Saturday, June 28, 2008

Head in the sand

I have to admit that my own head is pretty much in the sand lately, before I go farther. After all, I came to this through Thoughtviper citing Scalzi's entertaining "Whatever" blog... but WTF is with not opening your email because you know it's not what you want to hear?

And Scalzi hit the nail square on the head with his devastatingly logical observation that "Hey, you know what I would do if the White House told me that it wouldn’t accept an e-mail with a Supreme Court-ordered document in it? I would PRINT IT OUT and DELIVER IT BY HAND. Because you can do that."

Seriously, what has happened to discourse between people who do not agree? Why has it become "incorrect" not to agree on everything -- and why is the response to disagreement idealogical isolationism? Some of the best conversations I have are with local conservatives... and I tell them, when I dare, "While I am as liberal a person as you are likely to meet, in many respects, this is what I think about the issue..." Once the dirty words (ooh, "liberal!" Boogah boogah!) are out of the way, it is always amazing how much ground we really share and how civil those discussions can be.

I think that many spectres have been raised that really damage the way we speak to one another -- for instance, false dichotomies like "conservative" and "liberal," for one. Yes, we are for some weird reason in a never-ending flame war: like all flame wars, it distorts both positions out of their true warp and weft and lowers the collective intelligence and eloquence of the group.

Here's one maybe-it's-a-straw-man that I've been chewing on: "the litigiousness of society." I am, after all, in California (and am an insurance CSR specializing in commercial policies), but it appears to me that "litigiousness" is a bugaboo we use to dismiss and demonize not only those who bring trivial lawsuits or spurious ones, but those who might have legitimate claims, too.

Take for instance the massive, surreal tomato recall a couple weeks ago. Seriously, for a nationwide recall to occur, several weird things have to have coincided: too much crop centralization, too much mystery about routing of farm produce, filthy fucking factory farming contaminating our vegetables again (and scaring the less health savvy of our population into a terror of healthy foods once more). Lots and lots of people got sick.

Yet my first reaction was "oh for heaven's sake, this is asinine, wasteful, and smacks of the threat of 'terr'ism.' We have nothing to fear but fear itself."

Maybe not. E coli and salmonella poisoning rates are worse than ever before* in this country, and are simultaneously worse than in many Third World countries - because unregulated, subsidized, extravagantly expansive factory farming gives rise to so much contamination. It's a serious issue -- serious enough that I am vegetarian by preference (although I am lax). But was my first reaction for my poisoned peers sympathy and support? Nah... I thought, "wow, talk about an overreaction. The companies are terrified of being sued because we live in such a litigious society."

Hunh. Am I just an asshole? I mean, exceptionally so?

(I must point out that the reaction was to wastefully recall tomatoes nationwide, and not to quit subsidizing/promoting/supporting/smoke-screening factory farming animal husbandry operations. Definitely not to hire more inspectors and budget more for ensuring public safety. So in one sense, nobody else seems to have woken up either. Joy, joy! That means more widespread crop recalls in our near future, in fact lots of them and with increasing frequency. Let's all do like every single twitch-conservative I've spoken with about food recalls and blame migrant laborers for poor sanitation habits... which is almost certainly not the friggin' problem.)

Let me give you a piece of mostly unrelated trivia. Did you know that it's virtually impossible to write liability insurance for roofing contractors or any contractors who do roofing operations? We don't have a single carrier, admitted (guaranteed by the State of California and subject to its Code) or non-admitted (not guaranteed and not subject to its Code, and therefore relatively shady) who will do it.

This is not because roofers might fall off of roofs and be injured, although that is the first thing that sprang into my head. It is because roofs can leak, and if they leak, lots of damage gets done... and no insurance company wants to pay for those claims.

So yes, we're litigious. And insurers (and companies) are cowardly about lawsuits. But there is legitimately a risk there, one that can potentially cost a lot.

Kind of like ignoring the EPA reports.
*At least, last time I checked numbers, which was several years ago. If things have changed, let me know and cheer me up! :)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Grand Theft Watto

So our fascination with GTA 4: Liberty City continues. It's a fun game. The voice acting is brilliant -- from our tortured mid-gunfight one-liners and acerbic, angsty all-hope-lost worldview, to the impenetrable accent of our Rasta crony, Little Jacob, to the immoderately sleazy enthusiasms of our cousin Roman.

Ah, Roman.

Roman sounds like Watto from the SW prequels... if Watto were rhapsodizing about titties and hamburgers and all things American, and simultaneously pissing his life away. He's funny, smart, and yet self-destructive in a way that makes him an almost classically tragic figure. He is a perfect picaresque foil for our own straight-man bitterness.

He is also eminently kidnappable. Make of that what you will.

GTA4 has a certain surreal quality. On the one hand, its media and entertainment compose one of the most trenchant critiques of the American public sphere that I have ever witnessed. Every commercial is blackly hilarious; every television show is viciously satirical; every billboard, poster, calendar, and simulated website is jaw-droppingly, unkindly, mercilessly a send-up of everything we are doing wrong in real life.

That said, the game has a darkly sexist facet that irks me like a gadfly.

As those of you who are playing the game know, we are introduced to a girl who is tailor-made to be a girlfriend. If we don't deliberately cut her loose, in fact, she will become our girlfriend... despite the fact that she is an unappealing bundle of prim and hypercritical commentary, gloating competitiveness, and troubling neuroses. (Spoiler alert: she grows even less appealing over the course of the game.)

Her name is Michelle.

Michelle pissed us (the players) off when we got Niko a new suit, stole him a fly ride, and went over to take her somewhere nice... and she treated us to a never-ending bitch & moan session about how lousy our clothes were, how she didn't care for this car, and where were our sunglasses that she liked so much? Slow down, you're driving too fast! So we went to the in-game fake Internet dating site, LoveMeet, and started looking for other girls to go out with.

We found a couple. Kiki, a lawyer with neuroses that make Michelle's neuroses look like Zen calm, and Carmen, a self-obsessed nurse who loves fine cars and clothes but is not interested in haute cuisine.

The complexity of relationships in GTA4 is pitiful... something on the order of a Japanese dating sim without the invisible glowing penii. One careful read of the LoveMeet profile tells you what the date will want from you: if she says she is active, wear a leisure suit and take her bowling; if she says she likes the finer things, dress up and take her out to eat or to a comedy club or cabaret; if she says she likes to be noticed, dress up with all your might and go somewhere where you will stand out like sore thumbs... like the BurgerShot fast food restaurant.

Successful dates allow you to "try your luck" (as opposed to "say goodnight") at the end of a date. If you try your luck... well, as far as I can tell, Niko has never been turned down. Our three lousy, one-dimensional girlfriends are perfectly willing to gratify our action-superhero self-image... just so long as it's offscreen. (So far as I know, this is a wink to the scandal surrounding the notorious "hot coffee" player-made mod of GTA3.)

Here's what happens: the camera pans along the exterior of the building and there's a voiceover from the "girlfriend" actress, which playfully alludes to her profession or character. "Talk to me, Niko, tell me more," wails Michelle. "Oh you lucky, lucky man," coos Carmen. "Oh, I LOVE you... you can prosecute me any time," giggles Kiki. (These are samples -- the dialogue is different every time.) And -- here's the weird part -- for 15-30 seconds or whatever, the controller vibrates violently.

That's sex. Never mind that the content in the rest of the game is graphic, sometimes sexually so. We can go to the Triangle Club (as Roman crows, "the titty bar!") and get a lapdance. We can shoot off civilians' heads with a sniper rifle. A weird homeless looking guy in a gimp mask once offered us a blowjob, and dropped to his knees in front of us. (We sort of blundered into him -- not in a sex way -- and he got scared and ran away. Story of our life.) Language is not only obscene but suggestively so: "I'm gonna split your ass like Yugoslavia," yells an opponent in a gunfight. "This ain't nothin but a blood clot, this whole situation is fucked like bumboklaat," growls Little Jacob in a cutscene. And the "tiger shark testosterone versus our flamboyant but closeted friend Brucie's balls" jokes never end (and are hilarious, but I won't ruin them for you).

Once again, as always, I ask what is so bad about sex that it is considered more appalling than seeing civilians burn alive, or any of the other features of the game that we can carry through in vibrant, obscene, stomach-churning color.

Oh well. Not that I care much. I really don't want to see Niko naked, or en flagrante delicto. I'm just not the kind of person who needs that to thrive. It would be a kind of gross, pointless addition to what is after all a remarkably stirring, compelling, and beautiful game.

I am, however, the kind of person who, with morbid curiosity, tries to approach everyone I see in LoveMeet just in order to punish our shrewish virtual girlfriend Michelle. Furthermore, I'm the kind of person who inwardly critiques the shallow relationships we have with these sexist "woman" archetypes: neurotic, self-obsessed, materialistic, and they never say no.

And I guess I am also the kind of person who continues to do so even though there's something pitiful about being dissed on a virtual dating site on a console game. Quite a lot of the time, they ignore our overtures or respond with a barely civil "not if you were the last man on Earth" through the fake site's host.

O satirical makers of gratifying (often gratuitous) self-images, I know that this easter egg has to be just for you. Go ahead, laugh. I don't mind at all.

(The next step will be taking Niko out on some dates with men (yes, LoveMeet has a male for male section). Pathy or anyone, if you've done this already, fess up and tell me how it went! I might have to eat my accusations of sexism if the male dates are equally breathtakingly shallow. The characters are drawn with such skill and verve that I may have surprises to report: Brucie's bizarre behavior tells a story of a closeted life with ... well, if not subtlety, certainly without flashing signs and pointing fingers.)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Eco uh-oh

No matter how carefully you try to shop, manufacturers will still come up with something horrid to put into the products you purchase. However, micro-plastics are kind of on the useless, annoying & evil end of the spectrum (who wants to scratch their tuckus while bathing?!) and ... well, I don't know if any of you ever thought about them being there, but I didn't give much thought to it (aside from preferring soap without them).

Monday, June 16, 2008

Flightless birds

This ad for the Washington State Lottery has flabbergasted me this morning. Not quite sure what to say about it, but figured I'd share.

Also, while I'm reposting stuff from, I might as well direct you toward the Fawn Folio.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Exploratory thoughts on making (natural) perfume

I received my various laboratory equipment and fragrance ingredients, and have tinkered around with two scents now by way of exploration. While I would certainly be jazzed if they had turned out magnificent, probably the most valuable thing about this process is the making of mistakes; finding out what screws up a scent is the most worthwhile part of my self-education.

Here are a few fledgling observations for other newbies to benefit from, and for experienced veterans to laugh at.

1. Don't overcomplicate it. Five or six essences may play nicely together, provided that they smell nice together... more than that becomes murky even if they are great together. It is possible that some of these "essences" can be accords (i.e. amber, etc.) but I haven't tested those limits yet.

2. Some scents grow shockingly in the bottle. Birch tar (the sticky black soul of smoke) is one of these. So is oakmoss (a subtly deep fungal scent).

3. Dilute absolutes first, and then add them to a scent. The resinous or semi-solid ones may never mix with the carrier completely. And they are stronger than they look; a dilution will allow more freedom to add them in minute quantities.

4. If they say it's therapeutic, you don't want it all over your hands. Wear gloves or accept that these oils will alter your health. After spilling a wee bit of Scotch pine on my hands, my heart raced (and not from the romance)... so I won't curl my lip up at the notion of "aromatherapy" anymore.

5. Don't take anyone's word for it when you are considering how to compose a fragrance. I have been following Mandy Aftel's plan of base notes, then heart notes, then top notes -- and using her proportions. Upon reflection, I don't like MY compositions following HER formulae... she is awesome using it, me less so. I need to cut way, way back on base notes and balance things according to my own drummer, I think.

6. Denatured alcohol smells like bad breath and petroleum products. Why? Because it IS... grain alcohol + smelly ketones (yuck) + petroleum products. This is because they are rendering drinkable alcohol undrinkable for tariff and labeling reasons (and probably others). If it's undrinkable, it's unsniffable. (Think wine in your cooking: you want to add only wines you would drink to foods.) Unspeakable, in fact. And it reacts with other fragrances in unpredictable but utterly nasty ways.

7. What smells great to you, or on you, might smell horrible on other people, and vice versa. On my husband, my brother, and me, any given scent reacts in three radically different ways. The first formula I tried, I put on each of us -- on me, it was interesting, spicy, citrusy (which isn't ever good: citrus hates my skin), with immense (intolerable) lasting power. On Pat, it was rubbery, dank, horrid, with a much more interesting spice undertone. On Robert, it was all bright and alien -- Scotch tape with a twist. Gross on all of us, but differently gross.


8. Have guinea pigs handy. Have BRUTALLY HONEST guinea pigs handy, in fact. You will want their opinions (if you ever come up with something YOU like, first.) You can all laugh together at the monstrosities.

9. Surrealism, not naturalism. I am trying to compose a scent that evokes my adored central coast of California, its wilderness and flora. I have a good many essences that are a big part of that -- fir balsam, jamlike and beautiful; oakmoss, deep and throaty; hay absolute (a really uncooperative absolute!), complex, green-gold and gorgeous; birch tar absolute, woodsmoke incarnate; orange blossom and jasmine absolutes, divine floral crown; golden exquisite immortelle, evoking deer's tongue weeds in the dry hills; eucalyptus, cool and somewhere between clean armpit sweat and mint; candy-red strawberries, zesty lemons, sweet clover, drowsy calamus. To assemble all of these together is to truly, truly get a dose of what I want (with OMG too much oakmoss and birch tar, as they growgrowgrow in the bottle), but it's too much, too busy, too complicated. Next, I will sketch my lovely hills and woods rather than painting them in dripping detail. We'll see how that goes.

10. Perfumery conventions for fragrances are not identical with the originals. Almost any immortelle scent is enhanced with lemon, anise, hay, to pick up its various gorgeous facets. You will hardly find a commercial vetiver without grapefruit. When you build a fragrance, build based upon what you have -- not what you imagine based upon typical conventions.