Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Crit List 6: MonsterQuest Part Two -- Of Course They Get On My Nerves...

Again, not the most polished work I've done -- but the art isn't the goal. The point of this is to get myself in the habit of sketching daily. Once the habit is in place I'll start worrying about quality.

Before I go much further with this I should make one thing clear -- my idea of evidence has very little to do with eyewitnesses. The human eye and brain are not a recording system.

People are terrible witnesses. People frequently have experiences that did not actually happen. That doesn't mean they're crazy or lying -- it means they're human. Gaps and fill-ins are part of our sensorium. Add that to the fact that there are crazy people and liars in the world and you've got a situation where it's going to take a lot more than a witness to convince me of the absolute existence of anything.

I'm going to require verified physical evidence to believe in anything.

So here's what I don't like about MonsterQuest.

The problem is that the show plays to the gullibility of the public. For every moment when they show an expert debunking a piece of evidence, they balance it with a voiceover commentary saying, "While this may be unlikely, there is still a possibility that an unspeakable horror may be lurking in the depths, waiting for your children."

In an absolute sense, yeah, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence -- but to keep hammering at possibilities when probabilities have been fairly clearly demonstrated is intellectual dishonesty.

Yes, these things may not be absolutely impossible in many cases -- but most of the time they are so unlikely that you may as well make similar claims about Pikachu and the Tooth Fairy. 'Just barely possible,' isn't 'maybe,' it's 'almost certainly bullshit.' This is a very important distinction that a lot of people aren't good at making.

I know this is a television program and I know that it is entertainment. That doesn't absolve the makers of their responsibility for the show's effects on society. And right now our society is hurting for rigorous thought.

For instance, take the giant trout report I mentioned in the first part of this piece. They had one report from one person of something very much out of the ordinary and they just put the pedal to the metal and went for the investigation without once indicating that the guy in question was in all likelihood crazy or a liar -- and when they found no evidence whatsoever to support his claims they simply shrugged and said, "The mysterious depths."

Now maybe the other reports ended up on the cutting room floor. Maybe the statement that, "In the end, there is no reason to believe a goddamned thing this daffy old coot says," was likewise excised.

But in that case, the editors are responsible.

The show presents almost every single claim on exactly the same level. And in most cases -- the episode dealing with the monsters generated by bird and insect flight as viewed through cameras being a rare exception -- that level is, "Okay, regardless of the evidence this could be true. Sure, the evidence makes it seem unlikely -- but it could be true! It could! Maybe."

Look. This is dishonest. It preys on the typical person's lack of practice and training in critical thought. When I mentioned in the first part the pleasure of the feeling that kind of thinking engenders, it's coming from someone who's worked hard to look at exactly these kinds of phenomena from a critical stance, who has made a point of researching and double-checking, and thinking really, really hard.

Someone who doesn't have that background isn't necessarily going to recognize the fact that they're being fed bullshit.

I mentioned that there seems to be missing information in some of these episodes; in some cases, the missing information is of real interest. The episode dealing with giant squid in the Sea of Cortez featured an early interview with a scientist who claimed a theoretical basis for believing in such squid.

His on-camera statement was so vague and meaningless that I dismissed it out of hand. It was a description of a hypothetical situation, not an analysis of evidence.

But the man was right -- and I want to know what thought processes led him to the correct conclusion. MonsterQuest didn't give those to me. And as a result I am petulant.

Or in the giant spider episode -- they never talked about the physical reasons why spiders are small. (Not to go into it, but they have to do mainly with respiration.) This is crucial to understanding just how nonsensical these claims are -- and they were just skipped. Maybe this was done out of ignorance. If so, that doesn't speak well for the researchers and writers.

Something else happened in that episode that really bothered me -- when one of the locals prepared some spiders for the show's representatives to eat, the soundtrack featured horror movie music.

The man is making lunch for people he hardly knows and they give him horror music? That was as good an example of unconscious racism as you're likely to run across -- "Why this gentleman's idea of lunch is absolutely terrifying and we feel obliged to use it as a means of inspiring fear." Creepy spider thrills were allowed to totally overwhelm the most fundamental levels of respect and courtesy. The guy was being nice and this is how they treat him?

Imagine if Julia Child invited you for lunch, made Boeuf Bourguignon, and you filmed and broadcast it using the Psycho theme as background music. It would be an insult. I hope the example clarifies my meaning...

Mixing images and information from dubious and inappropriate sources is also an issue. For instance, in the episode involving the search for the remains of the Loch Ness Monster, they included an image that came from The Weekly World News, the trash paper beloved of us olde-thymey punkes.

Or in the episode dealing with a Canadian lake monster, early in the show they cut repeatedly to illustrations of sea monsters by Conrad Gessner. Wrong continent, wrong body of water, wrong century -- this was done purely for decorative effect. And thus, was bullshit.

Then there's the habit of taking quotes from experts out of context early in the show to make it sound as though the experts support the monster claims. Later in in the show, when we hear what the expert really said, it turns out that the opposite is the case.

And dramatizing stories that are later shown to be false is a similar annoyance -- again, in the Canadian lake monster episode, they report a story about a giant eel attacking mounties but later in the show admit that the mounties had no record of the story.

Perhaps it seems a bit mean-spirited of me to complain about the bullshit levels of a show called MonsterQuest, but again, our culture is seriously lacking in critical thought.

And the fact is that a lot of the ads on the show seem to be aimed at the gullible, which seems a bit low. One ad in particular was for hair dye for men -- and it implied a direct connection between a man's use of the product and his ability to put his son through college. This is an ad for male hair dye, people -- and whoever came up with that ad should be ashamed of themselves. That kind of sucker bait just ain't right.

I love the show; I watch the show; I will watch the show. But to write about it without pointing out what strikes me as a genuine moral failing would be irresponsible. I know it seems like a minor issue -- but that's because the problem is so widespread and so serious that an individual example like this seems like a spit in the ocean.

That said, when are they gonna do something on the Nandi Bear or the giant salamanders of the Trinity Alps or the idea that there are giant sloths surviving in the Amazon Basin or...

Anyway, I'll be watching.

Crit List 6: MonsterQuest, Part One -- Why I Love MonsterQuest

Okay, this sucks. I know it, you know it, let's get over it and move on.

See, when I was working on that Psittacosaurus piece it was pretty clear to me that if my drawing skills were in better shape I would have done a better piece of work. I need to set pen and pencil together on a regular basis instead of just hauling them out when I don't have any other choice.

I also draw too slowly, especially if I'm going to be doing any cartooning. So I'm going to try and do a page of sketching or drawing each day. I'm posting it not for your delight and not to prove what a great artist I am but rather as part of a ritual. I need to make a habit of drawing the way I've made a habit of writing. Discipline, he said. Iron discipline.

I haven't been watching a lot of TV lately -- just cooking shows while I eat and the stuff like Lost that I watch in order to spend time with the missus. (She's one of those who regards watching the tube together as 'us time,' and I try to accommodate her to a degree. We are, as I've said, a mixed marriage.)

But there is a show that I adore. It's called MonsterQuest and it's on the History Channel. Forteanna is one of the cultures with which I affiliate myself. I've been fascinated by aberrant phenomena since childhood.

I started off assuming that scientific examination would eventually confirm things like psychic powers and interplanetary presences on Earth; I grew to believe that as unlikely as any one event might be all it would take would be one crack in conventional reality to change everything.

Now I think that while there are a few openings for surprises in the world they will all fit comfortably into a materialistic worldview. The more I study science, history, and so on, the more I believe that there is an understandable and consistent reality.

But I still love this stuff. As a fantasist, it's great fodder for my imagination. And one of the legitimate openings for real surprises is the natural world -- there are a lot of animals out there that haven't been found or recognized by the mainstream of European-derived culture.

That's where MonsterQuest comes in. The basic idea behind the show is that they find some report of a spooky critter and then fund an investigation. They bring in a mix of regular guys and gals, cryptozoologists, and skeptical scientists and animal experts, and let them have at it.

This, to my mind, is totally sweet. I am so a member of the target audience.

The most exciting thing about the show is that here and there they come up with something genuinely interesting that seems solid. For instance, footage of a giant squid in the Sea of Cortez. (Since that episode I've felt that any human endeavor that does not involve dropping cameras into the Sea of Cortez is a waste.) Or the giant pike that was reconstructed from a jawbone found in a stream. Or the chupacabra corpse which suggested that there might be a sort of super-mange responsible for a lot of so-called chupacabra activity.

I also love the way they allow the skeptics and nay-sayers to state their case without real argument. "No, it's not giant bear. It isn't even a big bear." "That's a housecat, dude." "It's just a dog." "Uh, huh, looks like a monster but see? Just a couple of otters."

A particularly fine example of this was when they investigated strange flying creatures that were showing up on film and in videos and demonstrated that they were being generated by the cameras themselves. They covered a wide range of speculation, then zoomed in and debunked.

To see evidence gathered and analyzed by people whose expertise seems entirely legitimate is wonderful. To see people who think they have an idea of how to investigate these reports given the funding they need to make a reasonable attempt is great.

The investigations are almost always of interest. By showing the methodologies used in some detail they add a nice dose of education and rational thought to the mix, something we could use a little more of in this country.

And the mix of personalities they get up on the screen is always entertaining. You can't always tell the skeptics from the believers on sight -- eccentrics do not project predictably.

(I use eccentric in a respectful and affectionate sense here -- any really bright and capable person is likely to be eccentric because normal people are inferior. We can talk about this later, if we must.)

And the need for new material puts the producer in the position of accepting some pretty fucking ludicrous claims as the basis for individual episodes. For instance, at one point they had some old fisherman come in with a claim that he'd seen a fourteen-foot brown trout. The show's response was not to laugh openly at his obvious lie; it was to talk about what a fierce predator the brown trout was and then make a fucking two-foot trout lure with a camera in it.

Brilliant. Jut brilliant. This is a mixed blessing, admittedly, and I'll be complaining about this as well as praising it, but it adds to the entertainment value.

They also have a knack for pulling some surprising concepts into the mix. Just when I start groaning, "Jesus, not another fucking bigfoot story," they'll throw in references to Stalin's half-ape army to spice things up. Honestly, the researchers and writers for the show deserve some real credit for this.

And the actual scripting is nowhere near as idiotic as that in most nature shows. It's not thrilling prose but most of the time it fails to offend, which is all I ask for.

There's a particular spooky feeling I enjoy. If I read a whole series of reports of strange events, while my rational mind is busy debunking and explaining, my primitive superstitious mind is building up a sort of static charge -- "Some of this must be true!" The resulting cognitive dissonance causes me delight; MonsterQuest is crack for that, kinda like freebasing Fort.

Like I said, this is my idea of good casual entertainment. But do I have complaints? Of course I have complaints. It is the way of my people. Tune in next time for the pissing and moaning...

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Deadline Fever

Once again, the hot new blog is Art Evolved -- come for the ceratopsians, stay for the art.

Well, I'm just about crawling out of my skin. Deadlines, deadlines, deadlines, and as usual it's only the immediate threat of blowing them that gets me working effectively.

There were the deadlines for Art Evolved. I did two drawings for the Ceratopsians Gallery, as shown in the logo above. Have I mentioned Art Evolved?

Art Evolved

There's also the deadlines for the Thinking Big show, my initial foray into the world of fine art. I just got my canvas in to be framed today and I'm going to be sliding in just under the wire on that one.

My class assignments? Three prints and the initial version of my promotional packet for the Bonelands series of prints have been done just in the nick of time.

I'll be able to start breathing and get back to writing soon. Sorry to have been off the blog for the last couple of days.

I also owe an apology to M.L. Heath -- I forgot to mention his poetry reading at the LitPunk show. I'm correcting that post but still... Sorry, man. My bad.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Big Secret Revealed and What I Learned At The Makeout Room

Okay, all the hints and teasing that I've done over the past while? I can now tell you what it's all about. There's a new group blog in town and it's the first blog entirely dedicated to paleontological reconstruction. Not that there haven't been blogs involving the subject, but this is gonna be something different and spectacular.

So go on -- take a look at Art Evolved. It's got dinosaurs, for pete's sake. Everyone likes to look at pictures of dinosaurs!

So yesterday I did something completely out of character. I went to a reading in San Francisco. It was called LitPunk and it happened at the Makeout Room. The actual reading was a hell of a lot of fun. Some people whose work I really admire showed up and I wasn't expecting them at all, and everyone put on a real show.

Now I'm half an inch away from being a shut-in. But in this case I'd been strongly encouraged to go by John Shirley, a writer whose work I have long admired. I mentioned this in a post from a few days ago. And since I'd had such a good time at the reading in which he participated on Tuesday (when I got home from that I was in a better mood than I'd been in for weeks) I wasn't at all reluctant to make an appearance.

But the actual experience was a mixed bag for me. To start off with, when I walked in they were playing the Joey Ramone version of It's A Wonderful World. I've told you the Ramones are my favorite band right? I recently watched the Ramones documentary End Of The Century and the combination of Joey's sincere delivery and my consciousness of his sad history started the evening off with shot of bittersweet melancholy. What can I say -- I'm a big old sentimental slob.

John was in a very different state than he'd been in at Moe's. Rather than the somewhat retiring, almost shy persona he'd displayed in Berkeley, here he was high-energy, high-dominance, and obviously having a blast. Cool!

I wandered around looking for one of the readers, this guy named M.L. Heath, who'd sent me an email about the show. I wanted to give him a copy of Swill, and while asking after him, I found two of the other readers and gave them copies. I found out later that they were Charles Gatewood and Johnny Strike of Crime. I handed Charles fuckin' Gatewood a magazine with my photographs on the cover... Oh well.

I enjoyed the hell out of the performances; honestly, I haven't been exposed to enough of this kind of thing to have any critical stance. I just stood back and enjoyed.

First off the bat was the above-mentioned Mr. Heath, whose poetry was personal, sexual, and intense. His high-pressure delivery set the tone for the evening -- from the moment he started speaking all attention was fixed on the stage.

There was Rain Graves, who Shirley described as a cross between Lovecraft and Bukowski. Let's just say she didn't disappoint -- there was much cringeworthy nervous laughter.

Gatewood recited a somewhat self-satisfied piece of quasi-pornographic memoir that made me feel a bit better about my own creeping geezerhood. Blag Dahlia of the Dwarves did a cute schtick about groupies, dropping his manuscript at his feet one page at a time in fine punk style.

A woman named Charlie Jane Anders (who I was later informed might not have matching x chromosomes) did a pair of fucking hilarious bits, with a 'end of the web' recitation that pretty much said it all.

Rudy Rucker showed up, much to my surprise, and did a reading of his letters from Burroughs to Ginsburg from his e-zine Flurb. His dry and droll delivery was note-perfect and made me oddly conscious of the continuity of a certain level of subculture, how beat and punk are just drum fills in an ongoing cultural rhythm that's been playing since the first bitter hipster chimps stepped out of the fire circle to exchange knowing sneers.

Unfortunately as he exited the stage and passed by me I shoved a copy of Swill at him in what I immediately thought was a rude and peremptory fashion. I was afraid I wouldn't get another chance to pass it on to him. Of course he's the one at the show I least wanted to offend... Oh, well. Hopefully it wasn't as bad as I thought it was. (I'd send him an apologetic email if I knew for sure I'd offended -- but I'd look like a bit of an ass if I apologized without having transgressed. Social anxiety is a bitch. I wish I'd been raised right, you know?)

Shirley's performance was of the story he gave us for Swill and I've got to say that as much as I enjoyed reading it, it really is meant to be heard live. Caricatured voices and physical comedy made this into a cartoon on stage. It was great.

And he did a plug for Swill, which was nifty. Later, he came up to me and said, "You could probably get Blag Dahlia and Johnny Strike to contribute to Swill."

"Hey, everyone's free to submit," I said.

He gave me a look of disgust. "No, you go ask them." Which for some reason gave me a warm feeling.

Later, I was able to nail Blag Dahlia but wasn't able to get through the crowd to access Johnny Strike. Hey, Johnny -- if you want, submit something to Swill! When Rob's taking submissions again, that is.

And Johnny Strike finished things up with a couple of pieces accompanied by low-key guitar and sound effects, one a slice-of-life freakshow set in a methadone clinic, the other a surreal slab of dizzying incomprehensibility.

But the individual who seemed to get the best reaction from the crowd was a golden retriever who was making the rounds. He or she had the friendly impersonal demeanor of an airline attendant who still likes people and needs to get her job done. It was kinda cute to see all the hipsters reaching out to give the dog a quick stroke as it passed, everyone trying to coax it into giving them a little personal time.

Before I left, I scored a free book from John, passed out copies of Swill to all the readers except Charlie Jane Anders who'd left early, and had my copies of City Come A Walkin' and New Noir signed. I didn't get to buy any of the other folk's works -- the crowds were too fierce for me.

So given the quality of what was on stage and the pleasant interactions I had, why did I leave in a bit of an odd and distraught mood?

I just felt out of place. Because of my back I have to shift from sitting to standing pretty frequently and there was a crowd and it seemed kinda awkward and obtrusive. When I set up I thought I was in the back; by twenty minutes or so into the evening I found myself in the front. I was surrounded by well-dressed attractive young people while facing some of my cultural heroes. I started getting that exiled alien feeling, that "I'll never be one of the cool kids" feeling.

And the overstimulating environment didn't help. I was wearing my bifocals and between that and the shifting lights from a disco ball overhead I was having mild hallucinations by the end of the evening which made me feel feverdream crazy, and all the conversations around me made me feel like I wanted to just wither. I don't have a knack for shutting that stuff out, which goes along with being crazy.

None of this was anyone's doing -- aside from the elusive individual who ran a finger down my left butt cheek as if testing the texture (by the time I recovered from the shock, they'd pulled back their hand), no one was shitty to me and a number of folks were distinctly friendly. (Hey, Michael! Hey, John!)

So when I headed home I gave this some thought.

(Enough thought to get on the wrong fucking BART train... I swear, the last while I've been making one dumbass move like that after another. Last Thursday I wound up walking in circles looking for the writer's group meeting for forty fucking minutes before wandering by my own house accidentally. I am more or less Rain Man with a few more verbal skills these days.)

I do have some areas of arrested development in my personality, and it's all to the good for me to push at them. I didn't get a chance to be a kid or a teenager and now I'm not getting a chance to be an adult -- but by recognizing and working through these moments of tension, by allowing myself to go ahead and be an awkward teen or a frightened child, I may wind up getting past that. Not getting over -- I think that whole concept is just a way of justifying having a low-grade memory -- getting past.

It struck me that I want to do some kind of reading or performance myself. My pal Allison does some of that and I'm realizing that I'm a wee bit jealous. Being in front of an audience is a little nervous but nowhere near as distressing as being in a crowd. I like one on one interactions, and performance is exactly that -- you've reduced things to Self and Other and they have to take what you give 'em...

I also paid attention to the difference in John's demeanor between the two times I saw him. When you're in your element you're different than when you're not, and it struck me that real confidence is the ability to create your proper place inside yourself so you can carry it around with you, so that when it's appropriate you can withdraw without feeling diminished. Ponder ponder.

Now this is the place where I'd usually say, "They should never let me out of the house." But I reached another conclusion this time...

I need to get out more often. And maybe I need to think about dressing like a grownup -- but that's another post.