Wednesday, August 5, 2015

It transpires, frighteningly enough, that not a lot of people in my age group quite get why Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert trolling the SEC was so funny. Non-estadounidenses are probably even more confused. The explanation is long and convoluted, but I promise to try to be amusing.

Part I: Shit You Need To Know First, or: Go pour yourself a drink, you'll need it.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

I have never had much truck with religion, particularly the Judeo-Christian ones. My mother was not just atheist while I was growing up, but actively anti-organized religion of all kinds, also looking down her nose at gatherings like her sister's Wiccan coven. I never did figure out why. Something about running into a fundamentalist Christian group when she was younger, I think? I assume that understanding in greater depth than that would cost me SAN, so I didn't  ask.

My father grew up Roman Catholic, and left it right around when he left for college. I don't know all the factors involved, but I do know a large part of it was that his childhood best friend turned out to be gay, as did some of his favorite cousins, and the Church did not deal well with that at the time. Credit where credit is due, here; my parents don't have issues so much as lifetime subscriptions, but I do not recall ever having to be told that there was nothing wrong with being queer. It was so boringly normal that the topic never came up. I do, on the other hand, remember a number of rants specifying that homophobia, like racism, was not right, not normal, and not acceptable, and that people like Pat Robertson and Fred Phelps were abominable human beings. I like to think it illustrates one of my father's better points, that he was evidently the kind of guy you could come out to in the late '60s/early '70s.

The both of them had so many layered anxieties about religion that when some of their friends got married in a Catholic church, my mother smoked like a particularly angry chimney right up until go time, and pretty much had to drag my father into the building by his tie. First time I ever set foot in a church. I wish I could have appreciated what fine karmic payback this was for Dad refusing to do anything about Mom's appalling behavior before, during, and after every single family holiday gathering ever, but I was much too young. I was maybe seven or eight at the time, and intent on more age-appropriate activities, like eating cake and running up to the bride to tell her she looked like a Barbie doll.

I don't really have any trouble with the idea that there is some kind of force greater than myself in the universe. I nose around in subjects like sociology, linguistics, cosmology, and cognitive science, where emergent systems are the norm. There are a surprising number of things that are more than the sum of their parts. I also don't have any trouble tinkering with the idea that this greater things is intelligent, or at least a black box that displays intelligent-looking behavior. It's conceivable that from some certain vantage point, the independent milling about of seven-some-odd billion individual humans gives the Earth as a whole what looks like some kind of intelligent, intentional behavior. It would be like framing an ant colony as a single machine of many parts, no single one of which has any idea of their role in the gestalt system. I don't believe that myself, but I can hold it as a hypothesis and not have it immediately rejected by the reality filters.

The part I object to is the part that requires emotional faith. I object to being asked to hand over my psycho-spiritual well-being to an entity that not only doesn't listen to anything I say, but also refuses to give me any kind of concrete feedback. I can count on the fingers of one foot the number of times I have convinced myself to stop being neurotic and just have faith that someone means it when they say they care about me, and they didn't turn out to be lying, or at least have changed their minds when I wasn't looking. Apparently I need to ignore the New Age claptrap and maintain a healthy amount of FUD in my relationships at all times, or people quit liking me. The obvious counterargument is that dealing with God is different from dealing with humans, but seriously, have you read the Old Testament? I'd like to point out that according to the text, YHWH specifically made us in His own image, dickish tendencies and all. He can be a petty vindictive sod.

If I really sincerely tried to attach myself to a Great Cosmic Power like that, I'd end up an anxious mess 24/7. I'd wander around wondering if any of the weird details I notice about things were supposed to be omens, and whether I was passing some sort of God-Administered Faith Test. That way, literally, lies madness. Never chuck a pareidolic head-first into a religion unless you want to watch them run it into the ground. Or an eideticker, especially if your holy book is awash with internal contradictions.

I much prefer my current method, which is to recognize that sometimes randomness coincidentally appears to be a part of a larger pattern, and that noting this sets off notification bubbles in other parts of my brain. (Being me, most of the time, is a lot like existing within a never-ending episode of Pop-Up Video: Entire Fucking World Edition.) I suppose it seems lonely to someone who's genuinely religious, the idea that I never experience these things as a loving external force keeping me company. I never feel lonelier and more isolated than when I'm talking to someone who won't respond, though, and God is not really noted for returning personal calls.

As previously mentioned, if we're being strictly accurate, I'd consider myself a secular humanist. I technically celebrate holidays like Secular Commercialized Gift-Giving Day, which for reasons of convenience (and laziness) shares a lot of scheduling and decorations with the prevailing Christian holiday of Christmas. I do, however, tend to use the idea of "the cosmos" in the same way that Einstein and Hawking tend to use "God", as a convenient poetic shorthand for "the sum total of all forces large and small that interact in such a way as to result in the environment I live in". I don't ascribe it any intelligence or motivation of its own, but there are days when "the universe is out to get me" is the only metaphor one can usefully employ.

Monday, August 3, 2015

This week is not a good week. This week is the reason I argued with the doctor until she gave me a lot more Xanax. I am getting tired of explaining this week to people, and it's depressing to talk about, so instead I want to show you this. It is the last question Stephen Colbert took in an interview for Google, promoting his second book, wherein a lady asks him why he chose to go into comedy.



It is without a doubt one of the kindest things I have ever heard out of a fellow human being. I don't know if you could properly say it's unselfish to want for yourself the power to pull laughter out of thin air in an atmosphere of tragedy or failure, but neither do I think it matters. Joy is not a zero-sum game. I am glad to be reminded that this sentiment exists, and that he has fulfilled -- and continues to fulfill -- his life's ambition.

Now if you will excuse me, I have some rats to squish and overfeed. Those store brand Cheerios aren't going to hoard themselves.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Are you all having a good day? I hope so, because I'm not, and I like to fantasize that the universe has some sort of built-in balancing mechanism.

In the interests of making myself think about something less unpleasant, I am now going to intensely, bordering on fractally, over-analyze a joke.

It is always interesting to investigate what people think is appropriate to joke about, and what kind of snark is acceptable. I am of the mind that anything can be sporked from the proper angle and in the proper context, including the meta-analysis of when and where this is appropriate, which is probably why I tend to like comedians like George Carlin and Lewis Black and Frankie Boyle. All of them make a distinction between an abrasive stage persona who can get away with mocking just about anything, with creative profanity, and the person they are off-stage, who is generally horrified whenever they have to explain to other grown-ups the difference between comedy and real life.

There is a limit; characters like "The Diceman" get too repetitious for me to enjoy, although Andrew Clay per se is thoughtful and pretty funny as himself, if you can get him to interview like that. There are also comedians who specialize in characters whom I recognize to generally be hilarious, but hit some personal buttons that prevent me from enjoying the performance. Steve Carell is a very sharp, very witty guy OOC, and his neurotic characters can be funny when paired with an Only Sane Man, but a lot of what he does boils down to a load of dysfunctional awkward people bouncing off each other in dysfunctional awkward ways that get progressively worse when no one shows up to stop them. I understand why a lot of people find that funny, but I've been there in real life, and mostly it makes me want to run away.

I spend a lot of time on the internet, which means I spend a lot of time watching people get brutally offended over things that, from my point of view, are kind of stupid.

Friday, July 31, 2015

The last time we met, the doctor told me she thought "we" needed to get me some "new coping methods". This is usually the part where I figure out how to change doctors, or just quit making appointments, because this is usually where they start giving me sales pitches on the wonders of CBT and stop reading things I hand them. I try not to be overly paranoid, but I got just about thirty years of "stop whining, you don't need medication, you just need to stop having the wrong feelings" and that makes a mark. I'm willing to give this one the benefit of the doubt, because she is an Energetic Young Thing who doesn't know me all that well yet, and also because she's not the therapist person. Frankly, I can ignore just about anything she says as long as she doesn't start pestering me to take something that won't end well, or threaten to stop letting me have something unless I toe the party line.

The therapist person has made no such noises. The therapist person is rather older than the doctor, which probably makes a difference, and is much more pragmatic. The doctor also suggested that perhaps Googling things made me more anxious and I might want to stop that, whereas the therapist person asked me if it helped, and when I told her it did, she just shrugged and went 'okay then'. It makes little difference what either of them say about that, as you will get me to stop thumbing through the proto-Hitchhiker's Guide right around when rigor mortis sets in -- there is a reason I bought a Kindle with lifetime 3G service -- but life is a lot less irritating when I don't have to pretend to be stupid or ignorant.

The irony is that the doctor may well be right, but in exactly the opposite direction as she thinks she is. What sparked that conversation was that she kept asking me what I was afraid of. I would guess she wants me to be afraid of a particular thing, and truthfully, I'd rather like that, too -- if I'm panicking over a thing, then I can deal with the thing, and quit panicking. Perhaps not always easy, but conceptually very simple. All I have to do is put my finger squarely on the thing that is driving me up a wall so I can tailor an action plan to it, and voilà. Improvement!

Annoyingly, this falls down in practice. I can certainly give you a reason for my stress, but on the whole, I'm not really afraid of anything. That is, I am dogged by a feeling of impending doom, as if I have done something terrible and am just skulking around waiting for someone to discover it and call me onto the carpet, but it is in reference to nothing in particular. It just exists, formless and omnipresent. I would love for it to have a proper corpus, because as all RPGers know, anything that has a proper stat sheet can be killed, regardless of what the scenario programmers intended.

I have tried forcibly nailing that damn feeling to something that I can affect, and it doesn't work. Geopolitical chaos is fucking terrible on me. In early 2011, when the Egyptians rioted and terrified Mubarak into resigning, I went: Okay. This is on the other side of the planet, where I am not, and all things considered, when the mobs have dispersed and the fires have been put out, the outcome is likely to be overwhelmingly positive. There is no reason for this to have thrown me into a panic, but it has anyway, so let's see if I can make myself feel like I'm doing something about it, and if that will finally make this shit go away. 

I speak several languages, and as it turns out the easiest way to make me furious on behalf of perfect strangers is to try to turn their internets off, so I pulled up Twitter in one window and IRC in the other, and spent a while translating the real-time bulletins from Le Monde and El Mundo, and relaying the various outside-access cellular internet numbers floating around the tweet-o-sphere. And by 'a while', I mean two, maybe two and a half days. Without food, or sleep, or any apparent effect on my physiological state at all. I hadn't yet talked myself into thinking the ER was a viable option, so I believe at that point I dragged myself a hundred feet down the road to the grocery store, bought a bottle of Robitussin gelcaps, and took them four at a time until I was far too high to pay attention to anything happening in my sympathetic nervous system, much less in Cairo.

[Simmer down. Robitussin gelcaps only have the one active ingredient. I know what 300mg of DXM does to me, and I'm not dumb enough to eat that much Tylenol. While it does last an annoyingly long time, the aftermath is also much less miserable than knocking back vodka.]

Years ago, I started calling this status panicus, by analogy to status epilepticus and status migrainosus. It happens when I've attained such a high baseline stress level that I'm primed for an attack, and once I've gone over the precipice, pretty much anything will kindle a second attack, up to and including the symptoms of the first. (I see now that I'm no longer the only one who uses that term, although I assume it's arisen independently many times over from people who saw the similarities.) I would argue that they were temporal lobe seizures, in fact, except that they last far longer than seizures do, and I don't experience changes in memory or consciousness while they're going on -- I'm A&O times like a kabillion, as evinced by the way I freak people out when they realize that I really am telling them, perfectly calmly and lucidly and in accurate medical terminology, what a motherfucking basket case I am right then, and can I please have some tranquilizers now. I'm equally on the ball right afterwards, less the effects of whatever I've snorked back to stop it.

[It's probably also worth noting that I've only ever gotten appropriate supportive care, in the wild, from 1) other people with this same issue, and 2) epileptics. Doctors, not quite so much.]

When people pester me to name whatever it is I'm afraid of, I have a rather bad habit of brainstorming shit that may make them shut up. This is one of those situations where 'I don't know' and 'nothing' do not appear to be acceptable answers. 'I don't know' appears to be interpreted as 'I want you to coddle me but can't be arsed to invent a plausible reason why' and 'nothing' appears to be interpreted as 'I'm going to make you ask a million times so I feel like I'm controlling this conversation'. I doubt whether the doctor would appreciate it if my new coping method is telling her, politely, to stop fucking asking me that, because that more than anything is likely to drive me into a tailspin of "try to force my panic to be a corporeal thing > try to kill the corpus > discover that does not make the panic abate"-- repeat ad absurdum, or at least ad medicamentum.

I would particularly like to avoid that because it occurs to me that an unchecked death spiral of neurotic self-questions and unhelpful self-answers would result in a behavioral deterioration not unlike that which my mother has displayed over the past three decades. Imagine thinking you'd identified the source of your fear and devised a way to thwart it, and yet the terror remained. Over and over again, for years. Eventually, the convoluted loops of rituals and bizarre beliefs would become indistinguishable from paranoid schizophrenia. (I have in fact been asked if she had that, and had to say no, on the grounds that I'm unaware of any hallucinations, and acting like a spoiled teenager is not the kind of 'inappropriate affect' they mean.) It's the sort of thing the mi-go might read to their kids instead of If You Give A Mouse A Cookie.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Important discovery: The Colbert Report is virtually impossible to speechread.

Oh, Colbert faces the camera straight on, and enunciates pretty well, probably a side-effect of un-learning his Southern accent as a young adult. (He gets it back a wee little bit when campaigning for the President of the United States of South Carolina. I've seen him mention he learned to quash it at college when he realized it made people assume he was less than brilliant, but environment is hard to resist.) It's just that lip reading is mainly guessing what fits the visemes you can see, based on body language and context, and "Colbert" runs almost entirely on sarcasm and insane troll logic. It leads to a lot of moments where you have a graphic of, say, a convicted money launderer up on the left side of the screen, but find yourself watching the lip flaps and going, "...wait, did he just say 'banana'? Angrily?" We shall not even speak of "The Wørd", where the snark-titles on the right are based as much on his bizarre tangential turns of phrase as they are the actual Wørd in question.

I lip read better than I probably ought to, for someone whose hearing is perfectly good. Despite years upon years of abusing the volume control on all of my music players, I've always come out fine on pure tone tests. I used to hear monitor whine, back when we all used CRTs, and I still hear borderline-ultrasonic feeps and whiffles from the rats, if I get close enough. I think everyone else has the TV up hellaciously loud, and when left to my own devices, crank the sound down by at least 50%. I'm not sure my hearing is stupendous so much as I've spent enough time picking apart synaesthesiae that I just pay way too much attention to it all. I usually classify things like diesel rumbles as infrasound, even though the primary way I pick them up is that they make the room feel oppressive and my head feel stuffed full. Other people think I am puzzlingly insane until the truck finally leaves and they realize the low level hum is gone.

The reason I speechread so well, I suspect, is that I have a sporadic central auditory process something something. Sometimes the parser just kind of fall down go boom. I have an unfortunate tendency to say, "What?" when this happens, which makes people repeat the same string of syllable mush word-for-word in the exact same cadence, when what I really need before it will coagulate into words is for them to rephrase it. I guess a lot from attention and gestures. This fails utterly on the phone, obviously, and is one of the reasons I hate talking on the damnable things. If I really try, I can get about 50% of what you're saying, especially on a cell phone, especially on a crap cell phone, especially on a crap cell phone while on a train or standing in the middle of the sidewalk with random noises coming in my other ear, and you know what? Just fucking text me. You already have the number. PLEASE.

There are a couple of interesting corollaries to this. One is that I'm largely immune to the McGurk effect. I won't swear it never works on me, but at least when I'm watching videos that purport to demonstrate it, I automatically hear the spoken syllable, and with a tick of attention I can generally figure out what syllable is being depicted. Depending on the demo, I sometimes have no idea what combined syllable I'm supposed to be hearing, although I know enough about linguistics and speech physiology that I can make an educated guess.

Another is that I've gotten kind of indifferent to dealing with crap internet video where the sound and picture are out of sync. I find it a great deal more annoying when the audio and video are matched, but the subtitles are out of whack. I'm a great deal more reliant on the relationship between mots and paroles than I am between phonemes and visemes, to the point where the only two languages I have had classes in and failed to retain any of are the two where the instructor refused to give me a large wadge of written materials. The "textbook" did not as such exist for Navajo when I tried to take that, and the instructor was unable to give me a grammar to go with the packet. The Arabic teacher just refused to write down anything for which we hadn't learned all the letters in the Arabic abjad. The coursebook tried to bang everything into our heads with raw verbal repetition, without giving me any written source to match it to. I remember about three words, all of which commonly occur on takeout menus.

I have no idea how most people process lip-reading. The Wiki article inconveniently doesn't say. I do it through a sort of reverse subvocalization process: I look at the mouth position, imagine my own mouth in that position, and take a stab at what noises I could be making if that were the case. Some of the lesson pages seem to indicate that you're supposed to learn it by directly linking the visual "mouth that looks like this" to "noise that sounds like this" in the same sort of symbolic way that printed letters symbolize sounds, but I would guess that the pages are trying to teach lip-reading to people who aren't d/Deaf -- that method wouldn't work if you'd never heard any of the noises, and thus don't have an instinctive idea of what sequence of noises make up what words.

My method, conversely, wouldn't work if you'd never known how to speak those words yourself. There are a lot of near-minimal pairs among English phonemes, particularly with voice/voiceless pairs like m/b, t/d, and f/v. Having to learn to speak these from watching mouth movements, but without being able to audibly distinguish between positions of speech organs that can't be seen from the outside, results in the characteristic "accent" that hearing people perceive in Deaf speech. Think about it. It's crazy difficult to figure out how to manipulate your soft palate and throat muscles to control the flow of air through your nose if you can't hear the difference. It's at least as difficult to change as it is trying to smash your native accent in an adult-acquired second language. Even Marlee Matlin has it, and she spends so much of her time working and performing outside of the Deaf community that I can lip read most of her English while she signs.