Recent notes (what I’ve read & seen)

September 16th, 2014

My most recent culture-vulturing:

Closer Than Ever” at New Rep. “Songs by Maltby & Shire” translates to “ballads for the middle-aged and middle-class,” but the sometimes dated numbers are given heartfelt and witty treatment by this excellent cast. A cast which includes … Science-Entertainment Quotient: Surprisingly high for a musical! Local actor Brian Richard Robinson, one of the two men in the four-person cast, “is a graduate of Tufts University School of Medicine, and currently works at a Cambridge-based biotechnology company.” (I tried to talk to Dr. Robinson at the opening-night reception but he was busy being asked how he remembers all those lines, so I made myself scarce.) Also, one of the numbers–”The Bear, the Hamster, the Hamster, and the Mole,” about the advantages of reproduction without romance, was staged as a TED talk.


Photo by Andrew Brilliant

Ravenous.” Ain’t no party like a Donner party, ’cause a Donner party don’t stop. Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle are cannibals in the old West–one unwilling, one gleefully triumphant. More satirical than graphic, although definitely very creepy. Science-Entertainment Quotient: Idiosyncratic. The Ig Nobel opera this year, “What’s Eating You?” is all about the food chain and, on some level, the idea that wisdom resides in accepting the fact that we must all eat and be eaten. I watched “Ravenous” after our rehearsal last weekend and found it relevant and inspiring … but clearly, this was me.

The Secret Place by Tana French. The hothouse atmosphere of an elite girls’ school and the 24-hour timeline (with flashbacks, of course), combine to make a claustrophobic psychological mystery. The portrayal of how young women police themselves and each other was especially compelling. Science-Entertainment Quotient: Nugatory, thanks to a credulous portrayal of teenage telekinesis which adds nothing to the plot or characterization.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. I’d last been there when I was eight, and yes, it was just as impressive to me today. And surprisingly redemptive. Like a lot of us, I’ve been reading and watching and thinking too much, much too much, lately, about humanity at its worst. The Smithsonians remind you of humanity at its best: curious, questing, ingenious. Science-Entertainment Quotient: Off the charts! The Hall of Human Origins was my favorite. Look at these gorgeous reconstructed faces of early humans!


Does the top right one look like Mandy Patinkin in “Homeland” to anyone else?

Sunday column: Medical TMI edition

September 14th, 2014

Today’s column deals with medical TMI, or at least the Letter Writer’s perception of same. Medical TMI is definitely a thing–if you haven’t experienced it yet, kids, just wait until you, and more importantly your friends, are 40!–but one of the LW’s examples was a perfectly professional note from his veterinarian letting her clients know that she was undergoing cancer treatment, and the other two were passing strangers, and there is not much to be done about the discourse of passing strangers. By this guy’s rubric, I’m subjected to “sports TMI” every time I get on the T.

My own medical TMI is that I have some digestive problems that can occasionally make it hard for me to eat, and very, very easy for me to lose my appetite. So you’d best not be telling me details of your surgery over dinner. One of my good friends is a biologist and I don’t even let her talk about her job when we’re eating. (Gossip of grants and grad students is fine, but no details on the actual experiments, please.) But you can ask friends to indulge you.

I’m also coming down with a bit of a cold today, which I attribute to the weather change and the September Ingathering of thousands and thousands of new students and their germs. I get one this time every year. Since many of you probably do, as well, here’s the section of my book that deals with cold etiquette* for the office:

Take visible precautions. When you’ve got a cold, take every precaution to avoid passing it on, and take these precautions somewhat ostentatiously, so that people know you’re looking out for them. Put on a little “security theater”: you want not only to spare people from getting your cold, you want to spare them the worry that they are going to get your cold. So wash your hands longer and more thoroughly in the bathroom than you normally do. Don’t leave used tissues on your desk, even if you used them only to wipe up a bit of spilled tea. Carry a small bottle of Purell with you and disinfect shared office equipment after handling it. Spray your phone with Lysol and keep the can out where others can see it. Don’t partake of shared food or ask to borrow anyone’s stapler. Toll a bell before you as you approach the cubicles of the untainted and scatter ashes on your head. (Well, perhaps not that.) And don’t ever feel embarrassed saying, “I have a cold, so I can’t shake hands” when introduced to someone. This is a courtesy that people truly appreciate. The warmest, most sincere hug in the world doesn’t convey quite as much care and consideration for others as refusing to touch them when you’re germy.
Apologize in advance. If your cold is noisy—or if you have hay fever—send around an e-mail to your colleagues letting them know that you appreciate their patience until the hacking and schnortling subsides. People are generally willing to be awfully patient and good-natured as long as they feel they’re being recognized for being patient and good-natured, and that whoever is inconveniencing them knows that they are being inconvenienced.
Provide a bit of information—as much as you feel is necessary and are comfortable with. Even when your illness or injury doesn’t affect others, it’s still a good idea to let people know what’s going on if you are visibly or audibly sick or injured. You don’t have to give everyone the full rundown of every highlight of the camping trip that left you with that nasty case of poison ivy, and exactly how much of your body it’s covering, and what exactly you were doing with that cute wilderness guide that led you to get it there. A simple, “Do I look disgusting or what? At least the next time I go on a wilderness excursion I’ll know how to identify poison ivy!” sufficiently acknowledges the scabby, oozing elephant in the room and makes others feel more comfortable.
It’s not as though coworkers or other PTA members aren’t noticing your rash or cast, even if they’re too polite to say anything. Take control of your own information and set yourself, and everyone else, at ease. (This benefits you, too. People are staring when you’re not looking and gossiping when you’re not listening, but they’ll do so less if you acknowledge whatever’s wrong.) This is especially important for women who are injured in such a way that it looks as though they might have been the victims of domestic violence. It can be very upsetting for coworkers or casual acquaintances to fear for your safety and well-being and not know if they should stage some sort of intervention.

*Etiquette for when you have a cold, not, like, Yankee as opposed to Southern etiquette.

So, my husband wrote a book

September 11th, 2014

Mr. Improbable, aka Marc Abrahams, has not one but two bouncing baby books to brag about–This Is Improbable, Too, a collection of Marc’s essays and columns from the Guardian (exploring such questions as why it is so impossible to estimate the number of stupid people in circulation and who is the Einstein of pork carcasses), and The Ig Nobel Prize Cookbook, a “science humor cookbook filled with delicious and other recipes invented, inherited, devised, and/or improvised by winners of the Ig Nobel Prize, Nobel laureates, and organizers of the Ig Nobel Ceremony.”

Speaking of the Ig Nobel Prizes, they’re next Thursday, and sold out, but you can watch them online. Here’s a promo!

You can also join us at the Informal Lectures on Saturday, September 20 at 1pm at MIT Building 26, room 100. Come early, it’s free and always jammed. (If you like strange science and/or strange people, the Informal Lectures are even more fun than the ceremony proper, since the speakers get five whole minutes to explain what they did, and audience members can ask them questions.)

And because that’s not enough, he’s also doing a talk at TEDMED in Washington, D.C., this week. I’m joining him there, so posting may be light for the rest of the week.

If you were a meat puppet, could anyone tell?

September 9th, 2014

If an alien took over your body and controlled your speech and actions, how long would it be before anyone noticed?

That’s not exactly the research question that “cyranoids” are designed to answer, but they could. Neuroskeptic reports that a couple of British psychologists, Kevin Corti and Alex Gillespie, have replicated two “cyranoid” experiments originally done by Stanley Milgram, of obedience-experiment fame.

“Cyranoid” was Milgram’s coinage–from Cyrano de Bergerac–for a person who is not speaking for or as themselves, but merely repeating words that another person is giving them. Cyrano had to hide in bushes and whisper loudly enough to be heard by Christian–and the audience–but quietly enough to be unnoticed by the fortunately rather dim Roxanne. This is all much easier with modern technology, and Corti & Gillespie were able to set up a microphone-and-monitor system that allowed Person #3 (Cyrano) to listen in on a conversation between Persons #1 and #2 (Roxanne and Christian) and feed “lines,” appropriate or inappropriate, to Christian.


Different aesthetic, same idea.

People didn’t notice, not even when Christian was a 12-year-old boy with his conversation being supplied by a 37-year-old psychologist as Cyrano. Maybe Roxanne wasn’t so dim after all.

Neuroskeptic calls this “Milgram’s creepiest experiment” and writes

If I started shadowing someone else’s speech, would my friends and family notice? I would like to think so. Most of us would like to think so. But how easy would it be? Do we really listen to each others’ words, after all, or do we just assume that because person X is speaking, they must be saying the kind of thing that person X likes to say? We’re getting into some uncomfortable territory here.

I’m not sure that much surprise is warranted, although I envy Neuroskeptic’s easy confidence that his loved ones are truly listening to him. We know people often attend more to the form than the content of other people’s speech–this is why Miss Conduct often recommends giving “placebic excuses” when ruffled feathers need to be soothed. And there’s a whole series of experiments showing that people don’t notice change in their environment. (I don’t mean “How could you not notice I changed the shelf liners, honey,” either–I mean like you’re talking to a whole ‘nother person than you started talking to, and you still don’t notice.)

More to the point, though, people aren’t going to twig to a cyranoid because cyranoids don’t exist. As Corti & Gillespie write,

It seems that when encountering an interlocutor face-to-face, people rarely question whether the “mind” and the “body” of a person are indeed unified–and for good reason, as social interaction would be undermined if we began to doubt whether each person we encountered was indeed the true author of the words they expressed.

The authors point out that people do often notice identity discrepancies “in artificial environments (e.g., Second Life and other virtual community games) wherein users can construct outer personae which starkly contrast with their real-world identities.” You don’t even need to go into immersive environments–even the comment threads on opinion blogs will tend to feature people accusing others of not really being a member of whatever group they’re attempting to speak for, or of adopting a sock-puppet identity, or the like. When we know that people’s words and being need not match up, we can be quite vigilant about clues.

I always figured that’s how Starfleet crew members managed to cotton on so quickly whenever their colleagues got possessed by the Aliens of the Week. Deanna Troi learned all the Signs of Alien Possession to watch out for when she was in psychology school, just like nowadays you learn the signs of addiction or suicide risk. I don’t even want to think how long it would take me to notice if my boss got assimilated by the Borg.

Corti & Gillespie write that people have always been fascinated by the idea of persons speaking through other persons, or different identities in the same body:

This well-known story [of Cyrano de Bergerac] is but one of the many examples of a fantasy that has appeared in the arts and mythology throughout history–that of the fusion of separate bodies and minds. Other illustrations include The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, in part the tale of a fraudster who is able to attain great power by presenting himself to the world through an intimidating artificial visage. The film Big entertains the folly that ensues when an adolescent boy awakens to find himself in the body of a middle-aged man. More recently, films such as Avatar and Surrogates have imagined hypothetical futures in which mind can be operationally detached from body, allowing individuals to operate outer personae constructed to suit their social goals. Fiction though they may be, these stories illuminate the power façade has over how we are perceived by ourselves and by others, and how we and others in turn behave in accordance with these perceptions.

Sunday column: Microbe Choir edition

September 7th, 2014

Today’s column is online here and oy! This month! September, December, and June are simply ridiculous months with far too much going on during them. You really notice this kind of thing as a social-advice columnist. (January and February, however, are dead, and therefore the most brilliant months in which to throw a party. No one has any social plans, and people aren’t traveling then, either.)

In addition to the usual back-to-school, high holidays, can-we-all-just-admit-September-is-the-real-New-Years madness, we’ve got the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony coming up week after next. I got drafted into the role of assistant to the opera director over the weekend, which was … unexpected, to say the least, but I could hardly say no. Even if it weren’t my husband who needed me, how could I turn down an opportunity to assistant-direct a science opera? After only a week of blogging about science theater? Most people would be delighted if their blogs paid off like that, I expect.

(This is all going to circle around to today’s column. Be patient.)

The opera this year is about two eccentric billionaires who decide to live on only vitamin supplements, no food–and their gut bacteria, the Microbe Chorus. I was in charge of the Microbe Chorus.

How would you go about directing a Microbe Chorus? How should they move? What kinds of emotions do they have? What do they do when they’re not singing? What motivates them?

This is what I am spending my weekend contemplating.

Today’s column dealt with two fairly straightforward, common problems in modern social life–whether or not to keep another person’s secret, and how to show gratitude to someone without being crassly quid-pro-quo about it. On the first question, I wrote “It’s a complicated business, the ethics of keeping other people’s secrets (or not). Some professions have ironclad rules: Teachers must report evidence of abuse, priests cannot reveal anything said in the confessional. Everyone knows the rules.”

There are so many ways that a given society or culture can solve the problems of secret-keeping, or thanks-giving, or the proper relations of host and guest, or which side of the road to drive on. Social life is so much easier when everyone agrees on these things. Even if the solution is unfair–hosts must give up everything to their guests, say, and cater to their every whim–at least everyone knows what to expect. 21st-century America is a challenging place to live–and a great place to start a career as an advice columnist–because we are so complicated and diverse a nation that we no longer have these shared agreements. Which means, first, that people have to figure things out on their own, and second, that it’s increasingly difficult to interpret other people’s behavior. Your friend ignored your birthday–is this a slight, or do they simply not care for birthdays? Does the new transfer in Accounts like you like you, or is that just Midwestern friendliness confusing your Boston heart?

Most of us, if asked, would prefer to live in a diverse, individualistic culture that allowed a lot of leeway in behavior. But there will always be something attractive about the idea of societies in which everyone has a role, in which proper behavior is codified, not improvised, in which you can communicate volumes of respect or love or disdain by the way you tip your hat or what kind of flower you bring.

Microbes, I decided, have that kind of culture.

The Microbe Choir will move as one. They will not notice each other, because they are all parts of a whole–I don’t carry on a private conversation with my own hand, now, do I. Their movements are repetitive and their motivation is simple and profound: to love and ultimately consume their human hosts.

The Microbe Choir is a deeply religious thing.

I don’t know if that’s how every director would have seen them. I don’t know if that’s how I myself would see them if I hadn’t been thrown into the project more than two weeks before showtime. Sometimes you can explore with your actors and do all kinds of imagination and improv work to discover what a character is really, truly about. And sometimes, like I’ll be doing in an hour, you say, “This is the emotion your character is feeling, so put it on your face.”

The Microbe Choir is the opposite of a Miss Conduct letter writer. The Microbe Choir never doubts itself. It is not modern. It does not question. It has no ulterior motive. It has no need to make a good impression. It loves in purity and consumes what it loves.

Time to top off the iced coffee and head to the Science Center for rehearsal.

Paul Bloom hates empathy (good on him)

September 5th, 2014

Yale psychologist Paul Bloom wrote an amazing takedown of empathy in the Boston Review. You don’t need to feel another person’s pain in order to be a good person–empathy might even impede morality:

Strong inclination toward empathy comes with costs. Individuals scoring high in unmitigated communion report asymmetrical relationships, where they support others but don’t get support themselves. They also are more prone to suffer depression and anxiety. Working from a different literature on “pathological altruism,” Barbara Oakley notes in Cold-Blooded Kindness (2011), “It’s surprising how many diseases and syndromes commonly seen in women seem to be related to women’s generally stronger empathy for and focus on others.”

The problems that arise here have to do with emotional empathy—feeling another’s pain. This leads to what psychologists call empathetic distress. We can contrast this with non-empathetic compassion—a more distanced love and kindness and concern for others. Such compassion is a psychological plus … It is worth expanding on the difference between empathy and compassion, because some of empathy’s biggest fans are confused on this point and think that the only force that can motivate kindness is empathetic arousal. But this is mistaken. Imagine that the child of a close friend has drowned. A highly empathetic response would be to feel what your friend feels, to experience, as much as you can, the terrible sorrow and pain. In contrast, compassion involves concern and love for your friend, and the desire and motivation to help, but it need not involve mirroring your friend’s anguish.

This mirrors my recent experience with my mother. People naturally feel empathy for their parents, especially their mothers–you’re literally connected to her body for the first few months of your life. You learn to be a person by imitating and being imitated by her. To feel what your parents feel is normal.

Except now, my mother is in a nursing home and deeply unhappy with her life for very good reasons, reasons that neither I nor anyone else can do anything about. I felt her pain for a long time, and it damaged my life and turned our phone calls into stomach-churning ordeals. And did nothing to better her quality of life.

A few months ago, somehow, I managed to pull the plug, emotionally, and stop feeling the sadness and frustration and anger about her condition that I had been. The emotions are still there, I just choose not to … visit them. I cultivate an attitude of chipper detachment that feels horribly fake and a complete betrayal of everything my relationship with my mother has ever been. And it’s saving both our lives. I’ll take the guilt of being a Stepford daughter over the anguish of feeling too much any day of the week. It’s what my mother would prefer, too.

I’d be very curious to hear what any actors who read this blog think of Bloom’s essay (read the whole thing, it’s complex and fascinating). My sense is that actors are, generally, pretty damn in favor of emotion for its own sake. Emotion to actors is like sweat to athletes, someone said. Acting is difficult for me because I have a lifelong, learned habit/skill of pulling myself out of emotional situations. It’s why I’m a good advice columnist–I don’t get swept up in emotion. I hold back, I look at the big picture, I examine my reactions. It’s terrible for acting.

Speaking of acting, did you know there is such a thing as medical acting? Now there’s science theater! From Bloom’s essay:

Leslie Jamison makes a similar point in her new essay collection The Empathy Exams. Jamison was at one time a medical actor—she would fake symptoms for medical students, who would diagnose her as part of their training. She also rated them on their skills. The most important entry on her checklist was number thirty-one: “Voiced empathy for my situation/problem.” But when she discusses her real experiences with doctors, her assessment of empathy is mixed. She met with one doctor who was cold and unsympathetic to her concerns, which caused her pain. But she is grateful to another who kept a reassuring distance and objectivity: “I didn’t need him to be my mother—even for a day—I only needed him to know what he was doing,” she writes. “His calmness didn’t make me feel abandoned, it made me feel secure. . . . I needed to look at him and see the opposite of my fear, not its echo.”

I picked up The Empathy Exams at the library yesterday, and look forward to reading it and sharing my thoughts on it with you!

You can’t fake faces or physics

September 4th, 2014

Wired is doing a fascinating series on science and cinema. I can tell already that one of the major themes of this blog will be, “Science makes explicit what art has always known.” The Wired series brings filmmakers and scientists together to see where their knowledge overlaps.

The first piece is about visual processing, which is much more interesting than I thought it would be when I started grad school. “Seeing” is not a passive experience:

While film makers intuitively understand things about visual perception and attention, scientists are trying to understand these things at a more mechanistic level, Smith said. He and other scientists want to know, for example, how the brain constructs a fluid perception of the visual world. “Visual perception feels like a continuous stream, but it’s not,” he said. What actually happens is that we look at one thing at a time, taking in a bit of information here, then moving our eyes to take in a bit of information over there. Then, somehow, amazingly, our brain stitches all those bits together to create a seamless experience.

In filmmaking terms, this means that your audience aren’t mere receptacles, but are co-creators of the art, actively–if unconsciously–ignoring this stimulus and paying extra attention to that one to make sense of the flickering images before them:

“We’re constantly calculating where we think the audience’s eye is going to be, and how to attract it to that area and prioritize within a shot what you can fake,” Favreau said. “The best visual effects tool is the brains of the audience,” he said. “They will stitch things together so they make sense.”

What you can’t fake, Favreau said, are faces and physics. Favreau is working now on an adaptation of The Jungle Book, and he says almost everything is CGI except the faces. Faces are just too hard to fake convincingly, he said, even with sophisticated motion capture systems designed to capture every eye blink and facial twitch.

“It’s the same with physics,” Favreau said. In the Iron Man 2 ccene, his special effects team created replicas of Formula 1 cars with the same weight and dimensions as the real thing and launched them with hydraulics or air ramps to create the flying, cartwheeling spectacle you see onscreen. “You get a tremendous amount of randomness in the way these things bounce and tumble and roll as they hit the ground and interact with each other, and that creates a sense of reality,” Favreau said.

I don’t know what “no CGI faces” really means. If Favreau is implying that Caesar and Rocket are anything other than wonderful to look at, he’s out of his mind. But the human brain does have a particular capacity to recognize faces–a face isn’t just any old arrangement of meat, it’s very special to us. And humans also have an innate grasp of physical realities. If I threw a ball high in the air for my dog, and he didn’t see where it landed, he would keep staring up in the sky for as long as I would let him. A dog’s brain doesn’t automatically know that what goes up will always come down. A human’s brain does know that, and if something onscreen behaves in an impossible fashion, it will pull our focus.

The second story looks at what happens in people’s brains when they watch movies. Certain types of movies can totally synch up the audiences’ brains. Scans show that the same areas in almost everyone’s brains lights up at pretty much the same time:

“They do look very similar, but it’d be more surprising if they didn’t,” said Handel, who earned a PhD in neuroscience at New York University before getting into movies. “If you’re watching a movie, that’s your entire sensorium and your feelings.” If people’s brains were out of synch during a movie, Handel suggested, that might be a bad sign that their minds were wandering. One person might be thinking about the call they need to make, while another contemplates making a popcorn run.

Think about that the next time you’re at a movie! You and all your fellow audience members sitting in isolated silence, while your brains ebb and flow like a team of Esther Williams swim-dancers.


Your brain on film.

The etiquette of talking about geeky things

September 3rd, 2014

I love this article from io9 on the seven deadly sins of talking about pop culture, from “non-consensual spoilers” to “letting random controversies get in the way of judging the work on its own merits.” Number six, “Not recognizing that pop culture has real-world meanings,” is my favorite:

Even if a story takes place 1000 years in the future on another planet, it’s still talking about the here and now, to some extent. It’s still commenting on our society and our institutions, and it’s in dialogue with other works created beforehand. Some people enjoy geeking out about the implications of a piece of pop culture, or picking apart the ways that something is flawed or problematic. And some people don’t necessarily enjoy doing that, but feel a need to do so because it’s a pervasive piece of pop culture that is speaking to or about them in a way that they need to address. So it’s a “sin” to deny other people’s right to analyze and criticize pop culture–particularly when they’re commenting on how it deals with race or gender or sexuality. In particular, it’s weird to tell people not to overthink something because “it’s just a movie”–we’re geeks, overthinking is what we do. And saying that mindless, uncritical appreciation is the only way to engage with mainstream culture is tantamount to saying that we should recognize no difference between, say, The Empire Strikes Back and The Phantom Menace. They’re both Star Wars movies, they both have explosions, and there are cool set pieces in both — but the moment you start thinking critically, you notice some differences between them.

I’ve never understood why attempts to analyze pop culture make some people viscerally angry. I don’t like sports, but I don’t wade into the comments section of sports blogs and angrily demand why everyone has to analyze the game to death. Sports are important–not to me, but to a lot of people. And some people enhance their enjoyment by analyzing and critiquing how the game could have been played different, or better. It’s not hard to understand that. I think everyone understands that, when it comes to sports. Why do people react so differently when it’s movies and books that other people want to critique?

Real relationships with fictional people

September 3rd, 2014

Who is your favorite literary or pop-culture character?
Why?
Do you ever think about that person to get you through hard times?

This is another one of those bits of human nature that art and culture have long realized, and the psychological sciences are slowly catching up with. Of course thinking about inspiring people can give you the courage or patience to handle your own ordeals. That’s why people say “What Would Jesus Do?” When I was an undergrad, if I couldn’t muster up motivation for a study or library research session, I would pretend I was a student at Starfleet Academy. Starfleet cadets never lacked for motivation.

I reviewed a new study about this for the British Psychological Society’s research digest earlier this month:

While there is a clear, bright line between real people and imaginary people (I exist, Hermione Granger does not), there is no such line dividing real and imaginary relationships. (As far as you are concerned, dear reader, both Ms. Granger and I are studious women who exist only on the page or screen.) Even in our most intimate personal relationships, we are often interacting with a mental model of our partner or parent, imagining their current state of mind, or how they would respond to whatever situation we find ourselves in. Although operationalised in this article as relationships with fictional characters, other researchers have included connections with real people whom we don’t personally know (artists, politicians, athletes) and historical figures in the spectrum of parasocial relationships.

Parasocial relationships enable us to explore emotional and social realities without the risks inherent in the real world. The authors dryly note: “Readers and viewers are protected from social rejection and the physical danger of threatening circumstances; thus, forming a relationship with an interesting but potentially dangerous character (e.g., Tony Soprano) does not present the same obstacles in the narrative world as it might in the physical world.”

The paper suggests that these parasocial relationships help us envision a bigger, better version of our selves, much as our real-life relationships can do. I credit Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as Lincoln with giving me the political will to begin the process of getting my mother into assisted living. I just felt so decisive after seeing that movie!

I’ve written before about parasocial relationships (read the whole thing here):

So given how much even our relationships with real people can take place in the imagination, it’s no leap to have a strong relationship with a fictional character. Some people are more inclined to this than others–and, counter to the geeky fanboy/girl Comic Book Guy stereotypes, it’s the people who are overall highly social and relationship-oriented who are most likely to have strong parasocial relationships as well. I tend to be very prone to them, myself: I really was in tears, yesterday, of happiness that dogs I have never met are going to survive and be safe. Certain writers–Dorothy Parker, Anne Sexton–have always felt like sisters to me. When I read Torah, I have extremely vivid images of the Four Matriarchs–if I could draw, I could draw you exactly what they look like to me.

Bringing up the Four Matriarchs, and Jesus, is no accident. Religion has always encouraged parasocial relationships with people you don’t know in the flesh, and uses stories and images to encourage adherents to identify and model themselves after various ancestors, saints, or demigods.

Science & theater: The beginning of a manifesto

September 1st, 2014

Proposition 1: “Science theater” is a thing.
Proposition 2: Boston is the best possible place for science theater to come to know itself as a thing and develop into its fullest potential. In 10 years Boston will be known for science theater like LA is known for the film industry and Chicago is known for improv.
Proposition 3: I am the person to write about science theater in Boston.

That’s what I’ve been thinking about this summer. How about you?

I gave this blog a soft reboot in early June, with the idea of writing more about the intersection of pop culture, the performing arts, and the social sciences–my usual gig, in other words. And then this happened.


Part ape, part human, part robot, without ever falling into the uncanny valley.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” didn’t make the splash it should have this summer. “Guardians of the Galaxy” turned out to be the megablockbuster action-movie-with-heart, while “Snowpiercer” hoovered up any excess intellectual credibility left lying around, and lo there was no love remaining for DPA.

Except in my heart, especially after I read this interview with Andy Serkis, the actor who played Caesar. Serkis was all over the place, in the best possible way, as he explained the technology and philosophy of motion-capture performance, the nature of ape-ness, and the political and moral dilemmas faced by Caesar and the apes he leads.

The interview crystallized something for me, something that I’m still only able to express in the phrase “Science theater is a thing.”

Andy Serkis is the best known, but far from the only actor working in motion-capture–many actors make a living doing mo-cap performances for video games. But the technology is only part of it. To play Caesar, Serkis needed to understand primate behavior and language as well as basic social psychology. It was a performance rooted in the sciences and brought to life by technology.

This, increasingly, is the change I am seeing in pop culture: Science fiction is no longer a metaphor. Think back to “Star Trek,” or even the rebooted “Battlestar Galactica”–this is what science fiction used to be. The science lives in the background, facilitating stories about prejudice or the proper role of the military or how religion can both unite and divide people. It’s not science fiction, it’s history-that-hasn’t-happened-yet.

Something has changed.

Think about the role of science in “Battlestar Galactica” or “Star Trek.” Then think about the role of science in “Breaking Bad.”

Do you see what I’m getting at? Teleporters and Cylons and holodecks aren’t science, they’re plot devices. Methamphetamine, though–that actually exists. And Walter White is a chemist to his very essence, someone who sees all of life in terms of interaction and change. The only thing that kept the show from unrelieved darkness was the blossoming of Jesse Pinkman into a competent, even gifted, chemist and engineer. (Hank’s transformation from a blowhard action figure to a thoughtful collector of minerals and clues mirrored Jesse’s evolution. In the world of “Breaking Bad,” the scientific mindset can be a man’s downfall or his salvation.)

“I am the science.”

This is the rallying cry of biologist Cosima Neihaus on “Orphan Black.” She is both the subject of another person’s experiment as well as a scientist in her own right, trying to unravel the mystery of her creation and fix the design problems that may doom her. “Orphan Black,” about a series of female clones, could be a cheeky metaphor for modern women’s multifaceted lifestyles. It’s not (although it does feature the most basic of the clones hilariously singing along to that anthem of complex womanhood, “Bitch”). The science isn’t a metaphor for anything. It is the story. What are the limits of nature and nurture and how do they interact? What does “informed consent” mean and what should be done when such consent is impossible to obtain? What rights should a person have over their intellectual property? What rights should they have over their own body?

We are the science.

Science is changing the kinds of stories we tell, and how we tell them. All summer, I’ve been thinking big curly thoughts about this, and about all the ways theater and science are similar and different. Tonight, I’m going to see “The Congress,” which addresses all these themes. But this is only the beginning of a manifesto. Let’s turn to the local scene. If science and storytelling are intersecting in bold new ways, what is Boston doing about it?

A lot.

I have to start with Central Square Theater, because they actually have a mission to do science-themed plays, in partnership with MIT. Three of their plays this season have scientific themes: “Emilie: La Marquise du Chatelet Defends her Life Tonight,” “A Disappearing Number,” and “mr g.

But CST aren’t the only ones. Bridge Rep opens “The Forgetting Curve” on Thursday, a play about H.M., a man who had brain surgery to cure his epilepsy only to be left unable to form new memories. The Huntington is producing “The Ether Dome“:

A new treatment promising to end pain pits a doctor and his student in an epic battle between altruism and ambition. Based on the true story of the discovery of ether as an anesthetic in 1846 and set in Boston’s own Massachusetts General Hospital, this fascinating new play explores the ecstasy of pain, the sweetness of relief, and the hysteria that erupts when healthcare becomes big business.

And New Rep tackles information-age technology in “Muckrackers“:

A young activist hosts a famous political journalist/hacker in her apartment. What follows is an evening full of rich debate over who has the right to information, how much the public needs to know, and the consequences of power. Dynamics shift when secrets are revealed and each discovers that there is always a price to pay for privacy. In the wake of controversy surrounding WikiLeaks and NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, The Boston Globe calls MUCKRAKERS “an absorbing play that’s ripped from the headlines.”

For all of these plays, there will be pre- and post-show talkbacks, symposia, and discussions led by or featuring local scientists and doctors. I was on the board at Central Square Theater when we did a play about H.M., “Yesterday Happened,” and we had auxiliary programming before or after every single show. I led a few of them, and met a woman who was going to be teaching a high-school course in psychology for the first time–she only saw the show once, but attended multiple pre- and post-show events as a way to educate herself about the science of memory. There’s no other city where a person could do that.

And we’ve got plenty of paratheatrical science shows, too. The Ig Nobel Prizes are coming up soon, featuring 10 awards to real-life scientific (or medical, entrepreneurial, engineering, and so on …) accomplishments, a science opera, the Win-a-Date-with-a-Nobel-Laureate Contest, and more. I’m one of the judges on this year’s Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses (BAHfest), a “celebration of well-argued and thoroughly researched but completely incorrect evolutionary theory,” which will take place at MIT on October 19. Local actors Daniel Berger-Jones and Georgia Lyman, founders of Cambridge Historical Tours, offer a science-themed Innovation Tour. There is the Cambridge Science Festival, of course. Even the beloved “Dance Your Dissertation” contest is, in part, judged by Boston scientists (and dancers).

What do you think? Has my beginning of a manifesto begun to convince you that science theater is a thing? And that Boston can be ground zero for that thing?

I want to spend the coming theatrical season/academic year writing about the intersection of theater, science, technology and medicine, in both practical and philosophical ways. How many local actors and artists have “day jobs” in science or technology? How can advances in brain science and evolutionary psychology inform the craft of acting? How can Boston’s technology and research institutions learn from, and with, the city’s arts and entertainment institutions?

Actors, writers, scientists, administrators–please join me in this conversation. If you’re doing a science-themed show that I didn’t mention above, please link it in comments. If you’re an actor with a day job in science, medicine, or technology, let me know–I’d like to get some kind of online community started for those of us who live in both worlds. If you’ve got big curly thoughts of your own about science and storytelling, or a recommendation for a TV show or movie that I just have to see–yeah, that too.

It’s our manifesto. And it’s just the beginning.

Sunday synthesis (no column): Rewards and the golden rule

August 31st, 2014

Because of the holiday, there’s no column today, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to pull some ideas together from previous weeks. A number of you liked my deconstruction of the golden rule from a few weeks back, in which I pointed out

… the GR is a wonderful starting place for ethics, but it can’t take you all the way into etiquette and the finer points of social interaction. The more positive phrasing implies that the GR is the be-all and end-all, which … well, look. You can follow “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” to the letter and still out your birthday-having colleague to the staff at Applebee’s, as long as you think it would be great fun to have servers singing and clapping at you while diners at other tables gawk openly or stick to their conversations with grim determination.

You shouldn’t always do unto others as you would have them do unto you, in other words, because they’re not you and their tastes may differ.

The week before that, I’d written about behaviorism and the importance of knowing the person (or animal) you are attempting to “train”:

The mistake that some people make about behaviorism (including some early behaviorists) is thinking of it as mechanistic, emotionless, impersonal. This isn’t true at all. If you want to redirect someone’s behavior, for example, you need to find an alternative task that will be equally engaging. This requires understanding the other person’s skills, and what they find rewarding and enjoyable. Behaviorism has to take the nature of the individual into account.

Operant conditioning (a behaviorist approach) is about reinforcing the behaviors that you want, and not reinforcing the ones you don’t want. In order to do it effectively, you have to find reinforcements–rewards–that really motivate. It’s all too easy to stick with rewards that are easy to administer–like kibble for dogs or money for people. It’s tidy, it’s quantifiable, it’s portable. What Milo truly wanted from life was to chase squirrels, but I couldn’t very well carry squirrels around in my pocket as a reward for good behavior, so he got liver treats, which offered an acceptable balance of convenience and desirability.

Another mistake is to over-apply the golden rule when creating rewards. Without conscious effort, we naturally tend to assume that other people will like, want, or think what we do. Even, disastrously, when we don’t actually know, ourselves, what it is we do like, want, or think.

One of the best tools I’ve found for thinking about these kinds of differences in what motivates people is C. Brooklyn Derr’s “career orientations,” which I wrote about earlier this year for the Harvard Business Review blog. Knowing your own career orientation can help you figure out what kinds of jobs and projects you should pursue. If you’re in charge of creating rewarding experiences for other people–employees, students, clients–Derr’s taxonomy can help you think about what all those people who aren’t you might find exciting and validating.

And of course, there’s a character on “Mad Men” who illustrates each of Derr’s orientations.

One of the most common career orientations is getting ahead: “People who are motivated by upward mobility focus on promotions, raises, making partner, and increasing their authority. They’re competitive and willing to put in long hours and negotiate office politics to win those rewards. This is the default career model in the U.S., which means that it’s easy for those who want to get ahead to explain themselves to bosses, colleagues, and family.” (All of the orientations are described in greater detail here.)

Lots of people start off with getting ahead as their orientation, but some people stay that way even after they’ve achieved a certain professional level, like Pete Campbell. The getting-ahead people are easy to manage because what they want is what the system is set up to deliver: good grades, money, promotions, whatever.

The elevator to success only has room for one of us, Bob.

People with the getting secure orientation have a harder time in today’s economy and corporate culture:

Those who seek regularity and predictability in their work environment are motivated to fit in with others and uphold group norms. They avoid risk and are less concerned with advancement than with career control. If this description has you rolling your eyes, you’re not alone. It’s difficult for people to admit they want this kind of security, because it sounds like the life of a corporate drone, which no one wants to be. That’s especially true today, given the rise of the free agent in all industries. But people motivated by security are loyal and willing to put in extra effort when the situation requires it — not just when it will bring them glory.

Sounds boring? But it can look like this.

Joan Harris is the poster girl for the getting-secure orientation. She values efficiency, decorum, and accuracy and expects everyone to do their part. She also values long-term financial security, which may or may not be tied to her continued employment at Sterling Cooper.

The opposite of the getting secure orientation is getting free: “Derr describes people with this orientation as ‘hard to work with, impossible to work for, slippery as eels to supervise and manage, and infinitely resourceful in getting their own way.’ People who value getting free want autonomy and self-direction.”

Right. Yes, they’re both silvertongued hotties preternaturally good at their jobs, but the similarity ends there. Joan wants the trains to run on time. Don wants to know he can always jump a boxcar and blow town. Their seventh-season conflicts shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

Office stoner Stan Rizzo is not going to be the poster boy for getting high, because that’s not what Derr is talking about:

These are people who care deeply about deploying their expertise, solving problems, creating new things, and feeling engaged. They are ambitious and sometimes idiosyncratic. Unlike professionals intent on getting ahead (who might take on boring but important assignments in order to win favor with clients or managers), those motivated mainly by getting high will gravitate toward work that provides greater stimulation, even if it’s low-profile or high-risk.


It’s why we love her. It’s why she seems so modern.

Speaking of modern, Ken Cosgrove is a quiet revolutionary who consistently values getting balanced:

People with this orientation want to enjoy objective career success, personal development, and close relationships, and they’ll strive to achieve all these goals over time. They are unwilling to sacrifice a personal life to career demands, but they’re also unlikely to coast in a job for which they are overqualified to free up their time at home. They want challenge, and fulfillment, both on and off the job.

Ken decides no account is worth being shot in the face. Go-getter Pete happily takes over the account.

Ken has published short stories–and continued to write under a pen name after being told that ad work left no margin for extracurricular activities. He handed over the prestigious Chevy account to Pete when the toll on his health became unacceptable. More than the other men, he talks about his children in the workplace.

***

Derr’s taxonomy isn’t meant to be a consultant’s version of astrology. Most people are at least somewhat motivated by all five of his categories–status, security, freedom, excitement, and balance–and people’s motivations may change over time as their circumstances do. Still, in general, most of us are going to identify more strongly with one or two of the types above. And we’re going to wind up teaching, managing, or working with all the other types sooner or later. It’s useful to get a sense of how they see the world.

Sunday column: Yankee hospitality edition

August 24th, 2014

Today’s column is online here, and both questions deal with hospitality in different ways–the first Letter Writer wants to know what courtesies and amenities a host owes (self-invited!) out-of-town guests, and the second LW is concerned about attending a party that someone she’s on the outs with will also be attending.

From my advice to LW 1:

Decide what you can easily do with and for your guests, and communicate it clearly: “We can all cook out in the backyard tonight, but tomorrow I’m working until 10, so you guys are on your own.” The amenities a host may provide depend on that particular host’s resources, but the one thing all hosts without exception must provide is information: what the house rules are, how appliances work, when the host is available for socializing and when not, what nearby stores and restaurants are worth checking out.

(A very Bostonian conception of hospitality.)

Having or being a houseguest is a rather fraught thing, isn’t it? Hosts want to make their guests comfortable and happy–and also to show their home and family off to best advantage, and also to not go broke or crazy in the process. Guests want to be as little trouble as possible, but not feel as though they are walking on eggshells. And it’s all supposed to look effortless.

Money helps. Can we just admit it?

So do shared rules and traditions. Do you give a guest the couch or your own bed? How do you let your host know if you are hungry? Should host and guest consider themselves included in all of each others’ social plans? Beliefs about hospitality go deep into a culture’s DNA. Check out these pieces on Middle Eastern and Japanese hospitality–would you, personally, enjoy that level of catering? I would not. I would infinitely prefer a host show me where the kettle and teabags are than for him to prepare my tea. And I really, really want to help with the dishes after dinner. I could train myself to be a good, passive recipient of traditional hospitality, but fundamentally, the more I can tell you’re trying to make me comfortable, the less comfortable I will actually be. (This is another situation in which the golden rule won’t help you out.)

But you don’t need a huge, cowboy-and-the-geisha culture clash to cause a guest-host disconnect–even within the US, ideas about hospitality vary across regions, social classes, ethnic groups, subcultures. And the image of hospitality that most Americans do, I think, hold in common–a guest room, clean linens, dinners together–is, let’s face it, much easier to manage if you’re middle class, middle-aged, and live in the middle of the country. If you’re 25, in debt, and working a flex schedule, you’re not going to live up to that ideal–but we’re not an “I will share my last bowl of rice with you my friend” culture either, so what do you do?

Sometimes clear situational constraints can simplify a complicated situation like houseguesting. At the beginning of the summer I went to New York to help a friend pack for a move, and what a delightful visit that was! She didn’t have to worry about what her apartment looked like, because of course it looked like a bomb hit it, she was moving. I didn’t feel guilty about letting her buy my meals because of course she was going to do that, I’d just spent several hours packing law books for her.

Our apartment has recently been renovated and I look forward to practicing much more hospitality in the future! There is kind of a very short hall between our kitchen and dining room now, with a cupboard and shelves on one side. I’m planning to use that as our “hospitality corner” and keep our bartending, and tea- and coffee-making ingredients and amenities there, along with anything else guests might want–napkins, board games (plus dictionary for Scrabble!), aspirin and bandaids, books that are available for the taking. What else should I keep our hospitality corner stocked with?

Sunday column: Golden Rule edition

August 17th, 2014

Today’s column is online here. The second question allows me to wax briefly philosophical, almost theological:

Two friends of mine are getting married, and my husband and I are at odds about what to give them. Neither of them gave us a wedding gift, though they joked and promised, “The check is in the mail.” I would never hold a grudge about it, but it was always in the back of my mind as strange. They both have good jobs, take elaborate vacations, purchase clothes and accessories from high-end stores. I gave them a very nice shower gift. I feel as if we should give them a wedding gift, treating others as we wish to be treated. My husband doesn’t want to give them anything.

You invoke the golden rule to argue that you liked getting wedding presents, therefore your friends would also like to get wedding presents. This is generically true, of course, but the particulars of your case differ. Thought experiment: If you had somehow — totally out of character! — neglected to buy a friend a wedding present, would you really want that friend to give you one? Or would it make you feel even guiltier and more ill at ease about how you were supposed to make your original gaffe right? The kindest thing to do might be to treat them, not as you wish to be treated, but as you, in fact, were treated.

There’s more, including a compromise option and the acknowledgment that I could be wholly off base, not knowing any of the parties involved, but I do think I’m onto something. Let’s say LW couple does pop for, oh, a Vita Mix blender (just got one this week, they’re amazing) for Couple X. Then Couple X feels worse and finally gives Couple LW a much-belated wedding present, which of course has to be at least as nice as a Vita Mix, and we all know how much those cost, so Couple X now has to get online and find a present that is in the same price range plus a couple of years’ belated-present “interest” for LW. And then there’s the race to see who will write a thank-you note first. And Christmas is around the corner, which means if either couple feels they’ve slacked in the summer exchange, they can start it all up again.

End it now, I say. Couple X clearly is awful at buying presents, so don’t make present-giving part of your friendship.

I’ll probably get several outraged letters for this.

My favorite part, though, was how the LW inadvertently got at the problem of the Golden Rule. When I converted to Judaism, I learned that the version of my youth–”Do unto others”–was considered the Christian version. The Jews say, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others.” Framing it as a negative command, I think, is more appropriate, because the GR is a wonderful starting place for ethics, but it can’t take you all the way into etiquette and the finer points of social interaction. The more positive phrasing implies that the GR is the be-all and end-all, which … well, look. You can follow “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” to the letter and still out your birthday-having colleague to the staff at Applebee’s, as long as you think it would be great fun to have servers singing and clapping at you while diners at other tables gawk openly or stick to their conversations with grim determination.

Any ethical standard allowing–implicitly encouraging!–such behavior needs codicils and further explication, is all I’m saying.

The “That which is hateful to you” version wouldn’t stop a hardcore extrovert from pulling the Applebee’s stunt, technically, but its wording indicates that this is an ethic meant for the most fundamental questions of society-building. Nobody starts planning a party by musing, “Now, what would not be hateful unto me?”

The Golden Rule is about keeping you from committing existential sin. It still allows for many a faux pas.

Sunday column: Rocket, science edition

August 10th, 2014

Today’s column is online here. The doozy-of-a-question is from a woman–no, seriously, a woman–who doesn’t understand why her adult daughter gets offended when the LW asks her if she’s being emotional because she’s having her period. Miss Conduct does her best to clear this one up.

However, the question I had the most fun with was the more mundane one about saleclerks who take business calls or answer an interrupting patron while they are helping you. I point out that responding to interruptions is an ingrained habit, practically an instinct, at least in the 21st-century United States (surely the place and time in which the LW conducts most of her shopping):

Clerks who take phone calls while waiting on customers haven’t been adequately trained, and one annoyed customer isn’t going to make a difference. They need to know that it matters to the bosses. Responding to an interruption is a strongly ingrained habit in most people, and getting someone to overcome such habits requires regular reinforcement. (Behaviorists call this “instinctive drift.” You can teach a raccoon to put a penny in a piggy bank, but without continual coaching, the raccoon will eventually revert to its natural behavior of “washing” the coin in its paws.)

Within psychology, behaviorism has always lacked a certain glamour. Cognitive science and neurobiology whirl across the dance floor, glittering and making promises, and the stately edifices of Jung and Freud warm themselves by the fire, casting shadows and refracting light in the most unexpected places. Meanwhile, at the edges of the room, behaviorism tirelessly, humbly empties ashtrays and refills wine glasses.

Behaviorism works.

In a recent column, I wrote “Advice columnists, psychologists, and the like are fond of pointing out that ‘you can’t change another person’s behavior.’ True, but sometimes you can change that person’s environment so that the objectionable behavior is less rewarding or harder to engage in.” I sometimes describe the column as “ethics, etiquette, and engineering”–this is the engineering bit. My thinking was strongly influenced by Amy Sutherland’s “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage” ran in the NYT’s “Modern Love” segment a year or two before I started writing the MC column. While researching the techniques of exotic-animal trainers, Sutherland began applying their behaviorist principles to her marriage, with excellent results:

After two years of exotic animal training, my marriage is far smoother, my husband much easier to love. I used to take his faults personally; his dirty clothes on the floor were an affront, a symbol of how he didn’t care enough about me. But thinking of my husband as an exotic species gave me the distance I needed to consider our differences more objectively.

I adopted the trainers’ motto: “It’s never the animal’s fault.” When my training attempts failed, I didn’t blame Scott. Rather, I brainstormed new strategies, thought up more incompatible behaviors and used smaller approximations. I dissected my own behavior, considered how my actions might inadvertently fuel his. I also accepted that some behaviors were too entrenched, too instinctive to train away. You can’t stop a badger from digging, and you can’t stop my husband from losing his wallet and keys.

Sutherland’s deliberately provocative “my husband is an exotic animal and I am training him” schtick is unfortunate, because the behaviorist model of handling marital conflict that she describes is practical and respectful of both parties. Instead of getting annoyed when her husband hovered over her in the kitchen, for example, Sutherland would put bowls of chips and salsa a good distance from her workspace. Problem solved! This is called creating “incompatible behaviors”–husband cannot simultaneously eat chips at one end of the kitchen and hover over wife in another–and I recommend this technique a lot in my column. Instead of trying to extinguish a behavior you don’t like, figure out what else you’d like the person to do, and nudge them in that direction instead.

Creating incompatible behaviors effectively–using operant conditioning in general–requires empathy. The mistake that some people make about behaviorism (including some early behaviorists) is thinking of it as mechanistic, emotionless, impersonal. This isn’t true at all. If you want to redirect someone’s behavior, for example, you need to find an alternative task that will be equally engaging. This requires understanding the other person’s skills, and what they find rewarding and enjoyable. Behaviorism has to take the nature of the individual into account.

And thus we come back to instinctual drift, or the idea that if you want someone to break a deeply ingrained, perhaps innate, behavior–like washing small objects for a raccoon, or responding to interruptions for an American millennial–you can’t just explain it to them once and assume you’ve done your bit.

And finally, on the topic of raccoons:

Rocket is everything.

Rocket kills me. Here’s the thing: He’s Milo. Our beloved dog died of cancer this past spring, and I swear Rocket is like seeing him on the big screen. Same muzzle, same eyes. And the same charisma, sense of humor, and fear aggression. Look at that face! That’s exactly the soft eyes and half-smile you’d see on Milo’s face if he got his paws on a machine gun, too. Apparently Rocket’s friend Groot was heavily inspired by the director’s dog, so you’re not crazy if you were thinking, “Funny, my dog reminded me more of the tree …” Fascinating that two of this summer’s most vivid and emotionally complex movie characters aren’t human, isn’t it?

Sunday column: Bonus edition

August 3rd, 2014

Today’s column is online here, and it’s another three-fer: tipping at gas stations, belated sympathy notes, and unwanted extra guests. Go check it out!

And here’s a special feature just for you. I got a question last week and wrote up an answer, but before it got published, Meredith Goldstein (Love Letters) answered it, because the Letter Writer had also written her. Meredith has a blog and I’ve got a print column, so she scooped me. Now I can’t use this in my column anymore, but here’s the question and my answer, for your entertainment. You can contrast my advice with Meredith’s!

On my birthday, I got a Facebook gift of a cup of coffee from an old high school classmate. I’ve been happily married for 30+ years and this classmate has been divorced for many years. I don’t want to make something out of nothing if it’s just a nice gesture with no expectations. However, our class reunion is next month and I don’t want to encourage more contact outside of a friendly conversation at the reunion and I haven’t told my spouse or anyone else about it — at least yet. What should I do?

I have a hard time imagining why you’d write to me if Mr. Coffee hadn’t somehow triggered your Spidey Sense in the past, because—really? A cup of coffee? And you haven’t told your husband? And you’re wondering about an appropriate containment policy? It all seems a bit much. Whether the coffee is an innocent gesture or not, it doesn’t obligate you to anything more than a “thank you,” so your worries are misplaced. Your classmate has done nothing wrong, and if he—or anyone else—should try anything untoward at the reunion, shut him down.

Dropping a five-spot on a Dunkin gift certificate doesn’t strike me as a move out of the Vicomte de Valmont’s playbook, but I don’t know this guy. What are Mr. Coffee’s Facebook posts like? Does he rant about the evils of his ex-wife and, by extension, all us daughters of Eve? Does he comment inappropriately on other people’s posts? Is he rageful or insinuating? Or is he an ordinary guy posting the ordinary repertoire of wisecracks, sports musings, and the occasional photo of his dog?

For now, post “Thanks for the birthday present! See you at the reunion!” on your friend’s wall. If the gift was innocent, you’ve thanked him appropriately. If he was grooming you for attempted seduction, you’ve now dragged him out into the sunlight and let him know that you’re not in the business of keeping other people’s secrets.