–Imagination.  I believe that’s the most important facet of sci-fi, and, undoubtedly, its greatest asset.  Imagination gets wild play in sci-fi, and allows an author virtually free rein (within limitation, tho) to do as he/she wants.  Great fun.  I’m trying to write novels and short stories and even a couple of novelettes in sci-fi, and I like the ability to develop in my mind an entirely new planet and new characters, and then throw in a few humans and see what happens.  Great fun.

Why do you read/watch/write science fiction?  What about it turns you on?

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Zero is Neither Plus Nor Minus

Do you remember from high school algebra (or even junior high algebra) how you learned about positive numbers and negative numbers?  I do.  In that class my first-year algebra teacher drew a long horizontal line on the board and put a mark at the center.  That mark he labeled “0.”  That is, zero.  Then he wrote the numbers 1, 2, 3, and so on as far as he could to the right of the zero, and he wrote the same numbers to the left.  The numbers to the right were positive numbers, +1, +2, +3, and so on, and the numbers to the left were negative, -1, -2, -3, etc., etc.  But what about the zero sitting there in the middle?  Is zero positive or negative?  Most of the students in my class didn’t know and couldn’t answer.  But zero is neither, the teacher emphasized.  It’s right in the middle.  It doesn’t have any sign.  It can’t  have a sign; it doesn’t really exist.  There’s nothing there.  It’s zero, after all.

Likewise, in writing I’ve seen a lot of people use the term “12 AM” or “12 PM.”  This is as ridiculous as trying to label zero as “positive” or “negative.”  I’ve always been confused as to what, for example, “12 AM” means.  Does it mean midnight or noon?  It could be either.  Does the “AM” refer to the twelve-hour period that precedes the 12, or follows it?  Twelve o’clock is neither AM or PM.  It’s like zero, it’s not one or the other.  Granted, a point in time called “12 o’clock” does exist, and twice a day too,  unlike zero which means “nothing at all.”  But 12 o’clock is at the boundary between the AM and the PM states.  Like zero, it is neither one nor the other.

I’ve noticed a general (and strictly unofficial) convention emerging to use “12 AM” as noon, and “12 PM” for midnight, (at least I think that’s what other writers are saying) but both of these are still incorrect, and give the wrong impression.  I hope we can nip this convention in the bud, and get back to using “Noon” and “Midnight” in their correct positions.

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The Incomplete Investigator

I’ve been watching the Agatha Christie Poirot novels that  have been televised by PBS over the last several years, and I’ve been struck by one rather odd aspect of the character of Hercule Poirot.  At least the televised character.  It’s an aspect that isn’t unique to Poirot, however.  I’ve noticed it in at least one other fictitious private detective, Sherlock Holmes, and in one fictitious lawyer, Perry Mason.  What I’m wondering about here is the total lack of–to put it as delicately as possible–sexuality.  I don’t know if the authors of these works specifically intended for their characters to exhibit this deficiency of desire for the opposite sex, but it sure does come through in the televised versions.  In short, I can’t imagine Poirot or Holmes having an affair, or any sort of amorous liaison at all, with a woman.  Not at all.

I wonder why.

I’ve read Sherlock Holmes cover-to-cover at least twice, and individual stories even more often.  I still like The Hound of the Baskervilles.  I’ve read only four Poirot novels though, and haven’t read any of Earle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels so I can’t comment on those.  But the televised versions have presented these legal investigators as some of the most sexually sterile individuals I’ve ever come across.  Most of the other TV legal types are presented as much more rounded individuals.  The characters on  Law and Order-SVU, for example, have wives or husbands, children, or at least a girl or boy friend.  They have a real life.  The only exception to this might be Joe Friday of Dragnet, so long ago.  I don’t think he ever had a girl friend or exhibited any desire to get one.  What did he do after work?

Let’s take a closer look at Poirot here.  Reading several of the novels, I was not struck by his lack of attraction to the opposite sex as much as in the televised versions.  That, perhaps, is one of the advantages of a visual telling of a story.  In reading a novel, the story plays out in the reader’s mind.  All fictitious sites, people, events, and so forth are imaginary, guided by the words on the page.  Only the reader knows what they look like.  If the author fails to present the reader with sexual adventure of the main character, it may slip by unnoticed.  If it isn’t specifically stated, a reader may not notice its absence.

Television, the premier visual medium, however, presents other details.  We see a character in his style of dress, his apartment, his friends, his mannerisms, the people on his street, in short, the total of his milieu, things that may not have been explicitly stated in the book.  A televised character can be a more complete person than in the novel.   Yet, I still can’t see Poirot having an affair, and I’m still perplexed as to why these fictional characters are presented so, for lack of a better word, incomplete.  Their totality of being is so lacking and imperfect, so out of touch with today’s society.  I wouldn’t want to write a character like that.

Perry Mason is presented on TV as similar to Holmes and Poirot, though not as severely.  He escorts his private secretary, Della Street, around during an investigation, yet they seem to have never consummated a relationship.  Paul Drake, a private investigator on the Perry Mason series, frequently says “Hi, beautiful,” to Della Street when he enters a room, something he likely wouldn’t do if she was Mason’s love interest.   Sherlock Holmes’ friend, Dr. John Watson, even got married and left Holmes alone in his flat at 221B Baker Street.  But can you see Holmes ever having a sexual relationship with a woman?  Taking her to dinner?  On a date to the symphony?  Saying “I love you?”  I can’t.  Yet Holmes, Mason and Poirot are some of the best known and most popular private investigators in fictional history.  Just goes to show…

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