what horrors hide in blood-red tides like demons of the deep?

Spotted on the walk to the train this morning: a street sweeper the size of a golf cart. Stickers on the back and sides proudly advertised its environmentally friendly bio-diesel engine. A city employee sat in the driver’s seat, reading a Metro. The engine idled noisily. The cart continued to idle, not moving anywhere, as I passed it and then cleared its line of sight.

Technology can make people greener, but it certainly can’t make them smarter.

# # #

Let me walk you through a typical night of Gorefest (a few seats are still available for the 10:00 tonight, I’ve been told).

6:40: I arrive in Central Square and grab a fast, hot dinner. Usually Wendy’s.
6:50: I reach the theater. Bobby and the crew test-fire the effect cannons in the stage – high-pressure air pumps connected to PVC piping. After some dry fires and a few runs with water, these pipes get filled with fake blood – among other things – for a few key effects.
7:05: After greeting other castmates and settling in, I rifle through the laundry bag for my costume. We have to do a full run of laundry every night to get the gore out of our costumes. A little Greased Lightning and a pre-wash gets out even the toughest stains. My shirt and jeans feel a little stiff, having been laundered seven times in ten days, but I probably have one of the more comfortable costumes.
7:20: Musical warm-up. We all assemble in front of Steve G. and the band, cloistered into a corner of the theater behind a shield of painter’s plastic. He leads us through warm-ups to tune our voices, loosen our jaws and percolate our enunciation. It’s also good silly fun, which helps.
7:30: “Place your props!”, Bobby tells us. “I’m opening the house in two minutes.” Other players scurry around, concealing severed limbs or disgusting puppets back- or under-stage. I don’t have anything that demanding, but I do snake a length of plastic tubing down my shirt for a later effect.
7:55: The cast assembles in a tight circle in the green room, hands in the middle, for a final pre-show pep talk. “A lot of people didn’t think we’d make it to Regionals,” Paul D. observes. “Let’s hustle out there, Squad Team. Let’s give it our all.”
8:05: Bobby delivers the pre-show speech to the audience – where the exits are, ImprovBoston’s other shows and classes, check out the website, etc. – before kicking off Gorefest proper. The lights dim and Mike and Lindsay enter for the show’s first number.
8:20: From here on out I have to speak indirectly to avoid spoilers. The stage divides into two halves – a ship’s deck, with a high railing, and a ship’s interior on the opposite side. While a scene wraps up on the “interior” side, I sneak onto the “deck,” concealed by darkness and the railing. I remove the tube from my shirt and affix it to a pump near my feet. One of the effects crew checks the fixture for watertightness, then primes the pump. I remove the first of three gore packs from my pocket, fingering the gross plastic wad, and wait. The scene ends; the stage goes black; I stand and wait.
8:35: Lany and I wait in the green room, peeking through the door to the main theater. We have an entrance in 90 seconds. “I’ve got some friends on your side of the audience tonight,” she says, pointing discreetly. “If you want to scare the crap out of them, go ahead.”
8:45: The first on-stage surgery of the night. I don’t have to do anything for this one except stand behind the patient and get covered in ancillary spatter. Oh, and sing.
8:55: I slip to the green room to grab my next two props – a blood-soaked book bound in glue and a damp handkerchief. I also grab a swig of water: this is my big duet.
9:15: My last scene on stage before the finale. I grab another gore pack and some rope and clamber onto the deck under cover of darkness. We’ve hit the stage with several torrents of blood and goop since my last time here, so the floor sticks to my hands and the soles of my shoes. I crouch in the dark and try to control my breathing.
9:30: Big finish! Lights, dancing, explosions! Audience cheers wildly.
9:32: I blurt out thanks and apologies to everyone who saw the show and got sprayed. Lany brings out a bucket of warm water and several rags; she, Bryce and I grab each puppet and prop from under the stage and give it a cursory wipedown. There’s only so much we can do, as most of these puppets have steeped in blood, brains and vomit for the past hour and a half. Misch and Maile bob and weave around us, wiping the ocean clean of gore.
9:40: “Fire in the hole!” I cover my head as a pneumatic cannon goes off above me, spraying water with a loud PFTHUNK. Every cannon gets two to three test fires with water to clean the gunk out.
9:45: “Finish what you’re doing!” Bobby yells. Most of the stage is still vaguely pink, but the ten o’clock audience has already packed the lobby. “We’re done cleaning! Reset your props; we’re opening the house.”
9:46: I sprint backstage, shuck my bloodsoaked costume and jump into the backup. I rinse the worst of the blood off my face and hands. The mirror tells me I’m sunburnt from fake blood soaking into my pores; can’t be helped.
10:08: Bobby gives the pre-show speech. The lights dim, the back door opens, and we do it all over again.


first of all I want to thank my connect

I can’t give you investment advice, but I can tell you what things mean.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 8990.96 yesterday. The last time it fell that low (prior to this month, of course) was June 2003. If the DJI means anything as an economic barometer, it means that the housing bubble collapse has destroyed 5 years worth of wealth: every citizen of the world could have taken half a decade off and we’d be no worse. Of course, that’s not true, which leads me to wonder what’s the use of the DJI.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average – forgive me if you’ve heard this – is a price-weighted average of the stock prices of 30 of the largest industrial companies in the U.S. The companies which make up this list – including American Express, Exxon Mobil, McDonald’s and Verizon; excluding Chase Bank, British Petroleum, Starbucks or Sprint – are selected by Dow Jones & Company. Dow Jones & Company also publishes The Wall Street Journal, one of the most widely read business periodicals in the world.

What I’m getting at: the DJI is not an exhaustive list of American companies; service industries are highly underrepresented. It’s not even an exhaustive list of American industries. The DJI is a list of businesses picked by a company that happens to have a particularly loud bullhorn. It has been a successful list. But there’s more to America than industry.

Gold became a currency because it had more use in exchange than it did in manufacture: people started trading it more than they were making it into jewelry (see Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver for more). Similarly, the DJI is used more as a barometer than as an investment tool. When people talk about “how the market is doing,” they mean the Dow. A substantial minority track the Nasdaq or the S&P 500 in addition to the Dow, but most people look at one number.

This bothers me because I don’t like people making panicked decisions based on the behavior of 30 companies, none of which they invest in.

I don’t agree with Dean Baker at the American Prospect on every thing, but I find him a better thinker than either Paul Krugman or Thomas Friedman. For years he’s been the voice crying out in the desert, declaiming reductionist investment thinking with a simple motto: the stock market is not the “home team.” A surge in the DJIA could come from any number of things – inflation, a burst of good news, rosy economic forecasts, mob mentality, etc. The changes of the Dow represent the instinctive guesses of several hundred traders – hardly an accurate representation of the market as a whole.

What with the current panic – and I don’t know how else to describe week-over-week 1000-point swings in the DJI – Baker’s been hitting this drum louder than ever. From September 30th:

On January 3, 2001 the NASDAQ jumped more than 14 percent. What was the basis of this euphoria? Alan Greenspan had lowered the federal funds rate by a full percentage point in a rare special meeting. Investors were convinced that this meant that the fed would prevent a recession. Two months later the economy began losing jobs and entered a recession. It didn’t begin adding jobs again until the fall of 2003.

The moral of this story is that financial markets should not be viewed as the embodiments of wisdom about the economy. The big actors in the financial markets are subjects to bouts of fear and panic just like the rest of us. In fact, they might even be more subject to irrational mood swings because they sit around talking to each other all day.

The conventional wisdom in the media was that the economy would collapse in the absence of the bailout. I know of few, if any, economists who shared this view, even among those who supported the bailout. However, the disaster view undoubtedly permeated Wall Street just as the euphoria view permeated Wall Street in January of 2001.

We cannot look at the markets as an independent gauge of the impact of Congress not passing the bailout. The stock markets are reflecting the conventional wisdom in the media, they do not provide an independent assessment of the economy.

So if a few panicking people on Wall Street shouldn’t scare us, do we have anything to worry about? Sadly, yes.

Fed cuts key rate by half-percent: “The funds rate has not been lower since 1958, when Dwight Eisenhower was president.”

White House to banks: stop hoarding money*: ““What we’re trying to do is get banks to do what they are supposed to do, which is support the system that we have in America. And banks exist to lend money,” White House press secretary Dana Perino said. While there are limits to Washington’s power to affect banks’ behavior, the White House decided it was time to use its bully pulpit.”

Panicking brokers can hurt the stock market, and consequently the value of our investments, but little that they do can not be undone. The Dow was down to 8220 last week; it closed at 8990 yesterday; it could be back above 10,000 tomorrow. However, panicking bureaucrats wield power grossly disproportionate to their numbers. The damage they cause can put towns out of business and starve children. And Bernanke and Paulson aren’t listening to the Midwesterners whose homes are being foreclosed; they’re listening to their former colleagues at Goldman Sachs and Citigroup.

I can’t give you investment advice, but I can tell you what things mean. When a day trader panics, unloading half his portfolio based on what he heard in the men’s room, you can safely ignore him. When the President panics, rushing a bill through Congress and then assuring everyone it’ll take months to see improvement**, bar the door. Call him a liar. Spit when you hear his name.

And for the devil’s sake, don’t vote for any Presidential candidate who supported the bailout.

* First it was “speculators” shorting banks, now it’s “hoarders” stashing money. What’s next – Freemasons poisoning the wells? Jews drinking the blood of Christian babies? What century is this?

** Good thing they hurried, eh?

now muscle shoals has got the swampers

Taking the train to work on Monday, I spotted a subway flyer for Bay State College, advertising programs in “Entertainment Management.” I snagged a card as a reminder then looked it up when I got in front of a computer. Bay State does, in fact, offer a B.A. in managing a band. You can get a college degree in managing a band – historically, one of the few jobs you never needed a college degree for. I don’t think you technically need to have a home to manage a band. You can sleep out of a car and eat every meal standing and still adequately represent a band’s interests. You probably don’t even need shoes with laces. Not more than one pair, anyway.

Last week’s post on how The Sims made me a cleaner human got me thinking more about mundane rituals. I used to be pretty bad about laundering towels, as former roommates Fraley and Hawver can testify. “Could you do something about that yellow towel?” Fraley would ask. “That filthy yellow towel of yours? I get out of the shower in the morning and that wall of steam hits it, unlocking this … this odor of …” And then he’d shake his head and gag, like a dog disagreeing with a golf ball it ate.

That was five years and a few girls ago, so my habits have since improved:

  1. Buy two towels.
  2. Hang one in the bathroom.
  3. When you do a load of regular laundry – every couple of weeks – drop the used towel in the bottom of the hamper.
  4. Hang the fresh towel in the bathroom.
  5. Repeat step #3 until death.
Simple rituals that transcend conscious thought. Automatic habits to banish the bad smells away. Do it without thinking, because you know it works.

double up or quit, double stake or spit

A Fire Upon The Deep: Remarkable high-concept science fiction. In the far future, humanity has made it out of the Slow Zone near the galactic core and into the Beyond – where machines display intuition and FTL communication and travel become nearly effortless. Civilizations trade data in massive volumes, wage wars with death tolls in the billions and occasionally Transcend into Powers – supernatural entities that regard us as ants. When a human research station accidentally unlocks a malign Power in the High Beyond, it spreads throughout the galaxy like a computer virus. The only way to stop it may lie in the hands of two refugee children from the station, stranded in a medieval world populated by hive-mind wolves.

Not only does the concept work (and that, like a tap-dancing ape, justifies the price of admission), but Vinge makes it shine. He constantly sets up parallels between the not-yet-spacefaring wolves and the hyper-networked civilization looking for them: questions about the limits of consciousness and the ethics of technology. Every character – even the children and the aliens, two groups that writers historically have trouble with – has a real viewpoint and legitimate depth. Overlay it all with a view of the future of the Internet that was prescient for its time.

Recommended for all sci-fi fans.

Smokin Aces: Some hot mess. Joe Carnahan wants to have it both ways – a Tarantino/Ritchie-style film full of gory gunplay and quirky cartoon characters, plus a somber meditation on the costs and effects of violence. It doesn’t work. I don’t care about half the characters that the film wants me to invest in – why should I care if she finds love or if he gets revenge or if they get out alive? The result is a leaden build-up to a few very exciting minutes, and then an even rougher let-down at the end.

The Alchemist: The Secret, except it’s a novel, except it predates The Secret by about twenty years, which proves that you can’t lose money repackaging happy bromides if you have the right marketing. Don’t get me wrong – “follow your passion” is an important message, and one that the human race needs to hear constantly. But shed the mysticism, please: the Universe will not help you buy a house or find a wife or retire on a yacht. The Universe only has four jobs, and they keep It pretty busy.

I ran like a cheetah with thoughts of an assassin

Observed in Target this past Thursday: a scruffy white guy in his late-20s with an oversized sweatshirt, depicting one of Snow White’s dwarves giving a fist jab to the Grim Reaper, under the motto “COUSINS.” I stared unabashedly at the guy until I recognized the dwarf as Sleepy, and then I was like, oh, yeah. I would have totally given him the cool nod, but it took me five minutes to make this connection.

* * *

Another Target observation: some commentators blame the current credit crisis on Alan Greenspan’s loose monetary policies encouraging easy lending. Some blame it on Fannie Mae’s decision to ease credit restrictions for home loans back in 1999. Both of these are correct, but I’d like to suggest an additional culprit: the fact that you don’t have to sign for credit card purchases under $20 with most cards.

When did that happen? I know I’ve been doing it for a couple of years now. I think it only happens at the larger chains – Shaw’s Groceries, CVS, Target, etc – but it’s started to expand. The cashier rung me up for $3.50 worth of generic wet-naps*, and I swiped my card faster than it would have taken me to pull out four singles and get change.

If I ever steal a credit card – and with your continued readership, it shouldn’t become necessary, hint hint – I’m going to rack up a string of $19.99 purchases all across Boston. I figure I could get away with it for days before anyone noticed. And the useful things you could get for less than $20 would surprise you.

* * *

In last Friday’s post about why I don’t understand a mandatory 30-hour work week, a few misconceptions surfaced (over on LJ, not here). So, to clear those up:

  • Yes, of course, only rich people have the choice between time and money.** Poor people – and I mean the genuinely poor, folks for whom the necessities are still touch and go – don’t have this to worry about. People with existing financial obligations, like children or debt, don’t have this choice to make. This is certainly true. And you know what? A law mandating that they can only work 30 hours per week would fuck them.

  • My blithe dismissal of the notion – “if you want more time, choose more time; if you want more money, choose more money” – isn’t a Four Hour Work Week thing. I was that kind of an asshole long before I picked that book up; that much should be obvious.

* Best way to wipe off fake blood, like the kind I’m covered with every night in Gorefest. Get your tickets today!

** “Rich” by the standards of either the planet or history, meaning: anyone reading this right now.

and they showed me a world where I could be so dependable

Here’s why I don’t do well at political talk.

I read a pretty interesting article on how America can fix its health care system (c/o hugh_mannity). It brings up a lot of interesting points – Americans spend more per year than any other industrialized country on health care, but American life expectancy and infant mortality are abysmal, blah blah. Some interesting suggestions surface; I nod at some, shrug at others.

Then I get to this one:

Americans tend to work longer hours than people in other rich countries. Europeans, for example, work 300-350 fewer hours each year on average. Laws guarantee them sufficient time off, including a minimum of four weeks of paid vacation a year, and shorter weekly working hours. This leaves them more time to select foods carefully, eat more slowly—and, as a result, eat less—while exercising and sleeping more.

My first thought: “laws? Really? That’s your first instinct – ‘there oughta be a law’?”

Taking for granted that working fewer hours per year would improve my health – which makes sense, though I haven’t seen any studies – I have a remarkably simple solution: work fewer hours per year. I have already implemented this solution and my health, as a result, thrives. With my Economics background I could probably get a job at a major consulting firm if I wanted. I could follow the path that nearly a third of my peers have taken and enroll in law school. I could get on the management track and start supervising people. All of those paths would guarantee me a much higher paycheck. But I choose not to take them, because I like working 40 hours a week and no more.

This mindset has baffled me for about a decade now: the incomplete syllogism of “something bothers me; ergo, it should be illegal.” If something bothers you, quit doing it! I’m not talking about harmless things that other people do but which you can rationalize as “harmful,” like gay marriage or smoking weed or teaching kids that evolution is a fraud. That’s a whole other argument. Rather, I’m talking about behaviors that you have total control over, like the kind of food that you eat or how many hours you work.

I don’t want to imply that the law has no effect on health, mind you. The article I linked above talks about some changes to the law which would undoubtedly improve American health, like ending sugar subsidies. But even there I can feel my enthusiasm starting to wane. Why do I care about “American” health? America is a continent full of strangers. I have a hard time getting worked up about changes that don’t affect the hundred-odd people I know personally and care about (my monkeysphere, if you will).

Maybe that’s just me, though.

why wait? there’s a world outside

Took a sick day yesterday; sorry to leave you hanging.

Reached that part of tech week (note: buy your Gorefest tickets today!) where everything in my life but the play starts to gradually disintegrate. I need one or two good nights’ sleep to fight off the cold but I haven’t managed them yet. Dishes now sit in my sink for days on end before I wash them. I’m running low on bread, salad and other lunch necessities. And my fifty books in a year plan has fallen on hard times.

I fell into The Sims for a brief but addicted period in college. I made artificial people live artificial lives and screamed in frustration when they got stuck on their way out of the apartment (“no, you start breakfast, you fix the toilet, and … it … grr!”). Eventually I realized the sick irony in spending hours alone in my bedroom, lit only by my laptop screen, struggling to give computer characters rich, fulfilling lives. So I quit.

One of the things that stuck with me, however, were the little persona scores each Sim had. Each Sim had eight gauges that measured their needs – Hunger, Energy, Social, Room (the quality of the space they currently occupied), Bladder, etc. Walk from your gorgeous living room to your cramped, dirty bathroom and watch your Room gauge plummet. Hunger and Energy steadily diminish over time, until you have to eat or sleep to replenish them. Different Sims deplete at different rates – your introvert can top off his Social tank for days after one good conversation, but might lose interest in the TV in seconds.

I live alone in a modest studio in Davis Square. Anything in my life that I fail to maintain – groceries, cleaning, exercise, stimulating conversation – simply will not get done. I might loaf around for a while and avoid the little routines that will satisfy me in the long run. But then I remember my Sims, crying and poking the walls in confusion, and I get to work. I make my bed every morning and I picture my Room gauge going up. I cook a tasty and varied meal, rather than grabbing chips and soda, and watch little green pluses stack up next to the Hunger tank.

This private imagery came back to me recently because of this TED talk about video games breaking the barrier between virtuality and reality. I interpret life through video game cues. I visualize green gauges and happy sound effects, and that inspires me to get things done. I don’t know that making my bed because it “fills up my Room gauge” is any different than making my bed because “I can hear my mom nagging me.” They’re both outside stimuli that speak to a pre-rational level. It’s just that I can get expansion packs for mine.