Thursday, December 29, 2005

Homestyle Tear Gas: A Holiday Tale
Ah, the holidays. A time of family togetherness, with memories of presents, Christmas trees, children, laughter,... and accidental family experiments in how to make pepper gas.

It went like this. My grandmother's house, during the holiday season, has anywhere from 10-18 people in it at pretty much any given time. Many of them try to be helpful in one way or another in relation to preparing meals. It was nearing dinner time. My grandmother has a flat-topped electric range, where the burners are simply marked by circular patterns of lines, black on white. Unlike more recent models, the burners do not light up, glow, or otherwise indicate that they are on. There was a pot of beans on one of the front burners. Someone unfamiliar with the stove was told to start warming them up, but turned on the back burner instead, misunderstanding which dial controled which burner.

A few minutes later, my mother, sitting in the living room, noticed some smoke rising from the stove, and sent me into the kitchen to investigate. On the back burner in question was sitting an cooking-sized plastic container of black pepper. The plastic was melting onto the burner. I turned off the burner and attempted to remove the container, at which point the melted plastic stuck to the stove while the rest of the container moved away from it, spilling out a mountain of black pepper onto the hot burner, which immediately began releasing clouds of pepper gas into the air.

Let me tell you, that stuff is insidious and painful to breathe. It immediately bites the back of your throat and you can feel it trying to get into your lungs (which is bad enough, I judge, even for those without asthma.) We opened every door in the downstairs of the house and mostly tried to stay outside for the twenty minutes or so it took to disperse.

Given that this happened a day or two after hearing all about how my aunt set her bathrobe on fire Christmas morning reaching over a candle, it's been an exciting Christmas for our extended family this year.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Seasonally (A)musing
Some thoughts from other people on the Christmas season that have amused me.

Neil, The Ethical Werewolf, offers this cross-religious observation on the traditional Christmas story:
Does anyone know exactly where the Three Kings were from? If I ever move into a religious community that does nativity plays or some such, I'll try to get a part as the Frankincense guy. I like the idea that a Hindu showed up at the Nativity and was like, "Hey, it's another God! Good thing I'm a polytheist! Man, ain't he the spitting image of the baby Krishna. Here, let me light some incense. Om."

Also, we had Meg Barnhouse as a guest minister at our UU fellowship a few weeks ago, who offered up her thoughts on the so-called "War on Christmas":
I don't believe in a personal devil, but if I did, I couldn't think of a better way for the devil to thwart the work of good Christians, preventing them from helping their fellow man and following the example of Rabbi Jesus, than to direct their collective attention to battling the war on Christmas, gay marriage, and deciding who gets to have sex with whom and when. So the next time you see one of those people talking about the War on Christmas, you just walk up to them and tell them, "The devil is using you!"*
*Please note that this phrase is best said with a South Carolina accent.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Asperger's as a Cultural Gap
In the book I'm reading right now, I came across the statement that people with Asperger's Syndrome typically seem insensitive to age or culture gaps when dealing with people. The age gap thing is pretty easily explicable, since it seems the only thing that really drives people of a similar age together is a corresponding feeling of similarity in experiences, and people with Asperger's experience the world differently from everybody, peers or otherwise. So what does it matter to them if the other person they're talking to is 10 years older or younger, so long as they're actually decently talking to them?

The culture gap idea was more intriguing to me, because it puts some things in perspective for neurotypicals. People with Asperger's have frequently been reported as feeling actually more comfortable surrounded by people of a different culture, because their difference is frequently ignored, put down to being foreign. It's a situation where they're not expected to know the proper social response to everything for once. I suspect it could probably be a lot easier for the person with Asperger's to figure out how to behave and understand social rules in a foreign culture as an adult, because people would be more likely to explain those rules explicitly to the funny foreigner who has such different customs.

The truth is, of course, that the funny foreigner with Asperger's doesn't have funny foreign customs, but instead in essence has no customs. They never absorbed the social rules of their home culture, either. They are essentially walking around as a foreigner in their own land, their own house, with no one even dreaming they need to explain the rules. It's where the Oliver Sacks/Temple Grandin description of a person with autism being like an "anthropologist on Mars" comes in.

I think the idea of the Asperger's lack of social awareness being akin to being in a foreign country could help some neurotypical people understand. I was talking to a guy who's been spending a lot of time in Taiwan recently, doing art shows, who talked about several other artists who will never be invited back to Taiwan, because they behaved so rudely. They probably have no idea they were perceived that way; they probably thought they were behaving just the way they would at home, without ever giving it a thought. This seems very, very similar to the way people with Asperger's are in their home countries: behaving in a way that makes complete and utter sense to them, and completely unaware of the social standards of this alien society around them. But if you've ever been to a foreign country with substantially different customs, you might be able to imagine the confusion, frustration, and fear of screwing up a lot of people with Asperger's feel when faced with social situations.

Just some work thoughts.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Is it a sign that I am really an adult that I now find NPR's Marketplace broadcast to be fascinating? I remember hating the Marketplace intro as a child, because it meant the really boring part of the news was starting. Has the show really changed, or is it just me? Because it's really not at all about the stock market. It's rather amazing the breadth of stories they manage to cover that are all still somehow linked to being economic news.

Maybe I am particularly in awe of this ability of the show's producers to weave all the stories together with a common theme because that's what makes (in my opinion) many of the most successful blogs. I was certainly more satisfied with my blog when I was in Japan, and things Japanese served as my common thread. Lately, though, I just find myself and my life rather directionless. I don't necessarily think this is bad, because I can take the time to pursue far more ideas and activities of interest now than I ever could in grad school, but it doesn't make for smooth blogging. Oh, well.

To get back to the economic topic, though, I've been finding myself taking a lot more interest in the subject in general of late. When I got back from Taiwan and was at loose ends, I found myself reading, and truly enjoying, William Easterly's The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics, thanks to the suggestion of one of my favorite Grinnell professors. It's all about the flaws in current international monetary aid policies, and what changes would need to be made in order for international aid to actually be helpful in making the recipient countries independent, self-sufficient nations. I annoyed everyone in my family talking about it for weeks while reading the book, but it's probably one of the more informative books I've ever read on anything economic, and far more interesting to me, since my interest is not really on economic systems, but on said systems' impact on the actual workings of real world societies.

And if I hadn't read that book, I wouldn't have recognized that last week's op-ed piece by Paul Theroux in the New York Times, The Rock Star's Burden, has extremely valid points on why Bono and Bill Gates aren't really helping Africa by pleading for money and debt relief. Theroux offers his own experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 60s in Malawi, one of the places Bono apparently lately visited, to good effect, talking about how much hope all the volunteers had when he lived there that Malawi would be self-sufficient in teachers in the very near future. 40 years later, they are still reliant on foreign volunteers, as all the trained native teachers emigrate to other countries for higher wages and higher prestige. The same applies to nurses, and so on and so forth. Malawi is now, after decades of foreign aid, worse off than when other countries started trying to help. He ends with an interesting comparison of Malawi to Bono's native Ireland:
Africa has no real shortage of capable people - or even of money. The patronizing attention of donors has done violence to Africa's belief in itself, but even in the absence of responsible leadership, Africans themselves have proven how resilient they can be - something they never get credit for. Again, Ireland may be the model for an answer. After centuries of wishing themselves onto other countries, the Irish found that education, rational government, people staying put, and simple diligence could turn Ireland from an economic basket case into a prosperous nation.
At least becoming an adult seems to provide some food for thought.

Friday, December 09, 2005

He, She, S/he, Co...
Part of my job is to read the new books our bookstore has gotten in, in order to write the website description to go with the title. (Yes, we write our own descriptions. We are that cool. Or dedicated. Or obsessive. You pick.) I am currently reading Coping with Asperger Syndrome by Maxine Rosaler. It's a good, easily read and simply written synthesis of a lot of the more in-depth books and research on Asperger syndrome out there, not too overwhelming for someone who needs to start learning about the issue. (Soon to be on our website store! I'll stop now.)

However, the thing that actually made me want to talk about it is the book's extremely conscious attempt to be un-gender-biased in its presentation of hypothetical children with Asperger syndrome. One paragraph refers to this nameless concrete example of a child as "she," but in the next section, it's "he." I am all for gender balance in writing, but all of the various attempts at rectifying the old prescriptivist approach that "he" was the word to use for unspecified third person singular human referents strike me as jarringly self-conscious in the midst of otherwise very smooth writing.

If the writing world would just catch up with the rest of the world, not to mention descriptivist linguistics, we'd finally be able to acknowledge out loud that "they" has long been in use as the unisex third person. Break free of the oppressive prescriptivist law that "they" must always be plural! Write like a human being and native English speaker! The relief will be palpable to all, readers and writers alike. Really.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Some Letters After My Name
It appears I may actually have graduated yesterday.

I am glad to put it all behind me. Grad school at MSU wasn't really the fulfilling experience I had been hoping for, but it's over now. When I get over the burnout, I may try again somewhere else, in a different field.

In the meantime, you may all now address me as Mistress of Arts.

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