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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
08/18/06 -- Vol. 25, No. 7, Whole Number 1348
Table of Contents
Oh Fudge! (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I can be truly amazed to see a magician doing tricks. Some can be really mystifying. When I see a trick I may be desperate to find out how it is done. However finding out how it is done is really disillusioning. The trick is demystified and brought down to comprehensible terms. It is sort of an anti-climax to find it just isn't as impressive. Curiously I find the same thing when I cook. For example, my whole life I have been tempted by fudge. It is this marvelously chocolatey candy with a rich flavor. I decided to make some of this stuff for myself. So what is it? It is powdered sugar flavored with cocoa and vanilla and it is all stuck together with melted butter. That's it. That is what fudge has been all along. And when you are eating it if you think about it, it tastes like powdered sugar and cocoa. I am so disillusioned. [-mrl]
What Can an Interview Do? (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
You are watching "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" And the host asks the contestant a question. You are listening to a scientist being interviewed on a television network news magazine. On the radio a dog expert is being interviewed. In each case a show is being put on for the audience. In each case you may make different assumptions about the degree of collaboration between the questioner and the person answering.
I was listening to National Public Radio and a crime novel writer was being interviewed. The interviewer asked something I thought was an odd question. He asked, "what can a crime novel do?" And the writer went off for a minute or so talking about how a crime novel can educate the reader about police procedure or whatever. It answered the question perfectly. The question might not have made much sense to me, but it did to the writer being questioned.
I was left a bit confused. What kind of a question is "What can a crime novel do?" Is it a question that anyone would ask spontaneously? The host clearly did not just ask that question out of curiosity, though that was how it was presented. I cannot imagine someone sitting around wondering what a crime novel can do and looking for a crime writer to ask. Transparently the guest had provided the questions he wanted to be asked. This is in a minor way a small deception on the listener. It is in a minor way dishonest.
This is an issue we rarely think about with interviews we read and hear on the radio may be less than honest with us. To what extent is the interviewer collaborating with interviewee? What are our expectations? In the quiz show scandals of the 1950s, the viewing public had assumed the contestants were answering strictly from their basic knowledge and it was discovered that some were being fed the answers. There was collusion between the person asking the questions and the person answering.
There is a whole spectrum of possible levels of complicity. At one end of the spectrum the interviewee has no idea what he is going to be asked and just has to depend on his fund of knowledge and wit to respond to the questions. Or perhaps the interviewee may just suggest topics that he may be asked about. At the far end of spectrum the interviewee actually provides a list of questions and says "ask me these." The interviewer's only purpose is to provide the topic sentences for sections of the interviewee's presentation. The listener or reader is never told what are the rules of the interview, but clearly there are some ground rules and they will vary from interview to interview based on the situation. This level of collaboration may be very important in determining how the interviewee sounds to the public. How professional the speaker sounds can be dependent on how much he knows about what he is to be asked.
My point is that there is any number of ways to appear simply to be presenting reality, but to editorialize subtly. You can choose photographs that make the politician you dislike look like an idiot. Even playing with the color of a photograph can make its subject looks sleazy. One really needs to be sensitive to the tricks used to make one person look better than another while appearing to present nothing but reality.
News media can actually use their hidden factors and ambiguity to slant the news. Let me invent a hypothetical news program that has a specific political agenda. Let us call this very hypothetical news program "One Hour." Maybe their logo is a stopwatch ticking off one hour. When "One Hour" interviews somebody they like they can have good lighting, flattering choice of camera angle, and they can prearrange what questions the person being interviewed will be asked. I suppose they could even counsel the interviewee on how best to answer. The result will look very different from what they will get if they just barge into somebody's office, set up a camera, and start asking hard questions. [The name of the news program was a joke, by the way. I am not accusing any particular investigative news program as being any worse than any other.] My point is that interview techniques and how the interview is conducted allow a great deal of latitude to slant results and still make the results look like reality. Only occasionally is this obvious to the listener. It becomes more obvious when the interviewer asks a weird question like "what can a crime novel do?" [-mrl]
War on Terrorism (letters of comment by Mike Glyer and Andre Kuzniarek):
In response to Mark's editorial on terrorism in the 08/11/06 issue of the MT VOID, Mike Glyer writes, "Mark gives persuasive reasons for the difficulty in extinguishing the terrorist threat. Another thing that keeps them going besides Internet communication is international news coverage, which multiplies the attention to local acts of violence. Thanks to current technology, a terrorist not only receives encouragement from his fellows via the Internet, but a magnified sense of accomplishment by other terrorists via news imagery and reports instantly broadcast via satellite through TV and internet outlets. Sports fans exult over trivial results with a feeling of 'Scoreboard, baby!' I expect that's all the more true for terrorists when their kind of violence is reported." [-mg]
Andre Kuzniarek points to a similar article by Ron Suskind in Salon which can be found at http://tinyurl.com/rb3su.
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
When I buy books, they go on my "to-read" queue, which is mostly a "first-in-first-out" queue. But there are really three kinds of books in it--"obligation" books, regular books, and "popcorn" books. The obligation books get read early because I have to review them, vote on them, or return their to the library by a certain date. The regular books get read more or less in sequence. But the popcorn books get read whenever I just want to enjoy myself. THE MUSEUM OF HOAXES by Alex Boese (ISBN 0-452-28465-1) is a popcorn book. This does not mean it is not well-researched, or well-written. It just means that I had a lot of fun reading it.
Along similar lines is CHEATS, CHARLATANS, AND CHICANERY by Andreas Schroeder (ISBN 0-7710-7953-2), a sequel to SCAMS, SCANDALS, AND SKULDUGGERY. I have not seen the first book, but CHEATS, CHARLATANS, AND CHICANERY covers such capers as the "discovery" of the Tasaday tribe in Philippines, the question of just who actually got to the North Pole first, a nineteenth century plan to rotate Manhattan Island to keep it from sinking, and the writing of NAKED CAME THE STRANGER. (Whether you remember the latter scam will definitely give people a clue as to your age. I do.) This is a much more light-hearted look at scams than such books as Charles Mackay's EXTRAORDINARY POPULAR DELUSIONS & THE MADNESS OF CROWDS (see below). It is true that much of what Mackay covers, such as the Great Tulip Craze, could not be considered a scam, but there is a similar psychology between that and many of the scams in CHEATS, CHARLATANS, AND CHICANERY. I would recommend either of Schroeder's books, but also Mackay's.
(As proof that hoaxes are notoriously difficult to pin down, For example, Boese claims that the story of the "Manhattan Island rotation hoax" is itself a hoax, and that someone who investigated it found no mention of it until over forty years after it supposedly happened. Both he and Schroeder agree that the Tasady were a hoax, but the Columbia Encyclopedia and Wikipedia seem to think they were real.)
If you liked any of these books, you should read Charles Mackay's EXTRAORDINARY POPULAR DELUSIONS & THE MADNESS OF CROWDS (ISBN 0-486-43223-8). This was written in 1841, so the delusions, schemes, and manias are all fairly old--though most are still with us in some form or other. We do not have tulipomania, but every generation seems to have some commodity that becomes vastly over-priced until the bubble bursts. (The 1932 introduction by Bernard M. Baruch mentions the 1929 stock market boom and bust.) Mackay writes about scams such as "the Mississippi Scheme" and "the South Sea Bubble", follies that recur in slightly modified forms such as the Crusades and the witch hunts, as well as seemingly permanent delusions such as alchemy and fortune- telling. Of the Crusades, Mackay says, "Every age has its peculiar folly; some scheme, project, or phantasy into which it plunges, spurred on either by the love gain, the necessity of excitement, or the mere force of imitation. Failing in these, it has some madness, to which it is goaded by political or religious causes, or both combined. Every one of these causes influenced the Crusades, and conspired to render them the most extraordinary instance on record of the extent to which popular enthusiasm can be carried." A hundred and fifty years later, that statement probably still holds. I will admit to not re-reading this whole book to comment on it, but I was sorely tempted, and given that it is seven hundred pages long, that is a strong recommendation.
And then of course, I have to mention HOAXES by Curtis D. MacDougall (ISBN 0-486-20465-0), a 1940 volume which covers the Cardiff Giant, John Wilkes Booth's mummy, and the baby picture of Adolf Hitler (among many others). And even Martin Gardner's classic FADS & FALLACIES IN THE NAME OF SCIENCE (ISBN 0-486-20394-8) covers some of the same territory, though it is more about the delusions than the outright scams. (In some cases, it is hard to tell for sure--was Bridey Murphy a scam or a genuine delusion?)
And this could easily segue into several of Stephen Jay Gould's collections, such as THE MISMEASURE OF MAN. But I've probably suggested enough books to keep you busy for a while already. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: There is no safety for honest men but by believing all possible evil of evil men. -- Edmund Burke
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