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June 25, 2014 @ 1:40 pm

Depictions of mental illness in pop culture: a comparative case study of The Tick vs. The Maxx

How's that for an informative, authoritative, academic-sounding title?  Right out of the Journal of Popular Culture.

I had a subscription to that journal for a year, because registering for the meeting automatically subscribed me (neat marketing trick; I should remember that).  Articles were like medical case studies, in that they were qualitative descriptions.  Points were made by choosing quotes that supported the author's view much more often than by systematically counting the number of times a word was used or an event happened.  Something like:

The Tick is a farce, a sitcom, a parody of the conventions in superhero comics.  Most of the "heroes" spend their time displaying conventional petty social dynamics.  For instance, the cowardly Der Fleidermaus (a parody of Batman) spends most of his time boasting and hitting on women.  Bipolar Bear is a throwaway joke.


Only the Tick, whose social awkardness and verbal malapropisms label him as generically insane, really believes in selfless action, even to the extent of risking his own life.

The Maxx, on the other hand, is homeless.  He lives in a box in an alley.  He has great difficulty distinguishing inner from outer reality, exemplified by the catch-phrase,

"Damn.  Talking out loud again." 

While these behaviors are played for laughs, it is also quite obvious that the Maxx is in deep emotional pain.  Other characters in the show are also experiencing mental difficulties.  These are likewise approached ironically, but realistically.  The teenager Sarah, who is clearly depressed, considers suicide at one point...

Pretty low on the evidence scale, as used by most doctors and scientists.


However, there's a second scale (from the same website) for qualitative research, "showing relative usefulness of different types of evidence to answer meaning or experience questions."


For example, what is it like to be mentally ill?  There have been attempts to simulate hallucinations.




But I find these do not generate a lot of empathy within students (a qualitative observation, to be sure).  Something like The Maxx, with a compelling storyline and art that expresses the character's emotional state seems to work better.

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June 20, 2014 @ 7:28 pm

A Grievous Oversight (x2!)

According to the custom Google search embedded in the Podbean site, and half an hour of dedicated human searching, I have never mentioned The Maxx on this blog.  Not once.  Which is odd, because it is one of my favorite bits of pop culture ever. 

Not believing this result, I did an experiment.  I did a second search for The Tick, which I'm pretty sure I've mentioned on here.  Nothing.  Even stranger.  So I wasted the better part of an hour searching month by month trying to prove the search algorithm wrong.  Nothing.  Finally, I did a more intelligent control by searching for something I know should be there: Game of Thrones.  Ten results at least.  Doh!

So, in celebration of two of my favorite mentally disturbed heroes,


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June 15, 2014 @ 11:50 am

Aaaaaaahh. . .

The title refers not to the aargh.jpgof comic book pain and anguish (or of pirate parlance).  Neither is it the Aieee! of fear.  No, it is rather the Aaaahhh of relief.  The relief of having quit a job.  The relief of ending sixth grade.  The relief of my family going on vacation without me.  Most of all, the relief of writing again.

With all the wrap-up required in my last semester at A&T, I allowed the Podbean payment to lapse for over a month.  This meant that I basically stopped writing during that period, except for posting little things to the Facebook page.  Since BEACON is no longer funding the podcast, and I no longer work at A&T, there's some legitimate question as to what will happen to the show.  Podbean yanked access as soon as the money ran out, although there's supposed to be a free option for podcasting.  That means I may have to move the content to someplace free, as suggested by Tom Barbalet of the Biota podcast a couple of years ago.  Technically, the content belongs to A&T, but pretty clearly they aren't interested in it (at least my former department wasn't).  So that's a bit up in the air.  Don't worry, though -- we've got year to figure it out before I'd have to pay the Podbean Piper again.
For the next six weeks, after six years away, I'm back to teaching at the North Carolina Governor's School, so any posts and podcasts will be connected to that in some way.  After that. . . ?  Wait and see.  No, that's not me stalling like a cheesy chatbot trying to win a Turing test.  I do in fact have plans a-plenty.  I'm just due on campus after lunch.
UPDATE: David Lewis's book Science for Sale (reviewed below) is out as of June 3rd.  Look for it.  I was reminded of this when our local NPR affiliate ran what has become a standard story, repeating the fraud charges against Andrew Wakefield.  "Aren't journalists supposed to fact-check their sources?" says the blogger who probably did exactly the same thing at one point.
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April 19, 2014 @ 6:03 pm

Bad News Water Bears

On episode 2 of Cosmos, Neil de Grasse Tyson shrinks "The Ship of the Imagination" and goes looking for the toughest animal on the planet, which has been through all 5 mass extinctions.  He even touches on the theory of Panspermia, that life on Earth might have started somewhere else, since these things have been shown to survive both high radiation and the cold vacuum of space.

Though Tyson (of the Bronx, not Gallifrey) is essentially piloting a shinier Tardis, that has nothing at all to do with the scientific name of the water bear.  "Tardigrade" translates from the Latin Tardus = slow or sluggish + gradi = to walk.  What with the wrinkles, and the claws, and whatever that lumpy mass in its armpit is, it does look more like a bargain-basement Dr. Who alien from the 70s, than it does a son of Krypton.  But when I saw the segment it recombined in my head with the documentary Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle into this throwaway visual joke. 

Unlike most of my throwaway ideas, though, I actually sat down and drew this one out!  Well, sort of.  I more or less traced the doctor from Action Comics #1 and squeezed the tardigrade in Superman's position.  There wasn't room for all eight legs, but adding the third one was suggestive, I think.  It's not so much the drawing as product that I'm so unreasonably happy about.  It's more the process of picking up a pencil and then having the courage to show it publicly.  As a teacher, I've been doing the public speaking thing for so long now that I've forgotten what it's like to be crushingly nervous in front of an audience, which is THE major concern for so many of my students.  So, inspired by a short conversation with animator Meg Rosenberg  of TrueAnomalies.com at SciOnline in Raleigh, I'm stretching a little bit.  There will be more of this kind of thing.

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April 18, 2014 @ 1:14 pm

Your Inner Fish: Stupid Design

Shubin did some neat bits on the first show that I don’t remember from the book (I always appreciate that kind of value-added filmmaking).  The time-lapse dissection of a human hand was especially cool, but my favorite one was the visit to the fish market to look at fish balls.  This was PBS, so they used the least offensive scientific word “gonads,” when they found them up near the heart.  Now, I already knew that human testicles have to descend through the body wall into the scrotum, and that this passage leaves weak spots in the body wall that are vulnerable to herniation.  What I did not know, was how far the testicles have to descend.  Just like in the fish, human testicles form way up near the heart.  Why?  Because our ancestors were fish, and our embryos are basically tweaked fish embryos.

I like to call this stupid design, in contrast to intelligent design.  This is kind of an obvious joke, and although I did come up with it on my own, I did not come up with it first.  Here’s a lecture from at least 5 years ago by Neil deGrasse Tyson.


This is not uncommon in science.  Alfred Russell Wallace came up with the idea of evolution while Darwin was still fiddling around, and ultimately (accidentally) pushed Darwin into publishing first.

The history of science is actually full of comedy.  Take this marvelous series, which I am totally going to start following on Twitter.


This kind of thing can be really helpful to leaven a serious message.  David Lewis was very earnest in his book Science for Sale.  How much would he and the National Whistleblower's Center benefit from working with a John Stewart, in terms of getting their message out?

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April 17, 2014 @ 10:35 pm

Are You Blogging Fargo Episode 1?

Yes, dear.

Man-o-man, that Billy Bob Thornton gets him some some good monologues goin’ there.  Example:


Your problem is you spent your whole life thinking there are rules.  There aren’t.  We used to be gorillas.  All we had was what we could take and defend.  Truth is, you’re more of a man than you were yesterday. . . It’s a red tide, Lester, this life of ours.  The shit they make us eat, day after day -- the boss, the wife, et cetera, wearing us down.  If you don’t stand up to it, let ‘em know you’re still an ape -- deep down, where it counts -- you’re just gonna get washed away.”

-Lorne Malvo

(great name, by the way)

There’s another one about dragons that I won’t ruin for you.  But that’s what this show is about.  Steven Pinker did a TED talk about how relatively peaceful most of us humans are now.  Murder rates are tiny compared to what they were during the Middle Ages, or even during colonial times, before “the civilizing influence of the market economy.”


Most of us are not Steve Rogers, or David Lewis, or even Officer Molly.  Most of us are Officer Grimly, or Lester Nygaard.  Most of us are neither heroes nor monsters.  Most of us are cowards and conformists.  Most of us have been successfully trained by our culture to whitewash our rage, most of the time.  We usually die before that training fails. 

What makes someone like David Lewis from my last post so interesting, so special, is that he successfully threads the needle.  He pulls a Buddha Third Way.  He neither gives up and surrenders to the corrupt institutions, nor succumbs to savagery or even dirty politics. 

How does he do that?  My wife says he must have a very supportive life partner.  She's probably right.  And just for the record, after viewing this episode she did in fact make me promise never to hit her in the head with a ball-peen hammer.  I protested that such a thing was never in the wedding vows, but it did no good.

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April 16, 2014 @ 12:53 pm

April Showers Bring Winter Soldiers

Last night was rainy and cold for April, and I was alone.  So after watching part of the first episode of Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish until 6:15 or so, I popped over to Lucky 32 for supper -- smoked salmon and breaded , deep-fried balls of mashed potatoes.  I’m always saying to my students that there’s no such thing as perfection in this world, but that meal was pretty damned close.  Given the weather and my recent illnesses, I was definitely in the mood for comfort food.  And Laurelyn Dosset was there playing rainy-day songs, which was very nice.

Of course, I had to be a killjoy by bringing along my advance copy of David Lewis’s Science for Sale.  I’ve been slogging through this book a little at a time for a couple of months now.  It’s a complex story, and Lewis doesn’t tell it that well.  He tries to personalize it, but the way he inserts his anecdotes of human folly are more distracting than illuminating.  He could really use an editor and a timeline – actually a series of parallel timelines, because of all the multitasking.

Before we get into the actual controversy, to set the stage, you know who David Lewis reminds me of?  Captain America!  Lewis is sort of this Super-Soldier of Science, innocently running rings around Falcon and the reflecting pool at the Washington Monument.  The quality of his science is just better.  The quality of his morals is just better.  He’s patient, and careful, and brave.  He never gets tired of getting screwed over by Hydra, never gets depressed and drunk and pitiful, never freaks out and murders one of his own superiors for testing bargain-basement versions of the Super-Soldier Serum on poor black GIs like Isaiah Bradley.  The main difference is that the good Captain usually wins.


In the largest sense, plot-wise, Science for Sale is structured a lot like The Winter Soldier, except the situation is worse – more complicated, more decentralized, more insidious.  In the book, self-serving bastards have infiltrated not just S.H.I.E.L.D., but every government agency that funds science, every university that receives government grant money, as well as the journals that report scientific results.  The movie has a single world domination doomsday conspiracy; the book shows a web of little conspiracies designed to empower individual competing groups (like Steve Jackson’s Illuminati game).  Lewis focuses on three specific little conspiracies that he encountered during his scientific career.  I will treat them as separate episodes, like a comic from the 60s, instead of interweaving them into a longer arc, like a modern comic.

ONE.  People don’t clean their surgical instruments properly, and this spreads disease.  Dental drills suck blood into their interiors.  If they aren’t sterilized properly, they can transfer bacteria and viruses from one patient to another.  The same goes for the flexible endoscopes that proctologists stuff up people’s bums to take pictures of the inside of the colon, or to remove cancerous growths that show up on the photos.  Half-assed cleanings do not in fact sterilize these instruments, and occasionally an individual gets sick for no apparent reason.  These kinds of rare events are easy to imagine, but documenting them is quite difficult, requiring a lot of effort that most people are not willing to put in.  It’s not even a proper conspiracy, just a bunch of lazy doctors and dentists who aren’t following the manufacturer’s directions.  Angie’s List could take care of this problem.

Tired of lousy service and HIV infections?

Hail HYDRA! Full dental!

Bob agent of Hydra - Marvel Comics - Deadpool ally

TWO.  Lewis wades into the vaccine controversy.  Just to show how unclear the scientific community itself currently is on this issue, I had two postdoc guests at Science Cafe last month repeat the British Medical Journal’s claims of scientific fraud against Andrew Wakefield.  They did not mention his name, and given the mocking and dismissive tone they used, I don’t think it was out of respect or restraint.  I don’t think they knew his name.  I’m not knocking them; I didn’t know the story either until our favorite shield-slinger David Lewis told it.  I think I may have even linked to the hack job at some point (for which I apologize, and if I find that link I will remove it).  The basics are that the British government did a hack job on Wakefield.  According to Lewis (and this is easily checkable), Wakefield never said that vaccines cause autism.  He said in one paper that the MMR vaccine was correlated with a particularly nasty form of bowel inflammation.  He said in a different paper, based on different subjects, that autism was correlated with gastrointestinal ailments (not at all controversial, according to my two Science Cafe guests).  The hack job conflated these two papers and then invented evidence to prove that he was wrong about something he never said (Hail Hydra!).

Lewis’s deconstruction of this is long, detailed, and complicated, going back to medical reports and histology slides of samples of damaged tissue from the bowels of patients.  There’s a link to his previous work on endoscopes, but a lot of his involvement seems to be Cap-like, that he’s out looking for trouble, searching for wrongs to right.  Like he doesn’t have enough to do running his own lab at the EPA.  What kind of Super-Scientist Serum is this guy on, or is he just mainlining some kind of caffeine-amphetamine cocktail through his spinal cord like Bane?

THREE.  Here’s the big one, the mind-bender, the unbelievable rot that goes all the way to the top.  Take all the human shit from a wastewater treatment plant.  This is not just normal human shit full of friendly members of the human microbiome.  This includes shit from nursing homes, hospitals, prisons, whatever – full of unfriendly, antibiotic-resistant pathogens.  It also includes the actual antibiotics and other drugs that patients have taken.  It also includes whatever regulated industrial wastes that have been “accidentally spilled,” as well as the unregulated stuff that we don’t even know about.  Take all of that stuff, which is totally illegal to leave in the water or the air, and dump it on farmland.  Call it fertilizer.  Get the EPA, the same organization that enforces the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, to fund university scientists to say that this is a good idea.  Claim that the organic material (the shit) prevents the toxins from entering the food chain, when any first-grader who watched the Lion King knows that the whole point of organic material is that it breaks down and “becomes the grass.”  Push this sludge magic farther and claim that shit can bind existing toxins, and start spraying it on lead-contaminated Baltimore neighborhoods.  Hell, just start feeding sewage sludge pills to prisoners.  HAIL HYDRA!

See what I’m talking about?  Any one of those could be a movie, or a sub-plot lasting months in a comic.  The overall arc could span a couple of years.  In reality, these three (or four) plots consumed years of David Lewis’s life.  The sludge monsters never tried to assassinate him like Nick Fury, but they got him fired from the EPA (or “retired,” in bureaucrat language).  He still hasn’t given up like a normal person would.  He’s still fighting these battles as part of the National Whistleblower’s Center, funding his research Robin Hood-style, with money from court settlements.  But he’s also apparently a good Christian, with no hate in him.

I’ve always been much more a fan of Captain America than The Punisher (even Batman doesn’t go around with a big-ass skull on his chest).  I think revenge is usually counter-productive.  Marvel has definitely moved in the direction of fighting fire with bullets (see previous post on their movie version of Falcon), and this bothers me some.  I prefer poetic justice.  I wonder how fast this issue would get resolved if these biosolids were instead dumped on million-dollar estates and gated communities?  Or on Disneyworld – you know they own Marvel, now, right?  How would they tell this story if they thought it was important?  Would they address it directly, or continue nibbling abstractly around the edges of institutional corruption?  Which is more effective, long-term?


Captain America: TRUTH: Red, White & Black


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April 14, 2014 @ 11:01 am

Not Your Daddy’s Falcon

My son and his friend agreed that Falcon was the coolest character in The Winter Soldier.  This was not the red-and-white Falcon with a telepathic link to his pet bird.  This Falcon wore black, and his wings were metal, and he carried machine guns.  Boy, I can’t wait until it’s their turn to be the Daddy whose comics are not good enough.


Which is really just me being grumpy, because the new Falcon actually was pretty cool.  "More of a soldier than a spy," as he told Nick Fury at one point.

I am getting really tired of this other trope, though, that people have to be frightened or tricked into building a better and more cooperative world.  This is not just Watchmen; it apparently goes all the way back to Plato's "noble lie."

And it's personal.  We all want our own way.  Some of us are willing to compromise on that most of the time out in the real world, but we are all little dictators inside our own heads, totally convinced that the world would be a better place if it would just listen to us.  I spent a lot of yesterday in exactly that sort of pleasantly unpleasant mental place, mad at the hordes of other visitors to the Zoo just for existing.  David Brin (in a book by Episode 19's Barbara Oakley) called self-righteousness an addiction, but to me it seems an exaggeration of the necessary "standing up for yourself" that's involved in game theory situations like The Prisoner's Dilemma.

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April 13, 2014 @ 10:23 am

Robust Predictive Control

My wife and I were both sick from some nameless fever-inducing alien virus all last weekend.  Fairly horrible.  Not Agent Coulson, "Let me die, please just let me die" horrible, but not pleasant at all.  Thus the flashback.

I tried to read a couple of papers about sleep, including

A new theoretical approach to the functional meaning of sleep and dreaming in humans based on the maintenance of ‘predictive psychic homeostasis’


The basic gist of which is that sleep is a time when the brain updates, at every level, kind of like your desktop synching the files on all of your mobile devices.  In this analogy, the mobile devices are your peripheral organs.  They focus on the kidney, which I personally haven’t paid that much attention to since my 300-level physiology class in undergad.  But as they point out, what’s more important than the kidney for setting the circulating levels of those sodium and potassium ions that the brain spends so much energy shuttling back and forth across its membranes?  For instance, right this minute I’m losing considerable amounts of salt and water through the mucus that is pouring out of my nose.  If I don’t want that to affect my brain function, I need to offset those losses to keep the ions in proper balance.

These imaginative Italians take the case a step further.  The “reactive homeostasis” I described above is generally thought of as consisting of negative feedback loops, to put it in engineer-speak.  There’s a set point that is relatively constant, and any deviation from that set point is corrected for.  Agnati et.al. describe a “predictive homeostasis,” where the deviations themselves are recorded and used to estimate what tomorrow’s likely disturbances will be.  There’s a huge engineering literature on this idea.  Google just handed me over two million results for “robust predictive control,” but none of the top 30 was written for the math-phobic public, or even biologists.  Probably the closest things are Nassim Taleb’s books on risk and uncertainty, which start with finance but range over many other topics.  Fine thought-provokers.

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April 5, 2014 @ 1:37 pm

Totally Dreamt of in My Philosophy, or, Wait, Doctor Orpheus doesn’t smoke

I woke up from a nap with this phrase from the song "Jackson" running through my head.

We got married in a fever

Hotter than a pepper sprout

Not the whole song, just those two lines, over and over.  I hadn’t heard the song recently (probably not since seeing Walk the Line), so it probably was not the random recombination of daily information that seems to be a part of long-term memory consolidation during dreams (or so I learned during grad school, but see here).  I’d felt like crap all day, straight through my classes, and I felt cold much of that time.  Was I sick from exposure to new people on my trip to Raleigh the day before, or just exhausted and under-dressed for the weather?  On waking up, with that song snippet playing, I was pretty sure.  Later my wife took my temperature -- 101°.  Not blazingly hot, but definitely a fever.  Not a particularly profound example of my subconscious mind trying to tell me something, but a really clear one.  Experimentally verifiable, even, which is unusual with omens.

We do not understand our brains.  This does not mean that our brains are magical.  Our brains are complicated, and old.  The arrangement of our cranial nerves is at least as old as the sharks, with whom we share it.  The newer parts, language and such, are the parts we pay attention to, but they’re not the most important parts.  Alan Watts (treated nicer by the South Park guys than anyone I've ever seen) apparently said this in many different ways.



My favorite goes something like,

Your hair grows, your nails grow – are you doing that?  Is that something that you ... DO?  Do you know exactly how to work all those rods and cones at the back of your retina?  

Clearly, in terms of keeping us alive and healthy, those old parts of the brain, like the hypothalamus, are more important than Broca’s area up in the cortex.  The problem is that those old important areas don’t seem to have many direct connections to Broca’s area.  It’s rather like the broadcast news media, rattling on about shallow things to fill their 24-hour news cycles, while the important decisions are being made as the result of back-room deals down in the deeper areas of the brain.  What does Broca’s area understand about circadian rhythms?  Only what it reads.  It doesn’t produce those rhythms.

Not to say that reading isn’t impressive.  Rerouting visual information into an auditory area, so that printed symbols on a page take on a voice of their own?  That’s a major construction project.  No wonder it takes most of us years to learn.

I appreciate Watt’s insistence that he was not advocating for a particular view, but I don’t think that’s entirely accurate.  He was advocating for a larger view.  He wanted us to look at the elephant not as a collection of parts, like the old poem about the blind men.


He wanted us to see the elephant as a subject, even as a social animal embedded in a culture of elephants, in an ecosystem.  All at once, or switching between those perspectives seamlessly as needed by the situation.


I awoke from another illness-induced nap this afternoon with a lingering image of talking to my older brother (who died several years ago, in the spring).  One of my left molars painfully squeezed out its filling, which I spat into my hand.  Not even going to pretend I know what the hell THAT means.


Continuing the 'what IS sleep for, anyway' thread

"Psychic Homeostasis," which is a phrase I can just hear Doctor Orpheus intoning mellifluously

Back-room deals for good or ill

Terri Gross on how women's rights was inserted into the Civil Rights Bill by a Virginia senator (in an attempt to kill it!)


Michael Lewis describes how the NYSE sells real estate closer to its exchange servers so that high-frequency traders can insert themselves between your transactions and skim pennies from every trade.

http://www.npr.org/2014/04/01/297686724/on-a-rigged-wall-street-milliseconds-make-all-the-difference Flash Boys

Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish, now a 3-part series on PBS.


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