Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Craft of Acting

Every year, awards are given out for the best actors and actresses of film, stage, and television. For some, this is merely a popularity contest. For others, it is a recognition of who can project the most gravitas. In too many cases, I fear, awards are given for the favorite characters of the year. Yet there is a craft to acting, an art. Those deft in this craft can convey not only majesty and gravitas, not only dramatic characters, but different personalities, different situations, different emotions. Acting craft can overcome storytelling challenges and expand the art of acting beyond the everyday into the fantastic.

Which is why I think genre actors in speculative fiction are cruelly under appreciated. Consider, for example, Stargate SG-1, Season 7 Episode 3 "Fragile Balance". In this episode, Air Force Colonel Jack O'Neil wakes up with the body of a fourteen year old boy. The bulk of the episode deals with him convincing his team and superiors of what happened to him, trying to be taken seriously as an adult, and finding out what happened to him and undoing it. A not unheard of speculative fiction trope, and executed fairly well.

To do this, the show brought in a little known actor, Michael Welch, to play the young Jack O'Neil. In order to pull of the role, Welch had to imitate Richard Dean Anderson's portrayal. Of course, it's up to the writers to keep the character's lines and catch phrases consistent with what we've already seen in six years of Jack. But Welch needs to deliver those lines with a similar emphasis, cadence, and vocal style to Anderson. He needs to use facial expression and body language to carry that he is, in fact, an adult air force colonel in a teenager's body. I think that Welch does it well, and the episode is entertaining.
However, what I'd like to point out is that this is an acting challenge pretty uncommon among the more serious and dramatic works that normally win awards. Actors are recognized for how effectively they convey a character, and for how effectively they invoke the character's emotions and evoke a response in the audience. But how many Oscar and Emmy winners have ever had to not just sell their interpretation of a character, but sell another actor's interpretation of that character.

Ewan McGregor faced a similar challenge in Star Wars Episodes I - III. He not only had to play the role of a Jedi Knight, but had to do so with the understanding that his portrayal should evolve in such a way that his characterization of Obi Wan Kenobi should believably mesh with the characterization of the same person in Episode IV. Played by Alec frickin' Guiness. Not the easiest thing to expect from an actor.

As another example, take the Stargate: Atlantis Season 2 episode 4 "Duet". Dr. Rodney McKay (David Hewlett) winds up sharing his body with the mind of a woman, air force lieutenant Laura Cadman. Again, not an uncommon trope in speculative fiction, but done all right here. Men taking women's roles is an old, old tradition in theater. Even when men weren't doing women's roles out of tradition and local law, the number of cross-dressing character in Shakespeare is staggering.

Still, here in this episode, Hewlett has to show us when he is in control of his body, when she is in control, and when they are in conflict. He has to convince us that he is acting like a woman: a seperate set of gestures, body movements, vocal styling, and so on. This can't all be solved with good writing and voice overs: he has to act it out, too. I think he does reasonably well, but my point here is how common this kind of thing is in speculative fiction. Had this been a mainstream television show or movie, the acting challenge presented might have been considered 'daring' or 'unconventional', but here it's just another week on the set.

There are plenty of additional examples. Body switching, age progression or regression, mental illness and breakdowns, alternate realities, hallucinations that aren't... the list is nearly endless. Each trope invoked requires a level of acting ambition and craftwork that would win acclaim and applause in mainstream genres, but here is just another week on the set. So, let's remember to appreciate what these actors are doing for us, and remember that the West Wing wouldn't dare.


Googlebombing for a cause:

"Teach us to care and not to care"

"Teach us to care and not to care"*

A woman's life is thrown into chaos. The pronouncement: breast cancer. Her strength, her will, her faith, all will be tested. Everyone she knows is falling all over themselves to show sympathy. Her husband cries himself to sleep. The weight of the sadness multiplies.

The man she works with doesn't sympathise. He isn't crestfallen, he makes her laugh. Between them, there is not a sadness, but a going on. A going on, a going under, an overcoming.

"Teach us to care and not to care"

A mother lies in the hospital bed. "I want to go home," she begs. Her son tells her, "If you can get out of bed under your own power, we'll go home." She can't get up. She stays another night. She gets better. A going on, a going under, an overcoming.

"Teach us to care and not to care"

"I like you more than I should. More than you know," he says. To her, he says nothing. The time is not right, and maybe never will be. Between them there can only be pain. So they both let go. They go on, they go under, they overcome.

"Teach us to care and not to care"

An empathic cruelty, a sensitive insensitivity, the malus fides. To do that which is cruel but which must be done. To say that which is awful but must be said. To forsake fidelis for fides.

To go on, to go under, to overcome.

"Teach us to care and not to care/
Teach us to sit still"

* T. S. Elliot "Ash Wednesday"


Googlebombing for a cause:

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Word of Warning

While I appreciate Mr. Jonathan D. Septer's reference to the post regarding criticism of proposed helmet laws in Minnesota, I feel I ought to point out that Et in Arcadia Ego is a vehicle for the things I think about while staring off into the distance. At best, I'm a minor bicycle dilettante, and certainly don't speak for any organized group of bicycling activists. My views may not best represent the tenor of feelings in Minnesota. The blog here is mostly read by a few friends and family of mine, an astonishing number of Russian spambots, and someone I don't know who posts comments in French (who may or may not be a Russian spambot). I'm hardly the unspoken voice of my generation.

As it is, wearing a helmet while bicycling is probably not a bad idea. I'm comfortable in concluding that one will reduce the severity of any head injuries experienced while cycling, bathing, or walking through the kitchen. However, there are two factors at play here that are of some concern to me.

First of all, nearly every human activity carries risk. Bicycling incurs risk. So does driving an automobile, skateboarding, or downhill skiing. Sex incurs risk, bathing incurs risk, cooking incurs risk. Heck, lying around in bed all say incurs risk. It's nearly impossible to make anything perfectly safe, and foolishness to try.

The trick in being human is to decide what risks are acceptable, and what measures are acceptable in reducing risk. We live our lives in a near-constant state of risk management, despite the fact that humans as a whole tend to be very bad at it (Zero-risk bias, psuedocertainty effect, neglect of probability, und so weiter...) There's some question that making people feel safer means that they take more chances, for instance. And it's an open question of just how risky riding without a helmet really is, compared to how risky riding with a helmet might be. It's something for each rider to decide.

The second factor is one of enforcement. Every time a law is passed, one is giving more power to law enforcement. Each new law allows them to intrude just a little bit further into our lives. A helmet law implies that law enforcement will be required to enforce the law (note the circular defenition?) Of course, when writing a ticket for helmet non-compliance, the officer will want to know who you are to put your name on the ticket. Of course, as police officers tend to be the suspicious type, you'll be expected to produce some sort of government-issued ID to prove your identity. And so we lose one more mode of transportation that was open to everyone, regardless of legal status. Gone is the elementary school kid getting out of the house to get some exercise: not without your bicycle ID and license plates, little Timmy! Gone is the sense of freedom and self reliance that non-driving teenagers can capture. Gone is the one more way that non-citizens, non-persons, and nobodies can get around while being left alone by the government.

All in the vain and illusory hope of eliminating the ever-present risk of living.


Googlebombing for a cause:

Garlic Lime Chicken

The Box Monkey school of cooking can't claim credit for this. The original recipe comes from Extending the Table: A World Community Cookbook, However, it's been years since I've actually read the print recipe, so who knows how far I've drifted from that version. Let's hope I don't get sued.

You'll need:

2 Chicken breasts, halved.
4 lime slices, used as garnish.
6 to 8 limes, juiced.
1/2 tsp. Paprika
1 tsp. Cayenne pepper
8 cloves of garlic, peeled, crushed and minced.
about 2 Tbls of Olive oil.

Peel, crush, and mince the garlic cloves. Halve the chicken breasts. Heat the oil in a skillet, then toss in the garlic and the chicken. Brown the chicken on both sides, about one minute a side. Be careful not to scorch the garlic.

Turn the heat down to a simmer. Pour in half the lime juice, and sprinkle half of the pepper and paprika on the chicken. Cover the skillet, and simer for about twenty minutes. Next, turn the chicken over, add the rest of the lime juice, sprinkle with the remaining pepper and paprika. Simmer for twenty more minutes.

Make very sure that you retain enough fluid to prevent scorching or burning. You can add a little water if needed. When this dish is pulled off perfectly, the lime juice will reduce itself to a tart, thick, syrupy brown sauce in the pan. This is in part due to the sugars in the sauce condensing and caramelizing. The resulting dish is zesty without being overly spicy or zappy, and tart with sweetness around the edges.

I like to serve this with plain couscous, made with a little olive oil, and some of the water in the couscous substituted out in favor of lime juice. Boxed couscous cooks up in about five minutes, and is dead easy: boil some water/lime juice, and pour in the olive oil. Add the couscous, turn off the heat, and cover. Wait five minutes, then fluff with a fork. I like to dust the couscous with a little paprika after plating it - the reddish brown dust and the green lime wedges add a little color to what is otherwise a pretty brown meal.

The wonder of this meal is how easy and reliable it is. It works pretty well with bottled lime juice and frozen chicken breasts, so it's easy to keep ingredients around ready for short notice meals. Yet it's tasty and interesting enough to serve to company: whether to a person of the appropriate sex, or their parents, or other company that needs impressing.


Googlebombing for a cause:

It's also a nice example of the box monkey cooking philosophy. Add a little sage, some cumin, and turn up the spice with jalapeno or chipotle peppers and this becomes vaguely Tex-Mex. Remove the paprika, cayenne, and cut down on the garlic, trade the lime juice for orange juice, and throw in a cinnamon stick, and you'll get a vaguely West Asian orange chicken dish. Add some fresh ginger instead of the cinnamon stick, dust it with turmeric, and it will taste more like an East Asian orange chicken. One recipe will generate a half dozen different dishes with a little creativity.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Social Contract: a discussion

I'm going to begin by assuming that we can agree on an evolutionary approach to human and animal behavior here. I'm going to approach things as contemporary anthropology and social psychology do, and assume that homo sapiens sapiens is biologically related to other primate species, such as chimpanzees and gorillas. Thus, we might gain some insight into human social behavior by looking at the social behavior of other animals.

Humans, like chimpanzees and gorillas, would seem to be social animals. We organize ourselves into groups. I'd postulate that this is done because the individual realizes some benefits for doing so. That is, group organization is pro-survival, both for the species as a whole, and for individuals within the group. We might realize gains by sharing resources withing the group, by exercising co-operative rather than competitive behavior. Quite likely, there may be an ingrained need in people to socialize and experience interactions with others of the same species. As well, grouping facilitates the mating and pair-bonding processes.

It would seem that all social groupings have rules. Some behaviors are permitted, others are promoted, and others are discouraged. In particular, behaviors that are pro-group survival are encouraged. Usually, the central guiding principles are the efficient management of resources within the group, and seeking to reduce the amount of intra-group infighting.

Many times, group members are called on the sacrifice pro-individual behaviors in favor of pro-group behaviors. Wolf packs, for instance, share kills collectively. Crows permit only one breeding pair per territory, with other individuals contributing to the feeding, raising, and protection of the young. Gorillas exhibit harem behavior, where the strongest male of the group claims all the females as breeding partners, in an attempt to promote the most viable offspring.

To put this in terms of libertarian political philosophy, every group has rules. People join groups because they need to, want to, or enjoy some benefit from doing so. However, joining a group requires a tacit or implicit agreement to follow the group's rules. This means that one may have to sacrifice some liberty to contribute to group harmony; only by giving up some liberty can one enjoy the benefits of inclusion within the group.

Among non-verbal animals, the rules of group behavior are not explicitly stated. Young animals either understand the rules instinctively, or they learn them through observation, imitation, and modeling other successful group members. The rules are nowhere spelled out, and new group members are expected to learn them in other ways. Humans are unique in that we can sometimes manage to explicitly define the group rules. Among non-humans, the rules for group membership are always tacit, implies, or unstated.

Agreement to the groups rules is an unstated condition for joining a social grouping. Outsiders wishing to join the group must learn all the behaviors expected of them. This is true of crows, of wolves, and of chimpanzees, for instance. The young are also expected to the learn and follow the rules as a condition of group membership; those that cannot are exiled or killed for opposing pro-group survival.

Among humans, a similar mechanism underlies the social contract. Humans that want to be members of a social group must abide by the groups rules. Those rules may be explicitly stated as laws or ethical principles, or unstated as etiquette and private morals, but pro-social behaviors are expected as an underlying condition for group membership.


And I have two questions.

How does one distinguish when they have agreed to follow the rules from when they have not agreed to follow the rules (it makes no sense to say that everyone has agreed to everything anyone else can imagine--at that point, 'agreement,' as a concept, makes no sense)?

First, let me be clear. My stabs at a defenition here are meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive. That is, I'm attempting to model how I believe things do work, not necessarily how things should or ought to work.

With that being said, here's how i thing things generally go. Let's say that I'm a lurker here on I'd like to become a full-fledged and accepted member of the community here. Before I do, I must demonstrate that I accept the rules for being a member of this community. That includes not only the explicitly stated rules of the forum, but also any number of unspoken and unstated rules of netiquette and other social forms that I must observe.

While registration is easy enough, that's just the first of many steps. To really be accepted as a member of this community, respected by other members and not castigated as a clueless newb, I have to behave in the proper fashion. Any posts I make should be relatively well written, my thoughts coherent, and m,y ideas helpful. I ought to avoid too combative a demeanor, and generally exhibit 'cluefulness' in some vague sense. While straying from this pattern of behavior won't necessarily get me banned, it will mean that Iwill be rejected by the community in other ways. People will not respond to my posts, my questions will not be answered, and my ideas will be met with skepticism and even socially constrained hostility.

Further, not only am I agreeing to the rules and customs as they exist in the community at the time, I am also agreeing in some sense to any future rules or customs that may develop. I may not agree to any of these rules, but failure to do so may see me attacked, socially shunned, or even the target of official enforcement action. Such is the price of agreeing to be a member of the community.

My only real solution is to establish myself as a respected member of the group. One of the ways this is done is by consistent adherence not only to the stated rules, but also to the social mores. In time, I may find that deviations from those mores are dealt with more flexibly, and I may in time become something of a 'tribal elder', given some small role in producing, affecting, and effecting the social standards of the forums.

How does one determine what those rules are, to which they have agreed?

Through the basic mechanisms of learning. I watch others interact withing the group, and see which behaviors are accepted, which are actively reinforced, and which are discouraged by corrective enforcement. Usually, members new to a community - newbies in an online community, or children and adolescents in a terrestrial township, for instance - are allowed a greater leeway in experimenting with new behaviors, and the corrections to deviant behavior are more gentle. For example, a nine-year old chewing with his mouth open at home is reprimanded by a parent; an adult who does so consistently is whispered about and possibly ostracized by 'polite company', he may have fewer friends and fewer mating opportunities. A wolf cub that shows dominance behavior towards its mother will be nipped at and held down until the cub shows submission. An adult who does it to the alpha male probably will face a fight or exclusion from the pack if it doesn't 'take it back' and submit quickly.

Humans, of course, also have recourse to verbal communication. This allows us to communicate some rules by abstract communication. Although I would argue that such abstract rules do not communicate their full meaning unless ant until they are illustrated by actual modeling. At the very least, people seem to need to see that the rules will be enforced and how strictly, and how the abstract rules will be interpreted and adjudicated before the person can really understand exactly what is expected of them. It is not enough, for instance, for rules to say "Spam will not be tolerated," New users need to see examples of what is and is not considered spam, and how strictly the rule is enforced before they truly understand the rule and how it will be enforced.

Verbal communication also allows people to learn behaviors from models who are not present, and in the case of fiction, not real. The stories we tell each other are all ways of saying, "This is one way to behave, and the possible consequences of behaving in this way in this situation."

Meaning, if two contradictory sets of rules are put forward, how does one determine which applies (Sitting Bull and General Custer disagree--there has to be some standard to determine which is correct,
I would approach this differently. This is a conflict between two different social groups: the U.S. Army and it's leadership, and the Native tribe (Dakota, wasn't it? I don't remember off hand.) They're striving to see which group will have control of resources.

or else the idea of a 'social contract' is meaningless; it is put forward as an ethical standard and the purpose of an ethical standard is to resolve conflicts, to show that one side is right and the other is wrong; if the 'social contract' fails to be able to achieve this standard, then it cannot possibly represent an ethical standard, at which point it is being misrepresented as such)?

I would agree that the purpose of enforcing a social contract is to resolve conflict. Further, the social contract for a given group is supposed to indicate how conflict is to be resolved - whether it's an appeal to tribal elders, a fight to the death or submission with the alpha male, or some sort of acceptance of accolades. In the worst of cases, the group's social contract should prescribe the manner in which the group calves off subgroups, in a way that ensures survival for at least one of the groups involved. The social contract exists to channel and resolve conflict in a pro-group survival manner. Few groups survive as groups if internal conflict is allowed to degenerate into a war of 'all against all'.

See, I had taken such a possible definition as you put forward into account when formulating my original definition, and I don't see yours as substantively different, if it achieves the same goals as the one I posit. I think you imply for the concept of 'legitimate rulers' to still be there, but only as a foundation for some other concept (most likely the 'rules' to which people have agreed--if only some people decide what the rules are, then they hold the place of 'legitimate ruler' in my original definition, and my original arguments still hold sway).

Yeah, I'm still kind of working on that. I think of what I think you are considering 'legitimate rulers' as being two separate concepts (that often fall to the same individual or individuals): 'leadership' or the direction and coordination of the group as a whole in order to accomplish those goals that the group appoints for itself - namely group survival, growth, and prosperity - and enforcement of the group's social contract.

As best as I can tell, we can consider that the social contract itself establishes provision for appointing leadership and enforcement mechanisms. At it's most basic level, it seems that most groups allow parents to enforce correct behavior on their offspring. Most seem to give a certain amount of enforcement power to any adult member in good standing with the community. And many social groups centralize some enforcement functions to a particular individual or individuals: a breeding pair, pack alpha, silverback, or similar.

'Legitimacy' is a stickier issue. Fundamentally, observing various groups, it seems that if an individual has the power for enforcement, and uses it, without in turn being corrected by other more powerful members of the group (individually or collectively), then the enforcing member of the group has as much 'legitimacy' as the group allows. That is, if I can correct your behavior, and no one can correct my behavior in correcting you, then I must have legitimacy in some sense. Further, if you accept my correction and modify your behavior in response to it, then you must be in some sense accepting my legitimacy. Further, if you can't convince anyone else with enforcement ability to restrain me, that would suggest that the group as a whole accepts my legitimacy.

Again, I must stress that I'm attempting to be descriptive here rather than prescriptive. How does the alpha wolf achieve alpha status? By all the other wolves acting as though he is alpha, and through the ability to correct all the non-alpha wolves without fear of correction himself.


Googlebombing for a cause:

Friday, March 4, 2011

Box Monkey beans

Ever since I was a young child, I've eaten cooked vegetables by pouring vinegar on them. Green beans, spinach, broccoli - I'm not fond of them plain, but pour vinegar on them and I'm good to go. It's earned me some strange looks over the years, but I persevere. That quirk is the origin of the following:

Mediterranean green beans in butter-vinegar sauce.

You'll need:

1 lb. of fresh green beans (string beans or snap beans, if you prefer)
1/2 lb. dates. Ideally, these should be Mediterranean style: whole, moist, and chewy, not dry and hard.
1/4 lb. slivered almonds

Cut the stringy ends off the beans. I like to use diagonal cuts. Especially long ones can be cut in half, so that the segments are about an inch long or so.

Cut the dates into long quarters, removing pits if necessary.

Steam the beans in a steamer for about 10 minutes. Add about a tablespoon of clear vinegar or rice vinegar to the water. If you don't have a purpose built steamer, you can fill a largish saucepan with water and the vinegar, and load the beans into a colander or bowl-shaped strainer that sits in the saucepan above the water level. Cover with a large pan lid.

Beans should be steamed until they reach a dark green color, but should still be fairly firm. When done, toss them in a bowl or serving dish with the dates and almonds.


Butter vinegar sauce

Melt 1/2 cup unsalted butter [I've never tried this with margarine. I'm not sure it would work.]
Stir in 1/2 cup good quality red wine vinegar. If you're cooking other dishes with red wine, add a dash of that. Add 1/2 teaspoon of rosemary, 1/2 teaspoon of tarragon, and a pinch of paprika.

Simmer and keep stirring. The dish will give off a strong sour smell - this is the acid in the vinegar evaporating.* You'll want the vinegar to reduce by about a third or so.

Pour the sauce over the tossed beans. Alternately, serve the sauce in a separate bowl with a spoon for stirring. This sauce will tend to separate, so you'll want to stir it before spooning or pouring. It will also thicken as it cools, so it's best to move it directly from the stovetop to the table right before eating.

* Interesting fact: if you reduce vinegar by about 1/2, you'll get a thick, fruity sauce that's only mildly tart. Balsamic vinegar will render a sauce that's actually quite sweet. This is good for roasted meats and fowl.


Googlebombing for a cause:

What is Box Monkey cooking?

The Box Monkey school of cooking is an attempt at a series of guidestones to food for the uninitiated. It's a collection of ideas, recipes, techniques and tips gleaned over the years by a person who can't consistently spell 'recipe', let alone follow one*. Box Monkey cooking is the hope to understand food - why it is what it is, and does what it does. We attempt to understand the cuisines of many cultures, noy just to slavishly imitate them, but to understand [I]why[/I] they do what they do.

The cookbooks I've examine come from three approaches: they try to teach basic recipes and techniques to neophytes, they provide complicated recipies to veterans, or they attempt to highlight one particular genre: ethnic foods, or low-fat, or baked goods, or somesuch.

Box Monkey cooking is different. Box Monkey cooking is playing with your food. It's about trying to figure out why the recipe calls for something, and what happens if you change it. Most cookbooks are about procedures and results: if you follow the procedure, you hope to get an expected result. Box Monkey cooking is about ringing variations on a theme, frying by the seat of your pants, and saying "if we knew what we were doing, it wouldn't be research!"

Box Monkey cooking is about trying new things. Not just new-to-you things, but new-to-the-world things. It's about cooking and eating foods that make your friends and neighbors ask "what the hell did you do to that?" It's about achieving marvelous results with simple ingredients that make people say "wow! Why didn't I think of that?" Not in the least, Box Monkey cooking is about giving strange names to things, because you have no idea what to call it, and you're hell and gone from any formally titled recipe.

Cooking like a box monkey won't make anyone a wonderful cook. There are thousands of cookbooks out there for that. It's not for the accomplished cook who wants to learn new techniques or new cuisines. It's not for people with special diets, who want to make diet-compliant food that mimics real food, it's not for people who want to get better at traditional methods, and it's not for the faint of heart.

Box Monkey cooking is for my mother and my father. It's for someone who grew up putting green olives into scrambled eggs, vinegar on broccoli, and sour cream and brown sugar onto fresh strawberries because that's what his parents did and no one told him it was odd. It's for the kid who ate "Chicken conquers Russia", because that's what his dad said the name of the dish was. It's for the kid who did strange things to meatloaf, because making it the same way each time was boring and repetitive.

Box Monkey cooking is for someone just out on their own who needs to eat. Who wants to learn to cook, but doesn't have a lot in the way of kitchen gadgets or tools. Someone who wants to discover spices and sauces and ingredients - who asks "what are these good for?" but is impatient when told the answer. It's for that swinging bachelor or bachelorette that wants to cook something special for someone special, or for the parents, or for the coworkers, but doesn't have a lot of cooking experience under their belt. Such people, regardless of profession, are box monkeys in spirit.

And these cooking notes are for them.

* Really, I can't spell it. Firefox gives me a red wavy line every time I try to type it. I can follow recipes if I really have to, but usually once we get to the herbs and spices, the book and I usually part ways. Cayenne pepper, paprika, and garlic... why are they so overlooked?


Googlebombing for a cause: