Sunday, December 26, 2004

No sex, lots of violence: the Grimm roots of American media

A guest post from S. -- the first time I've been able to blog-capture one of her wonderful insights:

It’s a commonplace that the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales are now considered excessively violent. Birds peck out the eyes of Cinderella’s stepsisters; Snow White’s stepmother is made to wear red-hot iron slippers and dance to the death; and Rumpelstiltskin literally rips himself in two in his anger.

The Brothers modified the oral tradition to expunge sexual elements, tighten the narrative structure, and introduce a moral element (see Jack Zipes’ translation and introduction to the tales). For example, in the 1812 edition, Rapunzel’s liaison with the prince is discovered through her remark:

“Tell me, Mother Gothel, why do you think my clothes have become too tight for me and no longer fit?”

By 1857, this is revised to:

“Mother Gothel, how is it that you’re much heavier than the prince?”

Now consider the norms for US television:

· No sex.
· High levels of violence.
· Every 30-minute show finishes with a neat moral.

Not much that I can see has changed from the 19th-century bourgeois temperament.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Patron saints

While looking for some gods of unintended consequences, I found a wonderful site offered by the Catholic Forum: the Patron Saints Index. There is a saint for every need and occasion. Selecting almost at random from the alphabetical topic list, you will find saints to intercede on your behalf:-

Joseph of Cupertino is the patron saint of air travel, since he had the gift of levitation. Just the kind of person to have around when that second engine conks out…

Even the Internet has a patron saint: Isidore of Seville. He’s also the patron computer technicians and schoolchildren. I imagine the association derives from his prolific writing, which includes “a dictionary, an encyclopedia, a history of Goths, and a history of the world beginning with creation”. Some associations are entirely obscure to me, though; Philip Neri, for example, is the patron saint of the US Special Forces

Code-mungers (and -mongers)

Programmers and lawyers have a lot in common:
  • Both create code
  • Both are concerned with edge cases
  • Both have to transpose messy human reality into special languages
  • In both cases, a misplaced comma makes a huge difference to meaning and outcome.
Both practices are at the mercy of the small gods of unintended consequences (Kokopelli, Loki, Tyl Uilenspiegel?). When a software program does something unintended, it’s called a bug; when a law doesn’t work as expected, it’s a loophole.

(Of course, loopholes are often inserted on purpose and with the informed consent of the legislators, which cannot be said for bugs. However, the status of bugs is often ambiguous, as in the line sometimes heard after a product’s shipped, “Oh, that’s not a bug, that’s a feature!”)

Unintended consequences are prevalent for the same reasons in both cases: complexity and “embedded abstraction”. In any sufficiently complex system, the interactions between the parts cannot be predicted, other than to say that there will be unexpected interactions. This is the case both for large bodies of code, of both the legal and computing variety.

Some of the complexity derives from the fact that abstraction is a necessary part the process of cutting code. Laws and programs both model reality in order to make a workable product. Of course, any intellectual process does this, from poetry to civil engineering. However, software and legal documents both then loop back to interact with the worlds they’ve modeled in a recursive way. Their work product is a model; the same cannot be said of an engineer’s bridge. Software that models business process becomes the way the process is driven; contracts model commercial or social interactions, and then become the subject of those interactions.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

The disruption diet

New Scientist reports that forcing oneself to do uncharacteristic things on a daily basis leads to weight loss (and happiness - of course). ("How to lose weight without even trying, New Scientist, 11 Sep 2004, p 7.) Ben Fletcher of the University of Hertfordshire has apparently devised a scheme whereby volunteers had to pick a word from a contrasting pair every day (reactive/proactive, introvert/extrovert) and try to act that way. The idea is that forcing people to change their routines makes them think harder about the decisions they take.

There may be something to this - I've found that when I'm traveling my appetite decreases. It's probably just jet lag, but perhaps being in unusual situations every day reduces the need to ameliorate ennui through eating.

I couldn't find any publications by Prof. Fletcher on this topic, so this may just be another conviction-powered self-help scheme.

I chanced upon a less self-conscious approach along the same lines on the New Scientist's wonderful Christmas gift site, It's This Diary Will Change Your Life 2005, described by one Amazon reviewer as "Clinically insane but in a funny kind of way." According to Benrik's web site, the 2004 version included such classic life-changing tasks as "today be gay for a day", "today, tattoo a banana" and "today find a way of including the word vortex in all your conversations". The site alleges that it contains material offensive to the IRS, the KKK and the French

Which leads me to think about some paradoxical challenges:
  1. Construct a sentence that offends both George W Bush and Jacques Chirac
  2. Devise the "Eat more ice cream and lose weight" diet (aka the Federal budget)
  3. Find a product that has fewer features than its previous version
Actually, that last one isn't paradoxical; it's simply in the much larger Contradiction in Terms category.

P.S. Now there's a thing: according to Merriam Webster, the word oxymoron comes from Greek oxymoros, "pointedly foolish," oxy-, "sharp" + moros, "dull, stupid, foolish." That's the same oxy- as in oxygen, from the Greek oxus, "sharp, acid".


I sat watching thunderclouds on the horizon yesterday morning. My attention would wander, and when I looked at the clouds again, they'd moved. I couldn't tell what had changed, precisely, but they'd clearly moved. When I'd stare at the clouds trying to following the shifts, nothing seemed to change.

Technology's like that.

When you track it day by day, nothing fundamental seems to be happening - in spite of the breathless hype of the evangelists. I easily become blase, and discount its importance. Then suddenly one looks back and so much has changed: hundreds of megabytes of storage in a finger-sized USB dongle, real-time hyper-realism in video games, a world of blogs.

The world's like that.

Our ability to detect change in real time is severely limited by our senses. We seem to be optimized for stuff moving at the rate of the mythical sabre toothed tiger, and blind to changes on scales longer than months and faster than milliseconds. We've developed technologies to follow those movements, e.g. historiography and sensor processing. But since we don't have an innate grasp for those time scales, it'll always require an effort of will to discern and understand them.

In most cases, we understand change as if hearing a second language.

With effort, we can become more fluent, and some people will have a knack. However, we will always speak with an accent, that is, we are at an innate disadvantage understanding slow changes like cultural shifts, and fast ones like automated hacker attacks.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Redistricting - the trend towards bantustan boundaries

The results of redistricting in the US have been compared to the patchwork bantustans created under apartheid in South Africa: topological monstrosities whose tentacles and fractured edges serve to create homogenized voting blocs where the notion of a district as a conventional geographic entity is completely lost.

For example, on the right is a map of the Pennsylvania district in the the Vieth v. Jubelirer case - the resemblance to an apartheid homeland is uncanny.

The purpose of this gerrymandering is to ensure that incumbents don't lose their seats. According to the LA Times on 31 Oct 2004, "Of the 435 House elections Tuesday, only about four dozen are remotely competitive. Not one of California's 51 House incumbents is in danger of losing his or her seat."

The result is frequently the social and racial homogenization of electoral districts; for example, according to a Boston Globe article by Frank Phillips on 17 August 2004, "voting rights groups forced a major redrawing of Boston's House districts to increase minority political clout." The story notedthat "A three-judge panel concluded in February that the redistricting plan [...] deprived minorities of their voting rights [because] among other inequities, the House plan packed minority voters into an already heavily minority district in Roxbury, while shifting minority voters from nearby districts."

While the maps look the same, there are striking differences between the US and South African experiences.

In America, coming up with crazy cartography is a consensus activity. Although Left and Right may end up on opposite sides of court cases about the specifics, both engage in it, and feel it helps their constituencies. While often racially motivated, US gerrymandering is driven by party political power, which is as more about financial interests and social values than it is about ethnicity.

The foundations of the American practice are also less stable than the apartheid one. Skin color was all that mattered in South Africa, but while American voting habits may correlate from time to time with ethnicity, it keeps changing. A Wall Street Journal story on October 20, 2004 by Jacob Schlesinger describes "emerging signs that a wide swath of voting blocs -- such as women, Latinos, young voters and rural voters -- could behave in unpredictable ways in next Tuesday's election."

With a little luck, this means that the gerrymanderers' best laid plans will always unravel, and that the electoral lock-ins that they crave will never last.

Will electoral districts will ever contract to more coherent shapes? Demographic analysis will continue to become more sophisticated, and the trend to ever-more complex boundaries seems inexorable. Districts will become ever-more fragmented because they can, not because they should. The courts are a countervailing force; to the extent that they refrain from using demographic information to draw boundaries, they will have to fall back on geography, and thus on simpler shapes.

The geography of gerrymandering presents a fascinating opportunity to explore the intersection between political science and complexity theory. The key parameter to track over time will be boundary complexity (measured as fractal dimension, perhaps). It's grown over the last few decades; will it continue to do so? I expect it will. Fortunately, the "If I can think of it, somebody's already done it" Rule, some enterprising political science student has already written their thesis about this. I look forward to finding it; there's already some work on fractals and redistricting.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Buying - it's magic

Libraries worth of consultant's reports have been written about Why People Buy, and mountains of money have been made by the few who know the answer. I suspect some of it is sympathetic magic.

If I buy a book about losing weight, I'll lose weight. If I buy the book and read it, I have an even better chance! Following the instructions and changing my diet is the final step which most of us never quite get to...

If I buy a big ol' macho truck, it'll make me hunky and virile. It costs more than going to the gym for two hours every day, but it requires a lot less will power.

And the old chestnut: if I buy that product that the film star uses, I'll be beautiful and rich, too.

I'm not sure sympathetic magic is, in fact, the right term. Buying something because its promise will rub off on me is not quite the "like affects like" principle of sympathetic magic, but it's close.

Even though few people practice it explicitly, sympathetic magic is everywhere in behavior and culture. It must be grounded in some hard-wired behavior. It's probably related to our skill in seeing patterns and making connections. Recognizing similarity helps animals get fed and laid; 'that looks like something that tasted good last time', 'that looks like my parent, so it's probably a decent mate'. Science and much of art is driven by the need to explain; and an explanation is just a plausible link between cause and effect. Combine the two, and one has a powerful mechanism: A caused B because A resembled B.

The magic of buying (with the aid of the Post Hoc and Wrong Direction fallacies) is "B talks about A, therefore B causes A".

Friday, September 24, 2004

balloons at twilight
I make the promise again
to go up come Spring

Thursday, September 02, 2004

power lines crackle
feeling what I barely see
the first morning mist

Sunday, August 29, 2004

The importance of reading less

It must be almost a year since my boss said to me in passing
When I fly these days
I no longer try to read
I just sleep, or think

(Just a chance remark, said lightly in passing, but haiku - who knew?)

It's becoming steadily more meaningful to me. Though I never catch up with all the reading I could do, it's so often a convenient excuse for not thinking. (My body doesn't tolerate any excuses for not sleeping.) Now that I make myself think more, or just allow my mind to wander, I've discovered the unexpected pleasure of stumbling over my own ideas.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

iBook ≠iPod

While I was on vacation, I had a few articles on my TabletPC that I'd like to have read. However, I couldn't bring myself to fire it up; its associations with work were so strong that it would've broken the holiday spell.

Every (paper) book I read has a different heft and feel; the covers are different, the pages have different textures, and the associations with each are distinct.

I remember where I read something, not only by where it was on the page and the spread, but how far through the book it was.

Fashion magazines are heavy, glossy, and smell of perfume samples; tabloids are light, fuzzy and disposable.

With music, I don't care how the information is carried; CD, radio, MP3, WMV, ... It doesn't matter. The associations are in what I hear, not what I see or touch.

This is a deep reason why the adoption of digital music has been so much faster than that of electronic books. Reading is a visual experience, and what you see matters. It's also a tactile one: even an e-book has to be held. Profound though subtle connotations are carried by the non-textual packaging. You can close your eyes and listen to the music; how it arrives at your ears doesn't much matter.

In fact, how music is perceived does matter -- your can't get the visceral stimulation of a booming subsonic bass with a headset, and the excitement of a live gig shared with thousands of other fans is lost in solitary listening -- but it matters less than with books.

So what? Digital music (delivered on iPods etc.) will continue to grow, and digital books (read on iBooks etc.) will continue to languish. Video will be a good test case of this theory; it's both visual and aural. I think video is closer to audio than to books; film-makers have told me that audio is an often-underrated part of their impact. They are already consumed in many forms, from cinema to portable DVD players, and this diversity will continue to increase. In some case, the medium carries more of the message than in others.

Friday, August 27, 2004

You might be a geek if

... a fun Friday evening is sitting on the couch with your spouse reading the Voter's Pamphlet for an election you can't vote in

(Apologies to Jeff Foxworthy)

Friday, August 20, 2004

frantic grey sine wave
squirrel across a parched lawn
stops - poised - a fir cone

Thursday, August 19, 2004

summer morning run
into dawn, no sunshine yet
warm days losing light

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Guilty Pleasures - Typography

I love looking at letters. Chinese script is best; the different fonts you see walking down a street in an Asian city blow my mind, all the better because I don't know what any of it means.

New York Life logoI was stopped in my tracks the other day by the New York Life logo in a bank window. It's a lovely piece of work! It revels in typography -- more than the client might've liked, perhaps -- and creates a quirky yet consistent image. The letters are tied together in a way that seems inevitable, but there are neat tricks. The eye is guided from top left to bottom right by the aligned diagonals, e.g. of the N and the R, and the W; and the link between the Y and the L. I also like the way the L I F E hangs from the first two lines.

Wells Fargo logoThe Wells Fargo logo, on the other hand, is just boring. The "WE" and "AR" ligatures are workmanlike, and the typeface evokes the frontier feel the bank wants to project. Beyond that, though, the only adventure is in the color. A rich amber on a saturated crimson ground; a golden sunset awaits those who trusts their wealth to the stage coach...

Edward Jones logoEdward Jones also had a little fun, contrasting two typefaces. The combination of Bodoni and Franklin Gothic suggests that the organization wants to be seen as both elegant and solid; that it's diverse; and that it might be able to hold two distinct ideas in its head at the same time.

Morgan Stanley logoTo Morgan Stanley, though, just using different shades for the two words was glamour enough. Flair and color is provided by a spurious glyph hanging over the end of "Morgan". Sure, a decent solution for cases when there isn't a tone gamut (faxes happen), but just what is that triangley thing? According to the press release that accompanied the launch of the new logo, it "symbolizes change and the inclination to innovate". Huh? As you probably knew, "[it] points toward the northeast, the general direction of financial success." And last but not least, "[the]three points symbolize the three groups served by the Firm: clients, shareholders and employees." That's a lot of weight for a little blue triangley thing, sorry, "a directional triangle", to bear.

Guilty Pleasures - Psychology Quizzes

OK, yes, I confess: I like to do on-line tests that tell me what I should already know. I complete the quizzes in the hope that they'll provide me with the secret of happiness. All they can tell me, of course, is what I think other people think about me. From time to time, though, I find something useful, like Martin Seligman's Signature Strengths quiz. (The site has long list of other tests, too.)

I linked to it via an interview with Seligman on the Edge site. He argues that psychology has done a great job making people less miserable over the last 50 years by finding effective treatments for 14 major mental illnesses. However, it hasn't done much yet to help people be happier; that what his current research and his book Authentic Happiness is about.

The Seligman test gave me my five "strengths" - while fundamentally not a surprise, it was revealing to see character traits I know well represented as strengths and not as weaknesses. Seligman argues that playing to one's strengths gives you a better chance of getting to a Csikszentmihalyi flow state. I've been trying to figure out how to do this for years, and I was glad to get a hint.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Horror vacui

If I get too used to sitting quietly, won't I become a slob?

I'm training myself to sit and do nothing. I can pretty much handle stretches of ten minutes now, and I just pulled off a twenty. It's not that my mind wanders -- of course it does, but that's OK since I'm not trying to meditate -- but that I'm constantly assailed by temptations to get up and do something, anything. These urges are so powerful because they're in league with my fear of where a liking for inaction might lead.

I've avoided gambling, smoking and drugs because I might like the experience too much. Even just one taste, and I'll slip down the slope to perdition. (Boy, those adolescent anti-vice ads do work, it seems, at least for some of us.) Logically this doesn't make sense, but emotionally the path is clear: "If I take one pull at the slot machine, I won't be able to stop. I'll enjoy the rush so much that I'll go gambling again, then go every week, then every day. I'll lose my job, and then all my money. I'll turn to crime to support my habit, first shoplifting small items, then robbing widows, and finally becoming a merchant banker. After a humiliating trial I'll be locked up and become Mad Dog Giloollie's love slave, only to escape, go on a rampage, be cornered by the Feds, kill three innocent policemen and two guilty women-and-children in a hostage shoot-out, be shot in the guts and die after seventeen hours of agony."

I'm more tempted by the quiet life than by the more glamorous vices. In his entry for January 31 in "A Vow of Conversation: Journals 1964-1965", Thomas Merton writes:

I can imagine no greater cause for gratitude on my fiftieth birthday than that, on it, I woke up in a hermitage. Fierce cold all night, certainly down to zero, but I have no outdoor thermometer.

Inside the house, it almost froze, though embers still glowed under the ashes in the fireplace. The cold woke me up at one point, but I adjusted the blankets and went back to sleep. What more do I seek than this silence, this simplicity, this "living together with wisdom"? For me, there is nothing else, and to think that I have had the grace to taste a little of what all men seek without realizing it! All the more obligation to have compassion and love, and to pray for them.

What a prospect! But to become hermit would mean giving up my life with S., even if I were to have the courage and compassion to take that path. Sitting and doing nothing inches me closer to that life, but I don't want to pay the price of making that change.

More mundane and more direct, though, is the worry that getting used to doing nothing will make it harder to do something -- anything. I'm an Energizer Bunny powered by a Protestant Work Ethic and a Catholic Guilt Ethic, thumping along determinedly to nowhere in particular. If I stopped running I'd surely become a redneck wife-beater passing my days drinking beer on the porch with a mangy dog while the weeds grow knee-high around the rusted Mustang in the yard.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Chucking away

I have a few days' vacation, and I'm trying to tidy up my room. It's hard. Every act of throwing away insults something treasured - if it weren't treasured, in even a small way, it would not have been kept. Every scrap repudiated is self-inflicted amnesia. Memories are so fragile that without the help of a memento they fade to nothing without a whisper. It's painfully irrevocable; when the keepsake is lost, the memory goes with it forever.

It's so much easier to accumulate. Every getting and keeping is a thrill: it's Christmas every time. We're all kids who desperately want that new toy on the supermarket shelf, but then can't be bothered to play with it the next day. It's so easy to buy, and the self-storage industry makes it so easy to keep, too.

Creating order requires effort - that much even physics knows. I can't jettison stuff directly; I create new piles of stuff-to-be-junked, hoping that each iteration will reduce the clutter a little. It's a tactile way to think through the decision to discard. A clear desk and tidy shelves are something to be savored, but Oh!, how quickly the entropy of desire takes over.

The hallowed monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience prove that making do with little is a challenge on a par with taming lust and submitting to the will of others. It's hard to lead a simple life. Living a complicated life is easy in comparison.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

The most exciting building in Seattle, heaven help us

The only reason the new Central Library in Seattle has been hailed as an architectural masterpiece is that the other buildings in downtown are such crap (with the exception of the Smith Tower, but that was built in 1914).

If an architect can't even get information design right for a library, one shouldn't expect a decent building: there are ink-jet printed directions taped up all over the place. As your grand ascent up the escalator ends, there's one taped to the wall that reads, "This is Level 3". There's a long counter with a row of monitors, their backs to those approaching, each crowned with a glued-on label helpfully declaring, "Librarian". And not to mention this sheet of office paper taped to a non-descript door: "Emergency use only. Alarm will sound."

The place reminds me of the Pompidou in Paris, but without the wit. Exposed ducts and lurid plastic - but set in polished concrete, steel floors and gray-stained wood panels. It tries to be elegant with botanical print carpeting in the "Living Room", it tries to be hip with flourescent yellow escalators, and and it tries to be funky with the meeting room level oppressively colored in nine dark shades of red. The gridded glass panels are boring and blunt, even more so for being painted baby blue. The place is minimalist, but it is embarrassed about it. Think pastel brutalism, or guilty minimalism.

The best part is Ann Hamilton's wooden floor on the 4th Avenue level. The slightly raised lettering not only looks good, it feels great underfoot.

It's fixed

... and it wasn't my fault! It seems that blogger has trouble interpreting blockquotes that aren't properly formatted - like the ones their new blockquote feature creates. Kudos to blogger though; their tech support replied to my mail within three days.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Ellensburg week-end

lemonade, latte, scones
festival jazz Sunday brunch
sheltering in shade

we sit, listen, sway -
working along asphalt's edge
ants, oblivious

Stress and decisiveness

S. gave me a wonderful insight when she observed that she appears decisive because she cannot tolerate chronic stress. The quickest way to remove the stress is to make a decision and move on.

This suggests that decisive people can tolerate acute stress, like the stress of making a decision, but not chronic stress, like an unresolved question.

On the other hand, people who can tolerate chronic stress probably function postponing decisions. They avoid the acute stress of making the decision, but can live with a lingering problem.

The "hard-charging executive" stereotype is to make a decision quickly and move on. This is not always the best strategy, particularly when a decision does not have to be made, and when waiting a little will bring new data with which to make a more informed decision.

In fact, executives in my experience come in both flavors - those who revel in decisions, and those who drag out the process as long as possible. I can now look at them and guess their stress profiles.

Different projects require different decision making styles - sometimes "impulsive" is better, sometimes "considered". An executive's stress handling profile will help predict which one is best for the job.

Conversely, some jobs require a tolerance for chronic stress. Putting a hyper-decisive person in charge here will cause unnecessary pain for all involved.

Yes, it's broken

In case there were any doubt: yes, there's a bug in my blog template. It isn't fancy design... I broke the cardinal rule of template editing, backing up before making changes. I hope I can fix it soon. My apologies for any inconvenience caused by this disruption of service.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

People and power - two passages I noticed today

L E Modesitt Jr., The Ecolitan Operation, Chapter IV:
A man who believes in nothing will support the status quo, not oppose it.
A man who believes in himself first can be trained to support his society.
The true believer will place his ideals above action, because no action can attain the perfection of his ideals.
These are the people who compose most of society.

Mark Bowden, Tales of the the Tyrant, Atlantic Monthly, May 2002, reprinted in The Best American Non-required Reading, 2003:
A young man without power or money is completely free. He has nothing, but he also has everything. He can travel, he can drift. He can make new acquaintances every day, and try to soak up the infinite variety of life. He can seduce and be seduced, start an enterprise and abandon it, join an army or flee a nation, fight to preserve an existing system or plot a revolution. He can reinvent himself daily, according to the discoveries he makes about the world and himself. But if he prospers through the choices he makes, if he acquires a wife, children, wealth, land, and power, his options gradually and inevitably diminish. Responsibility and commitment limit his moves. One might think that the powerful man has the most choices, but in reality he has the fewest.

Red squirrel

I saw a red squirrel in the park beside the Aachen casino a week ago.  It was more brown than red. I did a double take, and wrote in my mind the sentence, "I'm seeing a red squirrel. I thought they were extinct, out-competed by the grays.  It's small."
It was on the ground in front of the trees in a clearing, moving right.  Seeing a unicorn would've been scarcely less surprising. I didn't think I'd ever see a red squirrel, except in popular science stories about population dynamics. I wasn't sure what I was seeing, but I looked, and it was a squirrel, and more red than gray.
It startled away.  Though - it was so far away that it perhaps didn't even see me.  Seeing a red squirrel was a surprise for me, but seeing another human could be no surprise to it.  It's existence was a surprise to me, but not to it.
It must've moved into the green, but I didn't see it go.  My memory had fixed the moment, and my mind was thinking harder than my eyes were looking.  I stopped seeing it before it disappeared.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Too soon old, too slow wise

My father used to say, "Too soon old, too late smart." The trouble is that the evidence suggests that we get dumber as we age, not smarter (Over 30 and over the hill, The Economist, June 26th 2004, p60).

Our numerical and reasoning abilities are said to peak in our 20s and early 30s; the only abilities that get better with over time are knowledge-related ones like verbal fluency, which peaks in the early 50s (Age and individual productivity: a literature survey, Vegard Skirbekk, 2003). After that, its all downhill, at least as far as job performance is concerned.

The Sixties saying, "Don't trust anyone over thirty" may need to be recast as, "I'm smarter than anyone over thirty."

The only hope is that wisdom grows as rapidly as cognitive ability declines, or, with luck, a little quicker. If it doesn't, the kids might as well drop us oldies off at the water hole as lion bait and move on.

Garrison Keillor gets to the point: "Age does not always bring wisdom. Sometimes age comes alone."

Here, kitty kitty kitty...

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Forget about the raise, just get more sex

Cornell University Professor Robert Frank, cited in a Reuters story on the price of happiness that Tren Griffin pointed me to, says a majority of Americans, asked whether they would rather earn $110,000 while everyone else earned $200,000, or earn $100,000 while everyone else earned $85,000, chose option B.

In a recent memo to clients, strategist James Montier noted that, "Since the 1950s, people's happiness levels have been remarkably constant despite a massive growth in income-per-head over the same time horizon." Among the top 10 generators of happiness, alongside sleep, exercise and enjoying the moment, was sex. Economists David Blanchflower of Dartmouth College and Andrew Oswald of Warwick University studied 16,000 Americans and calculated that going from having sex monthly to weekly gave about the same happiness as a $50,000 raise.

Happiness, according to this kind of analysis, amounts to comparing yourself to people who are less well off than you. This ought not to hard, since there are so many ways in which people are different - surely there will be at least one way you're better off than any person you might pick. It doesn't work, of course; if it did, we'd all simply be happy, and consultants wouldn't make money writing inspirational memos and selling Happiness courses.

The catch? We're status-crazy little monkeys; for social animals, climbing the ladder is the key to having more offspring. There's also the gotcha that what we're good at, and what we want to be good at, are so often different things. It's in our nature to be dissatisfied.

The dissatisfaction is rooted in not having what we want. As Robert Schenck points out on Ingrimayne, there are two ways to solve the problem of scarcity: the utopian approach, which assumes abundance, and the way of the Buddha, which is to eliminate want. Westerners seem incurable utopians, especially Americans, and especially Americans in the IT industry (some keep betting on Moore's Law, and others assume that free software for all will solve all problems). I'm too cynical to be a utopian, and too unenlightened to be a Buddhist.

Which takes us back to sleep, exercise and enjoying the moment. Oh yes, and sex.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

On not being able to deal with strangers

I've just read a novel in two days, which is notable in three respects: it was a novel, I read the whole thing, and it only took two days.

I struggle with novels; they cut too close to the bone. I feel them too deeply, so I shy away from them. I'm much happier reading New Scientist, or history, or the Economist - not too different, in many ways, from Christopher John Francis Boone.

Christopher John Francis Boone is the narrator of "The curious incident of the dog in the night-time" by Mark Haddon. He's an autistic boy who's brilliant at mathematics and who cannot bear to be with strangers. He's fascinated by science, he dislikes the colors yellow and brown, he knows every prime number up to 7,057, he screams if people touch him, and he feels most comfortable wedged into small spaces.

I'm not autistic. However, I do have a Y chromosome. I prefer my own company to crowds. Just this week-end, a friend of S. has come up from LA visit her. S. clearly enjoys being with her. I can be sociable and chat happily along. But when I had the opportunity to go along on an expedition to Port with them, I opted to stay at home on my own.

Autistic people - boys, mostly; that Y chromosome again, or perhaps the single X - struggle to cope with sensory overload, particularly social overload. I don't experience this remotely as severely as Christopher Boone, and I'm not remotely as good at maths as he is. Still, I felt a kinship. We probably all feel like he does some of the time; if we didn't, Haddon's novel couldn't've been written, and wouldn't've been published.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

I am my memories

Imagine: you've been the victim of a horrific terror attack. The flashbacks will keep you up nights for the rest of your life. Doctors can give you a drug to blur the memories, but the government insists that you not take it since information you may be able recall could help fight terrorism.

Imagine: you've been in a terrible accident. The experience will cause long-lasting psychological trauma unless you take a drug that causes amnesia - but you will also forget details that could lead to the conviction of the person responsible. You're conscious, but in great pain; you have ten minutes to decide before you go into surgery. What will you do?

A New Scientist interview (24 April 2004, p46) with Richard Glen Boire, co-founder of the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics in Davis, California, explores what the freedom of thought means once drugs can influence mental processes.

The examples above are not completely fanciful; people who take the beta blocker propranolol within six hours or so of a traumatic event have a reduced recall of that event.

Since we construct our sense of self moment by moment through recall, such drugs change who we are. To my mind, the changes are much more profound than cosmetic surgery, performance enhancers or even mood altering chemicals like Ritalin.

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Why porn works

New Scientist reports that empathy may be a very simple brain process: our brains simply transform what we see into what we might have felt in the same situation. (Research by Christian Keysers et al., University of Groningen, Neuron vol 42, p 335.)

MRI scans showed that the secondary somatosensory cortex - which was though to respond only to physical touch - lit up when a subject saw other people being touched.

Monkey see, monkey feel, in other words.

A corrolary is that someone who's lonely and out of reach of a friendly touch should go see a romantic movie; seeing people hug each other should generate the same warm feeling as being hugged would do.

I wonder whether reading about touch, or hearing a story, would also light up the same region of the brain; romantic fiction suggests that it would.


blinks in the half-dark
always at my gaze's edge
wow, they're real - fireflies!

if you sent you mail
asking for a quick meeting
would you say OK?

sparrows don't worry
about realizing their dreams
at least, I hope not

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Surf's up on 405

I live a block away from Interstate 405. The roar of traffic never stops. It's more of a rush than a roar. I'm told I should imagine that it sounds like a waterfall or the sea breaking against a long beach, but to me it just sounds like 405. It has both volume and direction, and it is a backdrop to more local sounds.

A bird chirping is a sound against traffic, not a sound in itself as it would be in the stillness of a forest. You hear both; figure and ground are equally present. In a quiet place the silence has a sound, too, if only as the rushing of blood in your ears, but it is equi-present.

You have to find sound here, you have to sieve it out. It isn't presented on a silver platter of stillness. It is less precious, more contingent, and always on the verge of being overwhelmed by the aural context.

This, perhaps, is the urban experience. You have to work at extracting meaning from the other human artifacts. So much is lost because it's drowned out. And listening becomes pattern matching; you hear what you looking to hear. Like spread spectrum radio, you can extract a signal from below the noise floor if you know what you're looking for. Finding the unexpected is hard - even harder than usual - when there's so much interference.

Saturday, June 12, 2004

beyond bullets

Cliff Atkinson's obsessed with PowerPoint; his blog beyond bullets is about how people can communicate better using this tool. He's an independent management consultant, and he believes that "hidden inside PowerPoint is a powerful antidote to toxic organizational communications." He makes his money, it seems, by teaching how to communicate better.

I don't know about toxic communications, but his tips do seem to be be a way to disprove the old saw, "Power corrupts, and PowerPoints corrupts absolutely."

Saturday, June 05, 2004

The Good Bad Boy

Alison Lurie's essay The Good Bad Boy in The New York Review of Books (link courtesy of Arts & Letters Daily) shows that Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio is a much darker and complex character than Walt Disney's remake. It describes the progression from infant to adult as a metaphorical journey from inanimate object to animal to human, and draws lessons about the price that will be paid for idleness. For example, here's Lurie on Pinocchio's stay in Funland: "The moral (as true today as it was in Collodi's time) is that poor boys who quit school and hang about doing nothing and enjoying themselves are apt to end up as exploited and overworked laborers—or possibly dead."

Disney's version is shown to be pabulum; and it makes me wonder about the eclipse of Grimm's Fairy Tales in today's childhood culture. I was exposed to some of them as a child, but by no means all; they're completely invisible these days.

However, children's appetite for grim stories remains, of course; these days it's satisfied by Harry Potter and his ilk.

A sweater has been defined as something a child is made to wear when its parents are cold. Likewise, sugar-coated stories are what they made to listen to in order not to frighten the grown-ups.

Monday, May 31, 2004

Another 2x2 matrix

Here's a taxonomy that seems to describe some people I come across. Some people have a vision (which I describe as a personal conviction about how the world ought to work), and some don't; some people can manipulate others, and some can't.

 Own VisionOther's vision
Influences othersLEADERMANAGER
Little influenceMAVERICKWORKER

Each of these styles contributes in its own way, and will be motivated in different ways. Those with a vision (the leaders and mavericks) are motivated by seeing their vision realized. People who follow another's vision can be motivated in two ways: either by getting satisfaction from realizing the vision, or by getting pleasure in simply making progress along the way.

Those who can influence others (the leaders and managers) contribute by leveraging the efforts of others. People who cannot influence other people make a difference by actually doing the work of imagining new worlds (in the case of mavericks) or building them (in the case of doers).

Sunday, May 23, 2004

So far

The flashbulbs strobed, and pandemonium raged. Neon hair, over-wrought glances, beautiful people begining to sweat. Insecurity vied with egotism, body odor mingled with perfume. Necks, lapels, real fake fur, haute hauteur.

The three-legged chihuahua sat expectantly in the ashen gloom. Hip hop bass boomed incessantly from a distant room. It got up and hobbled down the tenement hall, nails ticking on the broken tiles. A door opened onto the sky of a distant city. It was the day after Easter, and tentative clouds trailed through wrought-iron balconies. It was going to be a hot day.

(Inspired by Heather Champ.)

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Fake Band Names

Peter Rinearson put me onto Brian Whitman's Ten Thousand Statistically Grammar-Average Fake Band Names. It's a useful resource if you can't think of a name for your band, though if you can't think of a silly name for a band, you probably shouldn't have one. It's even better as a Random Grin Generator. And it's a great way to generate haiku:
rotator landing
dandelions onto hull
smoker betrayal

Retro Bond

I recently saw a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream set in "Athens High" in the Fifties; Shakespeare meets Grease. Such conceits are the stuff of theater; favorite plays are re-envisaged in all manner of periods.

I just heard a fragment of an NPR Weekend Edition Sunday story on the myth and reality of spying, in which Liane Hansen asked the expert if there would ever be a period without spying, and he replied, of course, "No". It set me wondering about the next James Bond film. The real Bond was able to work under cover since he wasn't known. Today's Bond has been in so many movies that his opponents are sure to recognize the name when someone introduces themselves as Bond, James Bond. But that wasn't the case when he started his career in the Fifties...

Let's hope Cubby Broccoli will take the leap and do a retro Bond. Star Wars has made backstory sequels mainstream. I'd love to see a Bond movie set in the Fifties; plumes of cigarette smoke, the shadow of atomic Armageddon, wholesome nuclear families with rotten cores. If it was shot in Black & White, so much the better.

It'd be a challenge, since so much of the Bond schtick revolves around the latest cool technologies, not to mention lucrative product placements. You can't do that if you roll back time -- unless, of course, you construct a parallel universe in which the Fifties weren't quite the same as ours. This is a common SF trope, as in Sterling and Gibson's The Difference Engine, and Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series. Bond movies have become increasingly self-referential, and some knowing anachronism would sit well with the franchise.

But even leaving all that aside: being true to the cynical and vicious spy of Ian Fleming's novels would match the disillusionment and war weariness which may well be Americans' lot in the next couple of years.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

It's OK, we're not torturing them any more

The Associated Press reported on 15 May 2004 that Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, issued orders on Thursay 13 May to eliminate the most coercive interrogation tactics that had been used by US forces. Until then approved techniques included depriving detainees of sleep for more than 72 hours or forcing them into "stress positions" - making them kneel or stand uncomfortably for more than 45 minutes.

In my book, this treatment amounts to mental and physical torture.

Until Thursday, the US Army approved the torture of detainees.

According to Article 17 of the Geneva Convention, "No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever."

This is a prima facie case that the United States has been contravening the Geneva Convention in Iraq.

The abuses of the US in Iraq pale beside the atrocities of the Baath regime. The public soul searching on these topics that's in full swing in the United States is an example of how an open society should respond to such a situation, and is laudable. However, the moral basis for invading Iraq -- which was dodgy to begin with -- is seriously undermined when the invader is found to behave in even remotely the same bestial way as the regime it deposed. The Administration's cavalier attitude to international law should, however, come as a surprise to no-one.

When the scaffolding becomes the building

The Charenton asylum by Jacques Gilbert, one of the paradigmatic Neoclassical buildings of the 19th century, was built on the principle of categorizing patients by sex and by twelve specific kinds of illness. Its layout, like those the asylums in Rouen and Marseilles, followed a plan specified by the theoretician Esquirol: residential quarters in two arms, arranged in a U shape around a central court and anchored by the common facilities and the administration building. (Architecture in France 1800-1900,Betrand Lemoine, Abrams 1998, p64)

The human mind loves categorizing, and cultures love to turn categories into concrete structures. Categories are useful tools for thought, but they are means, not ends; in other words, they're the scaffolding, not the building.

When the scaffolding becomes more important than the building, the results range from the obscene to the mundane. All the bad -isms like racism, sexism and ageism are the result of categories that are used to discriminate between people (in the sense of discerning a difference) becoming reified into self-evident truths which are used to discriminate (in the sense of treating unfairly).

The layer model for regulation of the internet is a current mundane example. (See, for example, Werbach, Whitt.) The OSI stack is a good way to analyze networks, but in and of itself it is not a basis for regulation. The way a given technology is built -- or, more precisely, explained -- at a given moment does not generate the basis for regulation in a straightforward way. It's worth noting that there is no one agreed-upon model; there are many ways to count and name the Internet's layers.

The material force of categories is inescapable and immediate, as Bowker and Star describe at length in Sorting Things Out: classification and its consequences. As they say: "Each standard and category valorizes some point of view and silences another. This is not inherently a bad thing -- indeed it is inescable. But it is an ethical choice, and as such it is dangerous -- not bad, but dangerous"

Sunday, May 09, 2004

The Mason

Juan the Mason was the blacksmith’s son. His hands were strong, and his eye was keen. He was famous for the strong, intricate walls he built.

He was a man of many parts. He had learned how to control fire and iron by helping his father in the forge. He played the accordion in the village band. He loved music; it made the men relax, and the women smile. It was the only way he could touch the girl he was too shy to talk to. But above all, he was a mason.

Juan’s projects became bigger and bigger. He discovered how to combine fire and stone. He worked in molten rock. He built volcanoes, and he moved continents.

He became a God.

In the end he never slept. Juan loved making mountains. No-one could do it better than he. It was his calling and his responsibility. He didn’t play the accordion any more.

Law and software

In his last book, The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox: Mending the Gap Between Science and the Humanities, Stephen Jay Gould argues that science and the humanities are two distinct areas of intellectual authority, or "magisteriums". Science concerns itself with what is, and the humanities with what ought to be. Science describes and predicts, while the humanities prescribe. For example, the social sciences study how people behave in fact, while ethics concerns itself with how they ought to behave. One can never subsume the other; the claim of reductionists that science can eventually include philosophy is misguided, according to Gould. With this given, the most interesting cases will be on the boundary between the two magisteriums, where the techniques of both endeavors might apply.

Jurisprudence traditionally falls under the humanities. Laws prescribe how people should behave, and the justice is the process of ensuring that they do. On the other hand, lawyers have a lot in common with software engineers. Both write code where every word and punctuation counts, and both spend a lot of time worrying about edge cases.

This deep similarity leads software people to be disturbed and outraged when a legal case goes against them. They study legal code and treat it like a program; when it runs in the legal machine, they feel it should give a predictable outcome. In fact, law is rooted in the humanities: the decisions of judges and juries include moral judgments: how ought someone to have behaved, what does justice require to be done. While the process no doubt has a lot of factual content - a judge has to establish the facts, and only then apply the law - applying the law is subjective; it's hard to imagine a machine doing it since this application needs to consider human motives and morals. Even establishing the facts is not a purely mechanical process; it is based on establishing the truth, which is different from demonstrating a mathematical proof, even in scientific terms (see Godel). Deciding which facts are germane to a case is even more complex.

The judicial process is unpredictable; ethical and moral judgments can't be computed, and we have to depend on fickle humans to do the work. Hence the willingness of lawyers, engineers and business people to settle cases before they go to trial; they may end up paying out in spite of when they believing that they're in the right, but at least the outcome is more predictable than going to court.

This uncertainty, even beyond the complexity of the humanities in general, is due the law's location in the borderlands between the scientific rigor of code, and ethical concerns of justice.

Saturday, May 08, 2004


Johan rolled up his trouser leg above the knee, took off his boot and sock, and reached out with the ball of his foot towards the puddle. The sun was setting, and the mosquitos were coming out. He was sitting on a rusty oil barrel that was lying, crumpled, on its side.

He could hear cars and trucks passing down the road on the far side of the clearing.

He gingerly swept aside the leaves lying on the water. He felt the cold water, and hoped there wasn't broken glass down there. As the twilight failed, the passing cars brought sweeps of glare was well as the rush of tires on the asphalt.

Johan let his foot down into the water. It went further than he thought, covering his toes. He felt silty mud, rather than the gravel he was expecting. He lurched forward into a upright position. He raised his other knee, and stood like a heron.

Where have all the scientists gone?

The National Science Board (part of the US National Science Foundation) has observed "a troubling decline in the number of U.S. citizens who are training to become scientists and engineers, whereas the number of jobs requiring science and engineering (S&E) training continues to grow." I have my doubts about this claim, since finding the direct evidence on the Board's site has proven to be difficult. Let's take it at face value for now, though; what really interests me are the international trends that lead to this being a problem.

America has always depended on foreign scientists and engineers, from the days of the railroad (Brits), through the Manhattan project and ICBMs (Germans and Hungarians), to the burgeoning of the software business (South Asians). For the last hundred years, America was the place to come as a scientist. Not only did you find world-class colleagues, but the quality of life was unequalled.

The emergence of India and China as world-class knowledge economies means that natives from those countries can now stay at home and still get the benefits of an intellectual life. And more: they will be able to stay close to their aging parents, and be assured that their children get a relatively sober and culturally sound upbringing, which they may doubt they'll get in the US.

This trend will gain momentum rapidly, since it is a social network effect; Metcalfe's Law applies. The more world-class scientists and engineers remain at home, the more attractive it will be for their peers to do so - in a non-linear way.

Craig Mundie has observed that, everything else being equal, brain power is distributed with population. If stable economic and social development continues in India and China, they will surpass the United States and Europe in the number - and hence aggregate quality - of scientists and engineers. The challenge for the old knowledge economies will be to find a way to make a distinctive contribution that will maintain the differentially high income that they've become accustomed to.

Christopher Ireland believes that they'll become theme parks. America is already the world's entertainer, judging by Hollywood's influence. Providing emotional satisfaction is a difficult and rewarding business - and one where humanists and artists are as important as scientists and engineers. However, entertainment is much more culturally diverse than science. Euro-Disney and US-Disney may become attractive places for a holiday (visiting Italy is apparently Americans' favorite dream holiday), but I wonder if it'll be a sustainable business.

Perhaps I'm wrong about the Okies' (Old Knowledge Economies - OKEs) need to maintain a differentially high income. Incomes in the new economies will rise, but as long as it doesn't follow that it'll fall in the old ones, the Okies will be OK. In this scenario, though, one has to start wondering about sustainable energy use. As environmental analysts have pointed out for decades, it will be difficult for the planet to cope with everybody burning as much fossil fuel per capita as the Americans do.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Between Iraq and a hard place

I don't know which is worse: the idea that the US Army's chain of command knew about the prisoner abuse in Iraq, or that it did not.

If the chain of command knew about the abuse, it at the very least condoned it by not taking action. That significantly tarnishes the reputation of the US military. It's possible that this behavior was encouraged; I would not be surprised if there were explicit or implicit directions to soften up Iraqi prisoners from military intelligence or those mysterious "civilian contractors".

If the Army did not know what its troops were doing, it severely damages its shining reputation as an examplar of military professionalism. Mistreating prisoners is human nature. However, just because something comes naturally doesn't mean that it's ethical. Discipline means anticipating and counter-acting inappropriate impulses, and a military is about nothing if it can't impose discipline.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

This blog is not dead

It's on life support, not least for statistical purposes - it's been almost a month since the last post. I think a lot about the fact that I haven't posted, but I just don't have the will to post something inane; or at least, I haven't had until now.

The experience reminds me of the Vodafone ad: "You don't forget family, you just forget to call."

Not having posted for so long makes me feel stupid: it's proof that I don't have anything to say. I have good excuses. I've been traveling a lot, work has been all-consuming. I don't think I'm any less articulate for not having posted, but I don't feel persuaded. One can see the source of all sorts of insecurities in people who Do, and don't have time to Write. The words demonstrate insight, the act lives only momentarily.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

I ate under a fake orange tree tonight – I thought

The oranges were flimsy plastic balls, and the leaves were plastic, attached to plastic twigs. Still, the grove of twenty potted trees didn’t strike me as fake when I walked in.

I found myself sitting next to one of them. I realized that a living tree (who knows if it had been an orange tree) had died to become the armature of each of the fakes.

They were not so much fakes as collages. They’re illusions - just like fake flowers - we willingly give ourselves over to in return for the pleasure of seeing nature.

The simulacrum seemed even more appropriate given the venue: an indoor garden setting under an expanse of cantilevered plate glass on which the evening rain was puddling.

Sunday, March 28, 2004


Sean Spence’s article on the neurophysiology of psychopathic behavior in the New Scientist (20 March 2004, p. 39) reminded me how confused I get thinking about evil. (For more information, see the symposium he convened on Psychiatry and the Problem of Evil.)

Some Taoist writing suggests that good and evil produce each other, to the extent that one can’t recognize one without the presence of the other; structuralists like Saussure have said much the same thing. Evil is sometimes – always? – in the eye of the beholder; one side in a conflict may see an event as an atrocity, while the other side considers it to be furthering the good. For example, from the second chapter of the Tao te Ching (Waley's 1977 translation):
Difficult and easy complete one another.
Long and short test one another;
High and low determine one another.
Spence refers to Saint Augustine’s distinction between “moral evil”, bad things that people do by choice, and “natural evil”, bad things that befall us without any human agency (like earthquakes and disease). He raises the possibility that biochemical explanations for vicious acts arguably move them from the moral to the natural realm. (However, he ends up arguing that free will is almost always involved even where there are biological determinants, and that the moral imperative remains.)

I find it hard to believe in an absolute evil: a moral evil that exists outside of any human context, and which if removed would only leave good behind. I’m a relativist at heart; if you take away “evil”, the “good” that remains will divide itself again into good and evil.

However, I must at least to some extent be fooling myself with such rationalism. The existence and persistence of systems of morality implies that the reification of evil (and of good, for that matter) is part of the way the human brain works. One can no less see no difference between good and evil than one can perceive the world without distinguishing figure and ground.

Our ability to see (and be) saints like Mother Theresa requires and determines that we also see (and are) monsters like Hitler.

So, does evil exist? Yes; it exists just as much as cold exists. It is a human experience which depends on the context in which it is perceived. Its relativity does not diminish it’s reality, that is, it’s presence and power in our daily experience.

Saturday, March 13, 2004

Working at doing nothing

I used to look down on people who lie on the beach in the sun, doing nothing. I felt superior to people who sat on a plane, staring into space. Oh sure, I said I envied them; but secretly I felt that I was more productive, more driven, a better person. Clever people like me were always busy.

Now, though, I’m beginning to really wish I could be better at doing nothing. In part it’s just greener grass: something I find so hard to do must be worthwhile. But I’m also coming to realize that the act of doing nothing is important; doing nothing achieves things that doing things can’t.

The “doing” of inactivity is being. What I now envy in the contented sunbather is that their body and mind are happily relaxed in each other’s company. Inactivity means being at ease with oneself. “Just being” also means being open. Ideas present themselves; I suddenly experience how I’m feeling, rather than just noticing it; and I’m fleetingly aware of my body working.

Joshua Reynolds said, “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labour of thinking.” For myself, there is no expedient to which I will not resort (including writing a blog entry rather than meditating) to avoid the real labor of doing nothing.

Being able to do nothing requires accepting my own company. I don’t like being with myself; I don’t like me. That’s why distracting activity is so useful. If I’m occupying myself with e-mail, reading, watching a film or listening to music, then I don’t have to attend to me. I don’t have to confront the inadequacy of my thinking, my tawdry pre-occupations, and my moaning about being unable to do anything worthwhile.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

Useful work

Paul Goodman (bibliography, bio) has been quoted as saying
I have learned to have very modest goals for society and myself, things like clean air, green grass, children with bright eyes, not being pushed around, useful work that suits one's abilities, plain tasty food.
I particularly like the simple goal of doing useful work that suits my abilities. I think my current work fits my abilities; my boss rewards me very well for what I’m doing. The harder question is whether my work is useful.

It is useful to my boss and hence my employer, because I get a pay check every two weeks. I don’t know if it’s useful to society at large, though. To the extent that my company pays taxes, and my work helps the bottom line, I contribute to the general good. My company also has a good reputation for contributing to social welfare through various programs, which is a more specific “good”. However, I don’t feel that my own work is improving the life of anyone who truly needs help.

An American for-profit company exists for the benefit of its shareholders; it isn’t a charity. And yet… the shareholders benefit when a company, especially one with a mixed reputation, is seen to be doing good: "Do well by doing good." Perhaps I would see my work as more useful if it were more closely aligned with improving the lot of the poor and the weak.

Of course, that’s a very selfish view: I want to feel good by doing good.

It is probably no accident that Goodman didn’t talk about “enjoyable work” or “satisfying work”. No experience is consistently enjoyable; without discomfort, we wouldn’t recognize joy. There are two ways to deal with this: find a middle way that is neither pleasurable nor painful, or seek elation while accepting that despair is the price that will have to be paid. Which path one follows is a matter of culture and personality; I prefer the former. Finding constant satisfaction in work is also be a will o’ the wisp. I would hope not, but my experience has been that I swing between satisfaction and frustration.

The qualifier “useful” exists outside the worker; it is a consequence of the work they do. “Enjoyable” or “satisfying” refers to the mental state of the worker; it is subjective and selfish. Goodman seems to be suggesting that we look to the social consequences of work, rather than its subjective effects. A noble exhortation; but oh so hard for a frail ego!

Thursday, February 19, 2004


All day, and into the night, and all day today
The blowing fills the bowl of bay and mountains

Haphazard spray scraped off the sea
Pine trees roaring hoarse

Sight bites

There’s an election coming up in South Africa, and the election posters are up. Seeing the slogans with a visitor’s eye was revealing – the agendas are there for all to see, in sub-sound bite size. Let’s call them sight-bites…

Politicians, if they’re any good, are in tune with their electorate, and political slogans thus reveal voters’ concerns. The DA’s slogan “More Work, Less Crime” make it clear that unemployment is still the key issue for many South Africans. This is a party trying to appeal to both worlds; the poor want work, and the rich want to be safe. (The DA is the Democratic Alliance - the erstwhile white liberal opposition that's trying to broaden its appeal.)

That comma between “more work” and “less crime” is working over-time; the multiple meanings are delicious. It could mean “and”; but it could also mean “which would lead to less”.

The slogan “Let your NNP vote count” suggests that many whites feel marginalized – no news there – and the NNP hopes to exploit their insecurity. (The NNP is the New National Party; though one wonders how “new” the party of apartheid is if it can’t even rid itself of a name freighted with so much baggage.) Another NNP slogan, “Let us be your voice,” strikes me as quite plaintive; the sense would be unchanged if one added the rider, “… pretty please?”

I look forward to looking for sub-texts in campaign materials in the upcoming US elections.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

The poet's friend

I always knew my mother was cool. She rose even higher in my regard when it slipped out that she is friends with Ina Rousseau, one of the leading Afrikaans poets of her generation. I remember being taught Rousseau in school, and recently rediscovered her. Here's a poem I read last night, from her debut collection "Die Verlate Tuin":
Die gestorwene

Vader en moeder het hy verlaat
om die aarde aan te kleef;
om deur die maande en jare en eeue
intiem met haar saam te leef:
een met haar vrugbare liggaam,
been van haar been en vlees van haar vlees

A quick translation:
The Departed One

Behind he left father and mother
to cleave unto the earth;
to live intimately with her
through months and years and centuries:
being one with her fertile body,
bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh.

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!