Thursday, July 29, 2010

The oddest experiments; attempting to define "bad" writing style again

28. Elephants on Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments by Alex Boese

The cover and the title should give you an accurate feeling about the book: the experiments in the book are truly bizarre, they are often described fairly shortly so that you can use this as handy bathroom reading (chapter 8 is specifically designed for this), and headings are in a bubble-gum purple hue.I think the typesetter/designer wanted to really get the readers into the acid mood.

I was afraid the book would be way too quirky--or just stupid--for my tastes, but I found I was unable to put it down. The bizarre experiments drew me in, and Boese's writing style balanced well between the humorous and trying-too-much-to-be-witty. Although I ended up reading most of his final sentences in in my head in the puts on sunglasses -style, the punchlines were not annoying enough for me to give up this book.

The experiments range from the well-known ones (the terry cloth mom experiment with monkeys; the severed dog head that continued living; trying to raise a chimp as a human child to see if it would begin to behave like humans, etc.) to the more obscure (testing LSD on elephants, testing whether a tapeworm learns new stuff if it is fed a piece of another tapeworm with the knowledge, and so on).

My favorites were among the human psychology and sociological experiments. I heard of the Stanford prison experiment the first time when I saw Das Experiment (insert obligatory <3 Moritz Bleibtrau)which is loosely based on the real experiment. It freaked me out in a way that made me want to know more about the exam. By the way, I got that movie poster as a gift from a friend, and it was so depressing I could never put it up on my wall. Onward!

Originally, the experiment was to see what factors lead to prison abuse. Is it because people working in prisons are naturally violent and nasty, is it because the inmates are naturally violent and nasty, or could the environment affect their behavior? Completely normal and mentally stable men were chosen for the experiment, where half were given gowns to wear with no underwear (the prisoners) and the other half were given khakis (the guards). The only instructions for the guards were that they should not use violence and they should not let the prisoners escape. Although during the first day of testing the "prisoners" were simply sitting and playing cards, chatting about the experiment, within a couple of days the guards had put them in isolation chambers for punishment, made them pee in buckets and leave the buckets in their "cells" and forced them to do humiliating acts (such as sexual acts). The experiment that was supposed to last for two weeks was canceled after six days, because the "prisoners" were facing such abuse and psychological stress from their "guards." Even their yells, "This is just a simulation!" would not calm the guards the eff down. 

I find this absolutely fascinating, just as the Milgram experiment where completely ordinary people ended up giving electric shocks they thought were deadly to people, all just because a man in an authoritarian position told them that he'd take the blame, and the subject was simply obeying his orders. When asked whether they could ever kill a person, they would probably have answered--as all of us non-psychopaths would--with a no. These experiments just show us that there is a lot about ourselves that we don't know or understand. These experiments--although the results are shocking and appalling--should help people in designing situations where people's behavior would not be allowed to escalate so easily into abusive situations. Unfortunately, the results also give an idea of how easy it is to manipulate a person to behave against his or her will.

The book is a fun read, but I did not say it was a light read! 

Speaking of fun...

29. The Accidents of Style: Good Advice on How Not to Write Badly by Charles Elster

If you want to read a book on style, please read any of the other ones I have written about. This mentions all the old hats of proper English usage as they do, but in addition, the author barely hides his loathing toward spoken varieties of English. He begins by stating that this book is for writers, whether you write for newspapers, blogs or you just write emails. But every now and then, he slips in snide comments about the bad ways people speak English (when the "bad" is actually just a vernacular of some type, or a shorthand). Elster, your agenda is showing.

Sometimes the author simply sounded like an old curmudgeon.He has a big chip on his shoulder (and he would slap me for that cliché) about blogging: the multitude of insulting terms he has come up with for bloggers is quite astounding, and he rarely forgets to mention that he came up with those terms all by himself! What a guy!

He takes swipes at Mignon Fogerty because whoever wrote her grammar book's dust jacket copy described the book as--wait for the dry heaves from Elster--a "fun book." (You can't use "fun" as a regular adjective, he mutters between his spew-covered teeth.) His disgust toward lexicographers is hard to avoid: Elster's descriptions make them seem like a bunch of namby-pambies who allow anything to be printed in dictionaries. I'm fairly sure I used the word "namby-pamby" wrong there, and he would make ruthless fun of me.

Elster seems to believe that dictionaries should act as teaching material on what proper language is like. I think that dictionaries should reflect language as it is used. Our views on language are fundamentally different. He is absolutely right with many of his examples, such as the ones where people don't get it that the idiom is toe the line, not tow the line (because the latter makes no sense--not that idioms are always sensible). But every now and then he seems to forget that language develops and evolves constantly, and if majority of people nowadays think it's OK to use "fun" as an adjective to describe objects, then protesting against it will only make you sound like someone who thinks that the English from a decade ago is something we should try to preserve, whatever the cost.

So, if you think that there is only one way to speak and read proper English (and that English must be from somewhere well post-U.S. colonization,, then this book is for you!

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