Saturday, September 04, 2021

I Got Injected Where the Pigs Poop and It’s Filling Me With Hope for the Future

I got my second COVID vaccine yesterday, so this post might be a literal fever dream. Sorry.

It’s become almost cliché to say this, but do you ever snap back to reality and realize how weird things have become? Yesterday, I went to the place where London’s annual Western Fair is usually held. I passed the grounds where I’d normally be eating a deep-fried-bacon-wrapped-Snickers bar then letting rickety carnival rides spin me around until I barf it out. I entered the “agriplex,” where I’d normally be watching chicks hatching from eggs, smelling pig shit, and letting scorpions crawl on me at the bug exhibit.

Except now, there hasn’t been a fair in two years because a different sort of critter caused a deadly pandemic, which still makes gathering in large crowds a bad idea. No greasy foods, no rides, and the building that was previously full of chickens, pigs, and creepy-crawlies has been converted into a mass vaccination center.

In the exact place where I came face to face with the biggest horse I’d ever seen, a doctor injected a snippet of genetic material into my arm, where it will hijack my cells to create harmless replicas of the deadly virus, so that my other cells can recognize it and fight it if they ever come across the real thing. This is happening inside of me right now, and giving me a nasty headache, but it’s a good sort of hurt, like feeling pleasantly queasy after surviving a few flips through the air in a carnival ride. Totally worth it.

I hope the whirlwind of 2020 and 2021 will act as a vaccine for humanity. It seems to be happening slowly here in the middle of it, but I think history will show that 2-ish years is a pretty good pace for upending how we interact with each other and developing entirely new technology to inject into our arms and (hopefully) eliminate COVID as a worldwide threat. We learned that we are capable of fighting this one. Bigger threats are coming, as this summer’s extreme weather, floods, and wildfires are giving us a taste of, but with this vaccine swimming in my aching body, I have a bit more hope that humanity’s immune system will be able to face them.




This was originally posted on July 12 at Across the Board.


Sunday, February 21, 2021

It's Hard to Make Art In a Messed-Up World

I originally posted this on Across the Board back in June, but it's Black History Month, and we're just getting over a second lockdown around here, so I thought I'd re-share it here.



I have a confession: I haven’t finished writing anything in months. During those same months, a pandemic has wreaked havoc across the globe, and marches to protect the lives of Black people have been met with inaction and/or police violence. It’s a bit of a mess out there.

But wait, wait, isn’t turmoil supposed to breed great art? So we should be in the middle of a perfect storm for creativity, right? There is so much to say, and we can say it with insightful art fuelled by the anxiety and dread that keeps every tortured artist going.

I remember when Bush Jr. became president of the U.S. in 2001, musicians explicitly said stuff like “at least there’s an upside, because great music is born out of rebellion.”

Yet I’ve gotten nothing done in the last few months. WTF.

I’m a brain scientist in my day job, so I usually seek answers in science first. A quick review of the literature shows that, actually, happy people tend to be the most creative. Depression, stress, and anxiety either have no effect, or actively harm creativity.

The tortured artist: fake news

More anecdotally, in hindsight we can see that Bush’s reign led to a lot of war and turmoil, but did musicians create their best work? Some of the top songs during the later part of his term:

  • Thnks fr th Mmrs
  • Buy U a Drank
  • SexyBack
  • This is Why I’m Hot
  • Crank That (Soulja Boy)

All perfectly fine songs, but not exactly a Renaissance for rebellion music that will be remembered for centuries (for centuriiies (sorry, I actually really like Fall Out Boy)).

Even individual artists don’t create their best work when grieving for unique personal reasons, according to this study.

As anyone who has completed a creative pursuit knows, it takes a lot of hard work. Anything that distracts from that work isn't really helping—it's not like complicated, tumultuous emotions can just pop out of your head and take form as a profound work of art. Turmoil may inform art, or inspire art, but you still have to put fingers to keyboard, pick to guitar, brush to canvas, whatever, and it's difficult to do that when you're curled in a ball with tears in your eyes and a pain in your gut from stress-eating another tub of ice cream to briefly distract yourself from the day's latest round of Twitter-fueled fuckery.

Which is to say … we need to keep fighting. Worrying that your mom will die of a horrible respiratory disease won’t create the next Mona Lisa. Continued systemic racism won’t be responsible for the next Prince (after all, George Floyd was a musician). Let’s eradicate this virus and eradicate white supremacy, because there is no artistic upside to this shit.


Friday, January 01, 2021

2020 In Review

Well, that was a year.

As you may have heard, a deadly pandemic sort of ruined the world in 2020. Vaccines are starting to roll out, so it may be less than a year before this all seems like a hazy dream. I guess that makes it important for me to write down how this affected me, because this period is deeply weird right now, but may fade to a trivial “wow 2020 was kind of crazy” blip in my memory if I don't preserve it.

Personally, I was in a best-case scenario for a pandemic to hit. I already worked from home for a company that was well set up to thrive in a world where everyone stays home. Much of the time, I actually like staying home, and having excuses to avoid social situations. We adopted a perfect dog, Pepper, just before the great dog shortage of 2020, who has made my life so much better, and allowed the part of my heart reserved for furry best friends to open up again.

So, 2020 was, for me, strangely fine?

That’s not to say there was no suffering. Even those in a best-case scenario suffered. Meg briefly lost her job (twice) due to effects of the pandemic, which turned out to be more than okay, but the uncertainty sucked. More importantly, people I know lost family members directly to the virus, and I feel terrible for them, as well as angry at the monsters who still (still, after nearly a year of this) think it’s “just the flu,” or a tool of government control, or that wearing a mask for 15 minutes is too much discomfort to literally save someone’s fucking life. My grandma died this year. Her death wasn’t due to COVID-19, but the fact that she couldn’t have a proper funeral with her geographically-dispersed family was.

I don’t need / want constant parties or hugs from acquaintances, but a funeral would have been at least normal. I also miss just going to the coffee shop and getting a coffee and drinking that coffee there in the coffee shop. Maybe running into someone I know and chatting for a maximum of 5 minutes. That stuff is nice and I hope it comes back soon.

That was my life in 2020. Before I go on to my usual yearly review of music, movies, TV, and games, remember, I’ve started writing at the group blog Across the Board, so you can find more of my stuff there. It’s mostly focused on writing, even though I didn’t write much in 2020. I don’t know why, but it’s like a switch flipped as soon as lockdowns started, and I went into “just get through the day” mode. Since writing isn’t my primary source of income, it faded away, and free time got taken up by activities that take as little thought as possible, like movies and video games. Writing is fun for me, but it’s not an escape; in many ways, it’s the opposite—an intense dive into the struggles of what it means to be human. Maybe I couldn’t handle that in 2020. Maybe it wasn’t healthy to avoid it. But I got through each day.


Music

As usual, this is just an uncurated list of the top 20 albums I listened to most, courtesy of Last.FM.

First, some honourable mentions for albums that came out late in the year or didn’t make it on the list for other reasons:
  • Doves - The Universal Want
  • JARV IS... - Beyond the Pale
  • Kiesza - Crave
  • Poppy - I Disagree
  • The Dears - Lovers Rock
  • Metallica - S&M 2
  • Miley Cyrus - Plastic Hearts

And the top 20:

20. BTS - Map of the Soul: 7

19. Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher

18. Pearl Jam - Gigaton

17. Cults - Host

16. Five Seconds of Summer - CALM

15. Taylor Swift - folklore

14. Thundercat - It Is What It Is

13. Glass Animals - Dreamland

12. Selena Gomez - Rare

11. Ellie Goulding - Brightest Blue

10. The Weeknd - After Hours

9. Dua Lipa - Future Nostalgia

8. Yves Tumor - Heaven to a Tortured Mind

7. Hayley Williams - Petals for Armor

6. Carly Rae Jensen - Dedicated Side B

5. Tame Impala - The Slow Rush (I've started taking baths and listening to music this year, which lends itself to deeper indie music that can be slowly pondered, like Tame Impala's reflections on the passage of time)

4. Lady Gaga - Chromatica (Not her best, but decent)

3. Ozzy Osbourne - Ordinary Man (This album gives off the vibes of a much less subtle Blackstar, and if this is indeed Ozzy’s last album, he went out on a high note)

2. In This Moment - Mother (They are always on this list; just can't get enough of this cheesy heavy shit)

1. Halsey - Manic (This is probably on top of the list because Halsey is on every radio station and playlist non-stop, but it is a good album too)


Television


I liked these shows:
  • The Circle
  • Cobra Kai
  • Connected
  • Doom Patrol
  • The Haunting of Bly Manor
  • How To With John Wilson
  • Locke and Key
  • Long Way Up
  • Love is Blind
  • The Mandalorian
  • Moonbase 8
  • Murder on Middle Beach
  • Ozark
  • Picard
  • The Queen's Gambit
  • Song Exploder
  • Tiger King
  • Too Hot to Handle
  • The Umbrella Academy
  • Upload
  • Years and Years (I'm cheating because this didn't come out in 2020, but I loved this show a lot)

Movies

These are the best movies I saw in 2019. They may not have come out in 2019, who cares. I'm just listing recent-ish movies I rated 4+ stars on Letterboxd, so go there for full reviews.
  • 1917
  • American Murder: The Family Next Door
  • Arctic
  • The Art of Self Defence
  • Black Bear
  • Blood Quantum
  • Color Out of Space
  • Come to Daddy
  • Crawl
  • Escape Room
  • Feels Good Man
  • Guns Akimbo
  • Hail Satan?
  • Host
  • Hubie Halloween
  • I'm Thinking of Ending Things
  • In Fabric
  • The Invisible Man
  • Joker
  • Just Another Christmas
  • Knives Out
  • The Lighthouse
  • The Lodge
  • One Cut of the Dead
  • Palm Springs
  • Parasite
  • The Peanut Butter Falcon
  • Tell Me Who I Am
  • Tread
  • Uncut Gems
  • Upgrade
  • Vivarium

Games

This was an active year for video games, after barely playing any in 2019.

I got an Oculus Quest, which is an affordable standalone virtual reality system. That really renewed my interest in games, but also in doing things in 3D electronic form that would have previously been done in person, like going to the gym and socializing. 

I also got an Xbox Series X, which is a nice upgrade to the Xbox One. I don't know if I can go back to 30fps games now.

Here are the games I played and liked. Add me on Xbox Live or Nintendo or Oculus to play with me.

Xbox:
  • Assassin's Creed Valhalla - After ignoring this series for years, I got really into this game. Like, playing it for over 100 hours into it.
  • Watch Dogs: Legion - Everyone's talking about Cyberpunk as the unplayably glitchy sci-fi game of this year, but let's remember there's another buggy mess in Watch Dogs: Legion. I enjoy it, even if it's still hard to play with all the issues due to the rushed pandemic-time next gen..
  • Borderlands 3
  • A Plague Tale: Innocence
  • Dead Cells
  • Carrion
  • Overcooked 2
  • Alan Wake - Which is ancient now, but I've been playing it off and on for 10 years, and finally finished it.
  • Overwatch - Still.

Nintendo Switch:
  • Hades - Just got this yesterday for the Switch, and loving it so far.
  • Animal Crossing: New Horizons - As usual with games like this, I played it every day for a few weeks, then suddenly stopped, with no interest in ever playing again.

Oculus Quest and Mac:
  • Supernatural - Not really a "game," but a workout app that's gotten me moving in virtual reality on the Oculus Quest.
  • Population One
  • Pistol Whip
  • The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners 
  • The Jackbox Party Pack - Essential for Zoom hangouts with friends.

Okay, that's the year. I hope the next one is better, for me and for you and for everyone. Later.


Sunday, November 01, 2020

A Book Cannot Be Murdered

Hi! I haven't blogged here much lately, but I have been writing over on a shared blog with some other writers. Check out Across the Board for some of my new stuff, mostly focused on writing. I'll also start gradually re-posting that stuff here whenever I get a chance, like this post.



This tweet made the rounds on Twitter earlier this year:



Many readers and writers were angry with the book murderer:


I have opinions on this debacle, as both a reader and as a writer.

First, as a reader, I can relate. I've never cut a book in half, but many of my longer books are worn to hell, mostly because I bought them used in the first place, then they spent a long time bouncing around in backpacks before I was done with them. Here are just a few of the books off my shelf from one of the masters of very long books:



Well-worn is well-loved. It marks the passage of time spent with the books, sometimes over multiple decades, if read more than once. I can still remember finding a private corner of my high school to avoid people and wear out that particular copy of It.

I like signs of book assault from other people, too. I'm reading a used biology book right now, and there are seemingly random words underlined throughout. Like someone before me thought "ah, yes, zygote, good word, gotta get out my pencil and underline that one so I can bring it up at a party later." It's a nice little connection with a stranger, because someone else didn't consider book mutilation a crime.

Tearing books in half is on a whole other level, but I can relate with that too. Especially as an adult, I have limited time for reading, and it can be daunting to see a thick wad of pages past my bookmark. If dividing it into two parts can make it easier to get through, then fine, be a book murderer. Lately, I just gravitate toward shorter books, but maybe next time a long book seems worth it, I'll consider introducing it to my scissors.

What about as a writer? How would I feel if somebody took a blade to my hard-won collection of ideas, which I so carefully printed onto pages and wrapped in a lovingly designed cover?

Honestly … fine. As long as you're reading my books, I don't care how you're transferring those ideas from my brain to yours.

Treat them like precious artifacts if you want. But also cut them up, highlight your favourite passages, dog-ear your favourite pages, stick them on an e-reader, listen to them as an audiobook, borrow them from a library, lend them, steal them, slice them in half.

Boil 'em, mash 'em, stick 'em in a stew.

A book is not the physical pages it's printed on—it's the ideas the pages only echo, and the cool thing about ideas is that they can never be murdered.


Sunday, January 26, 2020

Why I’m Cutting Down on Artificial Sweeteners


I may have been wrong about artificial sweeteners. I’ve always been a big fan of them, because I love stuffing sweet things in my mouth, but also try to keep my daily calorie count somewhat reasonable.
Sweeteners also have an ideological draw—I love artificial things. I’m typing this on an artificial iPad, powered by artificial electricity, basking in artificial heat, under an artificial roof. So when I see people react with hostility to anything that isn’t “natural” (whatever that even means), I push back. You think artificial sweeteners are poison because Splenda packets aren’t plucked from the ground like potatoes? Well, then I’m gonna put Splenda on everything! I’ll sprinkle it on beef I don’t even care. Take that, hippy!
And in theory, my pettiness should be supported by science. If controlling weight is the goal, then all that matters is calories in and calories out, right? Sweeteners lead to fewer calories in, so they help control weight in a world where calories are frickin’ everywhere. That’s the theory.
The thing is, the best theory in the world is worthless without data. More and more data are coming out about artificial sweeteners, and the results often differ from what theory would predict.


Most data aren't conclusive. When you look at the whole population, people who use artificial sweeteners tend to be overweight. That’s just a correlation—maybe bigger people are trying to lose weight with sweeteners. It’s not evidence that sweeteners don’t work, but it’s a lack of evidence that sweeteners do work.
True experiments, in which people changed their intake of artificial sweeteners, would be more definitive if they showed an effect. Here’s a recent meta-analysis reviewing studies on artificial sweeteners, including randomized controlled trials. The researchers concluded:
Evidence from [randomized controlled trials] does not clearly support the intended benefits of nonnutritive sweeteners for weight management.
So again, not evidence that they cause weight increases, or poison you, or have any negative effects. But also not evidence that they do have their intended effect: weight loss.
I’ve seen speculation and emerging research on why the theory doesn’t match up with the data. Some people think it’s a psychological thing—the classic “I had a Diet Coke, so I can order two Baconators instead of one” phenomenon. Some think it’s more biological, with sweeteners mixing up the critters in our guts so they suck at dealing with the calories we do consume.
Whatever the case, there’s simply a lack of evidence that artificial sweeteners help with weight loss, or have any other positive effects. When it comes to translating research into actual behavior, here’s where I’ve come down, personally, for now:
  • Artificial sweeteners won’t kill me, so I won’t avoid them. I’ll use up the packets and syrups that we have around the house.
  • But there’s no evidence that they’ll help me, either. That puts them on the same scientific level as any other bullshit health intervention, like eating organic food, fad diets, or acupuncture. I wouldn’t do those things, so why continue slurping down Splenda?
  • Therefore, I’ll reduce my intake of artificial sweeteners. I’ll use sugar when I need it, or better yet, just have fewer sweeter things overall. If I have the will power for that, it’ll almost certainly lead to fewer calories in, with no mysterious counteracting force.
That’s where I currently stand, but I’m a scientist, so I’ll keep updating my opinions and behaviour as new evidence comes out.
For now, I’m cutting down on artificial sweeteners.



This was originally posted on Medium.com, where I sometimes post serious stuff.