Wednesday, July 30, 2008

CERN rap

Well, in case you wanted to know more about the science behind Tony's sabbatical in Switzerland, here you go. Laugh and learn:

CERN Rap from Will Barras on Vimeo.

KidLit Central

Hey, all you writers! I'm going to be a regular contributor at a new blog, KidLit Central News, featuring children’s publishing news, reviews, entertainment and more. It will feature folks involved with children's literature in and around the Central U.S., including Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Illinois, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. I'll be blogging on Friday, August 8. Check it out!

The science of satire

Mahzarin R. Banaji, a professor of psychology at Harvard, has a good article called "The Science of Satire" up at The Chronicle of Higher Education. (It's free.) Lots of smart people have weighed in on why the notorious New Yorker cover is not good satire, but Banaji explains why depictions of the Obamas as terrorists leaves an indelible imprint on our brains, even if we do not believe it to be true:
For decades, psychologists have described the "sleeper effect" — the idea that information, even information we might reject at first blush, ends up persuading us, contrary to our intention, over time. That often occurs when the content of the message (Obama=Islamist) and the source providing the message (The New Yorker trying to be cute) have split off in our minds. When satire isn't done right, as in the case of the Obama cover, the intended parody easily splits off from the actual and more blatant association. The latter then has the power to persuade over the long haul, when conscious cognition isn't up to policing it. Communicators of mass media should be alert to that, so that decisions about particular portrayals are based on knowledge of their full impact, and the justification for the supposedly sophisticated cognitive function they serve offered in light of such basic knowledge.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The wisdom of Mark Twain

I spent an entire semester reading and studying Mark Twain in college, and it was one of the most enjoyable classes I ever took. My novel in progress owes a huge debt to Twain. So when I saw Time magazine's recent cover feature on Twain, I had to read it. The first article was written by Roy Blount Jr. (talk about a writer who owes a huge debt to Twain!). Blount points out much of Twain's scathing commentary could have been written about today's news:

What about those Abu Ghraib photographs? In "King Leopold's Soliloquy," a fulminating essay he published in 1905, when he was a very cantankerous 70, Twain imagines the ruler of Belgium pitying himself for the inconvenience of photos showing natives of the Congo whose hands have been cut off by Belgian exploiters. In the good old days, Leopold complains, he could deny atrocities and be believed. "Then all of a sudden came the crash! That is to say, the incorruptible Kodak--and all the harmony went to hell! The only witness I have encountered in my long experience that I couldn't bribe."

Waterboarding? In 1902, American soldiers were involved in a war to suppress rebels in the Philippines, which the U.S. had taken from Spain in the Spanish-American War, then decided to keep for itself instead of granting the Filipinos the independence they thought they had been promised. That outcome enraged Twain. So did "the torturing of Filipinos by the awful 'water-cure.'"

"To make them confess--what?" Twain asked. "Truth? Or lies? How can one know which it is they are telling? For under unendurable pain a man confesses anything that is required of him, true or false, and his evidence is worthless."

The companion article to Blount's is by Stephen L. Carter, "Getting Past Black and White," in which he argues that Twain was the "man who popularized the sophisticated literary attack on racism...Twain, raised in a slave state, briefly a member of a Confederate militia, and inventor of Jim, may have done more to rile the nation over racial injustice and rouse its collective conscience than any other novelist in the past century who has lifted a pen.
Or typed on a computer."

The articles sent me back to my 2-volume set of Twain's Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays, published by the Library of America in 1992. In response to a lynching that occurred in Missouri, Twain wrote an essay titled, "The United States of Lyncherdom."
But what struck me, in the context of my novel, was this passage:
It is thought...that a lynching crowd enjoys a lynching. It certainly is not true; it seems impossible of belief. It is freely asserted--you have seen it in print many times of late--that the lynching impulse has been misinterpreted; that it is not the outcome of a spirit of revenge, but of a "mere atrocious hunger to look upon human suffering." If that were so, the crowds that saw the Windsor Hotel burn down would have enjoyed the horrors that fell under their eyes. Did they? No one will think that of them, no one will make that charge. Many risked their lives to save the men and women who were in peril. Why did they do that? Because none would disapprove. There was no restraint; they could follow their natural impulse. Why does a crowd of the same kind of people in Texas, Colorado, Indiana, stand by, smitten to the heart and miserable, and by ostentatious outward signs pretend to enjoy a lynching? Why does it lift no hand or voice in protest? Only because it would be unpopular to do it, I think; each man is afraid of his neighbor's disapproval--a thing which, to the general run of the race, is more dreaded than wounds and death. When there is to be a lynching the people hitch up and come miles to see it, bringing their wives and children. Really to see it? No--they come only because they are afraid to stay at home, lest it be noticed and offensively commented upon.
Twain proposes that we remedy this situation by stationing one morally courageous man in each community to "encourage, support and bring to light the deep disapproval of lynching hidden in the secret places of the heart." But Twain doubts that there are enough brave people for the task, and so proposes bringing American missionaries in China back home to the lynching fields, because "our country is worse off than China."

My novel is about a boy who becomes one of those brave men. I hope to do him justice!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Just got back from a lovely, wonderful long weekend in which Tony, Alison, Caitlin, Eli and I converged to celebrate birthdays and general family togetherness. I like this picture of the five of us:
As well as this one, taken in front of the storefront of a place called Gray's Papaya, which according to Tony is an institution on the West Side:

Oh, yes we can!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Concerning books as art, daughters, writing, and the circus

That's just a lazy title to say, this entry is going to be about a lot of things, because there's been a lot of water under the bridge since I wrote my last entry. And also to tell you about a bunch of new pictures I've posted on my Mac web gallery.

Last Sunday I drove up to St. Paul to visit Alison, one of my lovely daughters, who just moved into new digs along with about 50 of her friends. OK, eight of them are renting an entire duplex. Nice place with a backyard in a great neighborhood. I saw more of the Twin Cities on this visit than ever before; I'm beginning to understand why people love them so much, despite the cruel, cruel winters. We visited the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. I'm quite sure that if I lived nearby I would be taking classes on hand typesetting, book binding, paper making, and book art design. As it is I contented myself with a handmade book--Pulling Wire, a short story by Barry Lopez. Quite reasonably priced.

The next day we visited the Bakken Library and Museum, "a center for education and learning that furthers the understanding of the history, cultural context, and applications of electricity and magnetism in the life sciences and their benefits to contemporary society." Despite that rather dreary-sounding mission statement, it was really a pretty cool place, especially the historical exhibits. There was a working theremin, the first electronic musical instrument. You play it by moving your hands around two radio antennae, one controlling pitch and the other, volume. We weren't able to get much out of it besides squawks, but it was a lot of fun. There such amusements as the magnetic hairbrush, which in the 19th century was thought to help prevent balding. There was a terrific multi-media tableau of Victor Frankenstein's laboratory and Mary Shelly's study (Shelly was influenced by Luigi Galvani, who conducted a series of experiments on severed frogs' legs that led to the discovery of animal electricity). And Alison was thrilled to learn that the library contains a large collection of primary works on mesmerism and hypnotism, which might be helpful in writing her senior honors thesis on feminism and the spiritualist movement in 19th century America.

AND that is not all we did! We visited the Walker Art Center sculpture garden (the museum itself was closed) and saw many cool things, including Claes Oldenberg's famous spoon with cherry sculpture and this fun kinetic sculpture, featured here with the lovely Alison.

On Wednesday, I said goodbye to Alison and the Twin Cities for the second half of my writer's vacation and drove down to Baraboo Wisconsin, home of the Circus World Museum, for a couple of days of research for my novel and quiet writing time. Baraboo, it turns out, was the winter home of the Ringling Brothers Circus. If you love the circus, you should visit this place. Loads of history as well as ongoing shows. I feel a little guilty for enjoying the dancing elephant act as much as I did, but what can I say? Hannah Louise charmed me:

You can view more circus photos, including old wagons and a video of a working calliope, here and here. Be aware that many of the figures depicted on the wagons are pretty objectionable--you know, stereotyped and exaggerated ideas of "exotic" folks. (Look at the "Americas" wagon and you'll know what I mean.) There is ample fodder here for a thesis, if it hasn't been done already. My visit to Circus World actually answered a couple of questions I had about framing the circus in my book, so it was totally worthwhile.

And then let me end tonight with a plug for the Willowood Inn, this terrific little mom and pop motel that I stayed in near Baraboo, just up the road from Devil's Lake State Park. At only $60/night, I was a little afraid that it might be a flea bag. I was wrong! It was charming:
Each room has its own theme; I got the western room:
And to top off my really fun writer's week, I had lunch in Madison with Sminthia, aka Jacqueline Houtman, who until Friday was my email/bloggy friend, but is now a real face to face friend. Hi Jacqueline!

Oh, and on Saturday the lovely Alison and her equally lovely sister Caitlin celebrated their 20th birthdays! Happy birthday to my favorite twins!

Thursday, July 3, 2008


I finished researching and writing up proposed outlines for two new books for Enslow's new True Crime: Forensic Science series (this should make for interesting dinner table discussions) and finally, finally I'm hunkering down and making good progress on revising my novel.

Which is not to say that I haven't done a little procrastinating. Wordle is a fun little application that makes word clouds from text that you provide. Here's what I made for Little Red Cap (aka Little Red Riding Hood):
Try it--it's fun!