Monday, April 19, 2010

The South, Part I

I haven't spent a lot of time in the South, and much of the time I've spent there has been in areas that aren't the "classic" South (like Oak Ridge Tennessee--the city with the highest per capita concentration of PhDs in the nation--or Miami, which is more Cuban than Southern, or Houston and Dallas and Austin and San Antonio, which are, well, how do I put this?--Texan. Which is a whole different animal or two .)

In the last month, though, we've had call to be in Central Florida (Orlando, Tampa, St Petersburg, and a whole passel of dinky places in between), and South Carolina. Now, that's the real South, and, what's more, the swampy part. Which is okay with me. As a SoCal desert boy, any place with large volumes of fresh water (although "fresh" might not be the right adjective for swamp water) is exotic.

I live in Huntington Beach, not far from Disneyland--yes, the real Disneyland, the original Disneyland, which was conceived about the same time that I was, though my gestation was about 12 months shorter. That's in Orange County, California. By some strange Doppelganger logic, the latecomer Disney World is in Orlando, which is in...wait for it...Orange County, Florida.

Now, we had no desire to visit Disney World. We were in Florida to attend a wedding, which was on the other side of that (very skinny, and apparently flaccid) state. But it's easier and cheaper to fly into Orlando than just about anywhere else, so that's where we arrived, and where we booked our very cheap lodgings.

In case you haven't heard, Florida is an economic disaster area. We've had an economic slump in California, but Florida has slid several rungs down the evolutionary ladder, and now survives by eating a diet typical of Fiddler Crabs: theatre popcorn, detritus, and, when they can get it, plankton. Here is a sign posted in Orlando, and it was only one of many similar do-it-yourself cries for help.

In case you can't read it, this is advertising a one-bedroom, one-bath condo unti for $19 K--that is, $19,000. At today's exchange rates, that's about 12,500 British pounds, or 14,150 Euros. In other words, you can buy a modest apartment for the price of a decent used car. (If you want the place, the phone number is right at the bottom. If it's already sold, there's plenty more available.)

I have no urge to leave Orange County, California, for Orange County, Florida, but the economics are compelling. Anything here--and I mean anything--would cost literally ten times as much. But if I were going to leave California for the South, it wouldn't be for Florida. I'd rather go whole hog and relocate to, say, Faulkner country.

Still, the swamps are tempting. I'm one of those people who's drawn as much by ecosystems as by culture. And swamps are fascinating. I'm not going to wax poetic about fecundity and the waters of life, but a subtropical swamp is something to behold. Here's a picture I took of an alligator, out in the wild, in Florida--a medium-sized lady about six feet long, protecting her young. "Alligator" is a mangling of the Spanish "El Legarto," the lizard, and I must say that these beasts are The Lizard indeed; even the Lizard King, displacing Jim Morrison of The Doors.

Anywhere on the planet you can encounter something like this outside a zoo has some redeeming features, even if the local cuisine consists mostly of breaded deep-fried balls of lard. And, hey, if you have $19,000, you could live almost next to El Legarto. (Or is that La Legarta?)

Next stop, Charleston, South Carolina, where I promise to say something more writerly, since it's a literary city. I'm afraid Orlando and its environs aren't really that literary.

Though if prices stay down, I can imagine it might become a destination for expatriate European artists and writers who need a cheap place to play bohemian. Picture it. Orlando: the Left Bank of the 21st Century.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Problems of Feedback, Support, and Critiques

The always-readable Emma Darwin has a brilliant post on this broad topic. Anyone who has ever participated in a writing group, writing workshop, or writers' forum will find this interesting.

I was especially impressed by her insight that the critiquing style of the reviewer needs to match the listening style of the writer or the whole thrust of the critique may be missed or overinterpreted. This would be a good article to print out and distribute to writing groups or classes (and I plan to steer some of my acquaintances to it).

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Evolutionary Benefits of Fiction

A recent article in the New York Times discusses the hot new trend in English departments--the study of why we read fiction in the first place.

This is still far from being a cohesive area of study. Some are pursuing the idea that fiction provides models for altruistic cooperation, or other patterns of human interaction. This, of course, is an old idea, which harks back to Colin Wilson's contention that a novel is a "philosophical experiment." (Wilson meant this in the most literal, scientific sense: he argued that fiction acted as a lab experiment where we could take certain kinds of characters, situations, and approaches to life, and set them in motion to see the results.)

Others think that fiction is innately attractive because constructing theories as to the inner workings of the minds of others--their "intentionalities," in the jargon of the studies--has an intrinsic evolutionary value to creatures as social as humans. Included are level problems of tracking who knows what--does Tim know that Jill knows that Bob knows about X? Scholars who puzzle over such things have decided that Virginia Woolf is often difficult because she is demanding that the reader track too many different minds and intentions.

A researcher with the marvelous (if implausible--but this is nonfiction, here) name of Lisa Zunshine claims that our ability to track states of knowledge drops off quickly when more than three minds are included. The article gives the example of "“Peter said that Paul believed that Mary liked chocolate” as a case that we can follow with some degree of ease; add another link in that chain, and our comprehension of what is happening drops off quickly.

Furthermore, Zunshine and others claim that following the interaction of three minds has an innate draw for humans. That's certainly true; while the protagonist/antagonist duo are the pillars of classical storylines, it's hard to get a story rolling without throwing in a third element to thicken the plot; and what's a love story without a triangle?

I've also read elsewhere that most primitive arithmetics use a counting system which itemizes as "One...Two...Three...Many." Some psychologists have argued that the brain has an innate understanding of one, two, and three, but that when we see larger numbers, we "re-chunk" them; that is, when we see three people walking down the street, we know instantly we are seeing three people, but when we see four people, our initial impression is that we see "many," which we promptly chunk into, say, two pairs of people to arrive at four. And why not? After all, we live in three dimensions.

The article also reports that some of the fiction researchers are hoping to deploy the current sexy science device, the MRI brain scan, to study changes in the brain while we consume fiction.

I have to confess a high degree of skepticism about MRI brain imaging. Last year Science News published a short review of the statistical and interpretive problems with such studies, highlighted by by a study where emotional reactions were traced in the brain of a salmon when it was shown humans engaged in various activities. It would be amazing if a fish were reacting to such stimuli in a predictable way, but what was truly fascinating about this particular experiment is that the fish was dead.

Either there are some basic flaws in how this data is analyzed (which the Science News article argues most convincingly), or fish consciousness survives death, and hangs around the region of the fish's body before passing to the Great Beyond.

In any case, we will soon have more pictures (possibly of questionable value) of Your Brain On Fiction. And, with a bit of luck, perhaps we'll also know how many levels of intentionality a fish can track.