Friday, January 23, 2004

Thanks for the how-manyeth time to the King County Library System (who needs Amazon?), I'm entranced by a book that I wouldn't otherwise have seen: Ferdinand Protzman's "Landscape:photographs of time and place". In commenting on a photo of kites in Ho Chi Minh City by An-My Le, Protzman observes
For many Vietnamese young people the war is a matter of history, not memory.
This takes me back to Santayana's oft-quoted
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

It's a matter of simple observation that we cannot remember the past; history is practiced as nostalgia or exhortation, not memory. It then follows that Protzman's young Vietnamese, and young people everywhere, are doomed to repeat their war, since they cannot remember it.

This suggests a simple, testable hypothesis for the scale at which history repeats itself.

Once more than half of the population can no longer remember an event but merely learn about it in books, those events are teed up to play themselves out again yet again. Given the events in Iraq, we seem to be nearing the point at which the Vietnam counts as history, not memory. A scarily short cycle time...

Logical fallacies as clues to cognitive instincts

Robert Cialdini's book Influence argues that we fall for social manipulations like laugh tracks because they exploit psychological short cuts that are correct and useful most of the time. (The laugh track is an example of "social proof"; in most cases, the fact that other people like something is a good predictor that we'll like it.) For this very reason, such tricks are very hard to resist.

Logical fallacies are another category of behavior where a huge cautionary apparatus is required. The fact that we are so vulnerable to them suggests, following Cialdini, that logical fallacies represent another set of psychological short cuts. (This was an example of using "authority" - that of Cialdini, who is much more reputable than me in these matters - to get you to agree to my point of view.)

There are some good lists of fallacies on the web: Michael Labossiere's list on the Nizcor Project, Stephen Downes's Guide, and "Logic and Fallacies" on the Atheism Web.

Some of the fallacies tie directly to one of Cialdini's six principles: Appeal to Authority and Appeal to Force , to Authority, Appeal to Pity to Liking, Prejudicial Language to Social Proof. I'm more interested here in ones that would reveal something new, like inductive fallacies or syllogistic errors.

Take causal fallacies like Post Hoc, and the "non sequitur" errors of affirming or denying the consequent. They represent our tendency to assume that implications are reciprocal. For example: if A implies B, and B is true, then A is true; similary starting again from A => B, derive that A being false implies that B is false. Our vulnerability to this error suggests that our sense of causality contains a strong dose of correlation: if A implies B then they're "so close" that B would imply A. Since causality is a difficult phenomenon to pin down, the efficient short cut is correlation - if A and B are in proximity, there must be some tie between them. It doesn't matter which causes which; if you see an A or a B, a B or an A (respectively) can't be far behind.

Superstition is built on this phenomenon. Think back a few millennia: I got sick around the full new moon when we found that deer carcass just after I spat over my left shoulder while my mate's mother was angry with me. The best bet is to correlate all those phenomena with getting sick - one of them is bound to be the cause, but it would take too many experiments -- which are tough to fund while barely surviving on the savannah -- to figure out for sure which one.

The inductive fallacies (eg, hasty generalization, unrepresentative sample, and fallacy of exclusion) are cases where one jumps to conclusions. This is a very adaptive behavior where one has to act quickly in the absence of information - a typical situation when survival against the odds is at stake.


my belly is full
but my mouth is still hungry
a leaky sieve

When I get a headache, I know that my eyes are strained, I haven't been sleeping enough, and it's time to take some ibuprofen.

When I'm hungry, I know it's time to eat.

I only know my soul is starving when I notice, at length, what is not happening. I haven't written haiku for too long. That means that I have not seen reality for a long time. Even realising that my heart is empty doesn't help much; forcing something out leaves an ashen and fatty taste.

Saturday, January 17, 2004

The thousand flaws that mind is heir to

Tren Griffin alerted me to Charlie Munger's 1995 Harvard speech on "The 24 Standard Causes of Human Misjudgment," and as a result I followed up an NPR story to read Robert Cialdini's book 1984 book on "Influence" - how and why people agree to things. It turns out that Munger was originally inspired by Cialdini. Whitney Tilson gives a good intro to Munger's speech, and includes links to other useful sources.

Cialdini's work is centered on social psychology; the applications of such ideas to finance form the basis of behavioral economics. One might think that the market would correct for these biases. According to Mullainathan and Thaler, that's not the case: "Does some combination of market forces, learning and evolution render these human qualities irrelevant? No. Because of limits of arbitrage, less than perfect agents survive and influence market outcomes."

Lying to tell the truth

Look at the pictures, and then read the essay.

Najjal's pictures fascinate me. I have his Metropolis images on my desktop. I went back to his site and was waylaid by these images. I ignored the caption -- "truth in crisis? about the influence of digital technologies on documentary photography" was just too worthy to be paid any attention to -- and started looking. I eventually realized something "was wrong", which then led me to the article.

The notion that one has to tell lies in order to tell the truth is at the heart of fiction. In this case, though, we have a documentary project that's upfront about its falsifications. We are too quick to draw a bright line between fiction and non-fiction; who's to say that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalistic frauds weren't giving us something more truthful in their lies than their more worthy colleagues did with "truth"? Edmund Morris was disparaged for the fictional device in his biography of Ronald Reagan; it turned out to be the only biography that I've finished in ten years. I felt I learned something I wouldn't've done otherwise.

Documentary photography that seduces the truth is not new. It has been argued (I can't remember where) that some of Roger Fenton's Crimean war photos were staged or otherwise "misleading". For example, apparently the cannon balls that litter "The Valley of the Shadow of Death" came from a supply wagon that rolled over, not a heavy bombardment. The implication of many dead bodies, killed by the balls and now removed, is a "false" one.

It's best to let Najjar speak for himself:
"Cuba is not just any country, it is the last existing socialist tropical paradise, anachronistic, absurd, dadaistic and surrealistic. The system´s logic is that there is no logic at all. A country far from any rational comprehension. ... But how to get the Cuban reality into a picture?

"We must not forget that the interpretation of a picture takes place in our heads. The meaning of what we see is never what we see but what it means to us. Pictures are not to concretize reality but to interpret. That is why the question is not about whether or not it is legitimate to manipulate documentary photos but how.

"However, a picture that, on first sight, seems to be without contradiction in its appearance and content, yet contradicts the viewer's knowledge and experience after having taken a closer look, is a challenge to both the photographer and the viewer. The message he gets first seems to be true and he believes what he sees. However, then he has to think about his first impression and he obtains new information different from the first and seeming truth. He finally comes to the conclusion that, "It can´t possibly have been that way.

"Which was exactly my impression during my journey through Cuba. It can`t possibly have been that way. But it has been that way..."

Sunday, January 11, 2004

The people as patron

The Fountains in front of the Bellagio in Las Vegas gave me goose bumps again last night: hundreds of flood-lit fountains in a huge man-made pool dancing to Aaron Copland's Hoe-Down. They changed from lyrical to playful to exuberant. When the water shoots up to form a wall of white-lit water a city block long, it’s a visceral experience. It’s huge, and not just as a large chunk of your visual field; the physical scale is breathtaking.

And it’s free.

The choreography was exquisite, and I left with the spirit of the music ringing in my ears. So much for High Art being better than “low art”… Like so much at Las Vegas, it’s an expression of awesome wealth that would put a monarch of any prior age to shame. But it’s not Louis XIV’s Versailles – there is no single, rich patron.

It is all built on the money that 50,000 middle class Americans bring into the city every day. Anybody can walk through the shopping arcades that are more opulent than any palace I’ve seen – you don’t have to buy, and you don’t have to gamble (though you aren’t allowed to be indigent).

The wealth at the disposal of most citizens in the “developed” world is one of the ways in which we do live in special times. Perhaps we feel our era lacks cathedrals because we don’t notice that we’re surrounded by them. I’m sitting right now in a rather mundane circular airport terminal that nonetheless has a spatial presence and well-appointed comfort that Princes of earlier times would envy.

America does a very good job of hiding privilege. When you’re walking around the glittering casinos or eating in fancy restaurants, you are Everyman; all the thousands of other people are just like you. There must be high rollers, but they’re hidden from sight. There are no barbs that to remind you that you are inferior to someone else. It’s a one-way mirror; the truly affluent can see us, and we can’t see them. In earlier times, parades and processions showed the pomp of the ruling class. The guiding myth of society was that grades of rank were not only natural, but good. In our demotic era, the myth is reversed: equality is natural and good, and hints of a class structure are too dangerous to reveal.

The Special Times Fallacy

I have an aversion to the notion that somehow our time is unique and our achievements unprecedented. In most other ways we’re no smarter or better than any other era; the Victorians had their own Internet (telegraphy), the upheaval in the economy was more marked during the Industrial Revolution than now, the South Sea bubble puts the dot-com bust to shame, and the Thirty/Eighty Years war was more devastating than World War II.)

It is natural for us, individually and collectively, to think that we’re at the center of the universe. We only see the world from our perspective, and are only really conscious of changes that affect us directly. We need our existence to have meaning, and being special is a quick way to generate meaning. Since the most fearsome predator of Homo Sapiens has been other humans, we have an innate fear of the Other; the most horrendous actions are justified by the belief that “we’re better than them”. Better, of course, is judged from our perspective.

Visionaries generate excitement by claiming that Things are Different This Time; the dot-com boom was built on this philosophy. Ignoring the similarities with earlier times leads to bad decisions. This is why history fascinates me. The only way to know if today is different is to have some understanding of the ways things used to be. If you don’t know history, everything is new to you.

The George Santayana quotation that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” is important not only for its claim, but also for the fact that it is, itself, so often repeated. If we did not so often make this mistake, we would need to be reminded of it so often.

Since I try to avoid the Special Times fallacy (sometimes also called chronocentrism), I have a blind spot for ways in which our era is, indeed, special. I’ve been working on a list, which so far includes mass intimacy, speed, middle class affluence, feminization, and the contest between global states and companies.

Mass intimacy: digital communication technologies like e-mail mean that we interact on pseudo-personal terms with hundreds of people. In the past one would communicate with very few people – a few score, for most people. These days we “know” so many more people. Tabloids and TV give us access to the lives of thousands of celebrities. Gossip and celebrity is part of human nature, but it’s operating at an ever-larger scale.

Middle class affluence: Hundreds of millions of people across the globe are living better lives than even the most select elites of a couple of centuries ago.

Feminization: The public realm has been a man’s world for most cultures over the last few millennia. Women are now entering the work place and taking positions of power in ways that are changing not only society, but how it will evolve.

Geo-commerce: Globalization is not new. The Dutch East India Company was a global commercial power in the seventeenth century; the telegraph connected continents instantaneously by the end of the eighteenth. However, the contest between states and global enterprises is entering a new phase; see, for example, the anti-trust interest the European Union has taken in the activities of companies like Microsoft and GE, and China’s advancement of technologies like WAPI and EVD in the face of global industry standardization groups.

No one of these effects is unique to our times: mass-market celebrity started at least in the eighteenth century with the yellow press, and commerce along the Silk Road tied together cultures around half the globe. Together, though, they create a unique dynamic in which our lives will play out.

Thursday, January 01, 2004

Banished Words List

Thanks to the crack PR team of Lake Superior State University, I heard about the Banished Words List on NPR this morning. It's a curmudgeon's delight, a pedant's pride. I loved it.

It's an annual "List of Words Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness", inaugurated in 1976 to combat the misperception that LSSU was a branch of Michigan Technological University. (Michigan what?)

I nominate "Getting in touch with [something spiritual in oneself or others]." It is often heard said in sanctimonious tones by female presenters of NPR human interest programs. So just reach in there with your grubby little fingers and poke at a Meaningful Experience so that you can Share It With Others - eeeeeeeewwww!