Inhuman Swill : February 2010
            

On Tuesday I plan to sit down and watch The Oprah Winfrey Show for the first time, ever. I've seen bits and pieces before, but this will be the first time I watch the whole thing in a premeditated fashion. Hey, I want to hear Roger Ebert's new/old voice.

Ebert's new voice has been synthesized (and is being further refined) from DVD commentary tracks he recorded for a handful of movies. The Scottish company behind the voice is CereProc, which specializes in text-to-speech synthesizers that speak in a variety of accents. It's fun to play around with their live demo and make voices from all around the British Isles say vulgar and juvenile things.

As more and more of us litter the intertubes with extensive examples of our speaking voices, the easier it will be for convincing artificial versions of our voices to be cobbled together. I suppose the technology will have matured when it can pass a sort of text-to-speech Turing test—when someone can call your close friends or relatives by telephone or Skype or whatever and fool them into thinking they're talking to you.

Damn, I just got an idea for a story.

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It looks like a trap to me, Scoob

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It looks like a trap to me, Scoob
No, I'm sure the pile of Milk-Bone® dog snacks that Ella and I stumbled across in the park yesterday morning did not conceal a boobytrapped pit in the ground, nor a tripwire that would drop a steel cage around us, nor a noose that would tighten around our ankles and hoist us upside-down into the air. But I still wouldn't have let her go near it, even if it had interested her (which it did not).

I probably would have been suspicious at the best of times to find what looked like an entire giant-size box of Milk-Bones, complete with a coupon good for your next purchase, emptied out onto the snow. But we're in the midst of one of those neighborhood panics where citizen complaints have spurred the police into cracking down hard on owners who don't keep their dogs on-leash at the park. My first thought on seeing the pile of biscuits was that some angry person had poisoned them. The idea that someone was just trying to get rid of some extra dog treats before they went bad came in a distant second. Scooby-Doo jokes limped across the finish line in third.

It's no fun to have your walk in the park marred by the thought that someone might be upset and unbalanced enough to try to murder your dog at random. So I laughed it off, and I won't worry about it again until I see a tempting platter of roasted turkey and mashed potatoes sliding across the field on fishing line toward a suspiciously rustling bush.

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R.I.P. Ryan Maguire's Ale House

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Fans of the monthly New York Review of Science Fiction Reading Series in Manhattan are used to gathering for good food, good whiskey, and good beer at Ryan Maguire's Ale House, on Cliff Street near the South Street Seaport. Unfortunately, Ryan Maguire's was destroyed by a fire early this morning:

It's great that no one was hurt, but this is a real loss. It was a warm, welcoming place, and I always looked forward to heading there with Jim Freund and a big, interesting, varied crowd after readings while Laura and I still lived in New York. I'm glad I had a chance to go there one last time, in January, when Paul Witcover and I read together at NYRSF. RIP.

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Shamrock sharks

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Lest anyone unfamiliar with the phenomenon assume I am overstating the fanaticism of Shamrock Shake devotees, let me direct your attention to...

      ShamrockShake.com

...a message board for confirmed Shamrock Shake sightings around the country. Believe.

(One of the saddest recent reports from Illinois, echoing Laura's disappointment, reads: "got one with whipped cream...it was only half-full of the glorious green stuff...I was very sad.")

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Shamrock shuck

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Laura and I go to McDonald's together, on average, once a year. Like many of you, I'm sure, we've both been lovers of the Shamrock Shake since childhood. It was hard if not impossible to find a McDonald's in New York City that carried those minty cold treasures, so one of the upsides of moving to Chicago was the realization that the advent of the St. Patrick's season once again meant Shamrock Shakes within reach of our greedy little mitts.

Still, we didn't intend to embark on Shamrock Shake Quest 2010 this past Sunday afternoon. My plan was to dedicate the full day to a small freelance programming project I'm working on, but a minor eyeglass-frame emergency derailed that. (Turns out it screws with one's ability to effectively view through progressive lenses when one of your earpieces breaks off.) We rushed down to Lincoln Square to order a pair of replacement frames. It was only as we were returning home that Laura spied the happy gospel proclaimed from a McDonald's sign on Western Avenue.

"Shamrock Shakes are back!" she exclaimed.

"Shall we stop?" I asked.

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Upcoming readings

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I'll have more info as these events get closer, but I'm scheduled to participate in a couple of local readings coming up here in Chicago.

On Tuesday, March 2, I'll once again be part of Tuesday Funk at Hopleaf.

And on Monday, April 19, I'll make my second appearance in Essay Fiesta at The Book Cellar.

Mark your calendar. I hope to see you there!

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Tiny accomplishments

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I've been a fan of Roger Ebert's writing (as opposed to his television presence) since I first ran across it on the web, which was probably not long after the Chicago Sun-Times starting publishing his film reviews online. Which was a long time ago. As much as his insightful criticism, it was droll, tossed-off observations like this one (from his new review of Happy Tears, emphasis mine) that won me over:

[Happy Tears] takes on an eerie resonance with the performance by Rip Torn as the aging father. He was recently in the news for being arrested, at age 78, for breaking into a bank while intoxicated and carrying a firearm.

To be sure, it was late at night, he had apparently forgotten he had the firearm, and after all, the bank looked a lot like his house. Nor is senility his problem. He is now in rehab and I wish him good fortune because he is a fine actor. Ann Landers used to write about the danger signals of alcoholism. His arrest in the bank surely would be one of them. Still, to stir up such a scandal at 78 is perhaps even a tiny accomplishment, when so many his age are no longer physically able to break into banks.  [full review]

This is all by way of recommending not just his reviews and his blog, not just his continuous championing of liberalism and rational free thought, but also the new Esquire profile of Ebert, "The Essential Man," written by Chris Jones. I knew about his battles with cancer and his various surgeries, but had no idea of their extent or aftermath. Read it, and read also Ebert's own generous thoughts on the article.

I can't think of many writers so well-rounded as people, and so unendingly prolific, and that he continues to be so in the face of his health problems is not just an inspiration. It's a more than tiny accomplishment.

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The devil at the end of my bed

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I watched Paranormal Activity yesterday evening on DVD while waiting for Laura to get home from work. I found the movie deeply, thrillingly, and realistically frightening—not because I believe in ghosts or demons, but because it returned me to a time in my life when I did.

Between the ages of ten and sixteen or so, I experienced a few episodes of what I realize now must have been sleep paralysis. This occurs when the brain rouses from REM sleep but the body essentially remains asleep. You're fully awake and aware, but you can't move a muscle.

That's exactly what happened to me maybe half a dozen times that I remember. I would wake up in the darkness of my bedroom unable to move, terrified by the certain convinction that the Devil himself was holding me immobile, and that he was going to kill me. I would struggle to move for what seemed like an hour, to no avail. I would struggle to form words, to shout for help, also to no avail. I would struggle not to fall back to sleep, because I knew if I fell asleep I would die. I would silently pray to God for deliverance from my assailant, deliverance that only came when I did fall back into unwilling unconsciousness.

On one very memorable occasion, when I was an older teenager, this happened on a visit to my uncle's house in Los Angeles, while I was cocooned in sleeping bag on his living room floor. My father was in a sleeping bag not six feet away, but I couldn't make the tiniest peep to wake him up so he could save me.

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Occasionally I have vivid nightmares that leave me afraid to go back to sleep. (Probably PTSD from the LDS years.) The night before last, I had the worst I'd had in some time. It was one of those dreams that seems, while it's happening, to go on for weeks or years. It was also populated by a large cast of my friends—except that, in the way of dreams, none of these friends was anyone I recognized from real life.

These dozen or so friends and I were living on or visiting a subtropical island or peninsula of some sort. We were having a grand time doing incomprehensible things until a giant storm brought flooding. I climbed up a high stepladder to get out of the rushing water. One of my friends followed me up the ladder. I don't know if he was pulling me off or if he was going to make the ladder tip over or if I was just selfish or what, but I kicked him in the face until he fell off the ladder. The swirling water carried him away.

Soon enough things were sunny and dry again, and we were all living in a white multistoried house or possibly a beached yacht. All of us were having a grand time—all of us but our missing friend, of course. He turned up before long, though, not dead and hellbent on killing me for kicking him off the ladder. My other friends hid me downstairs in the house or boat, keeping a lookout from the upper stories.

Eventually, one of my friends came downstairs and told me the coast was clear. In a few minutes it would be time for me to meet the rest of the group out front and make my escape. He went back upstairs, and at the appointed time I slipped out of the house to the rendezvous point outside.

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The Accidental Terrorist 30th Anniversary Sale

Signed editions
that even a
missionary
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William Shunn

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