Sunday, November 30, 2003

Deconstructing Wilco

The song "Heavy Metal Drummer" on Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has the following lyric, which, if you're moderately familiar with deconstruction, will just about make your head explode:

I miss the innocence I've known
playing Kiss covers
beautiful and stoned

The speaker's putative pre-fallen "innocence" reveals itself in the very same line as something that is "known". Just as the fruit of knowledge of good and evil (which led to the archetypal ex-Edenic Fall) itself grew in the Garden of Eden, the innocence of the speaker itself harbors the decidedly fallen (influence-polluted or "knowing") act of "playing Kiss covers". The artist's original voice of innocence is always already fallen, in the fully Derridean sense.

But the really striking thing about this passage is that the speaker's conception of innocence strikes us as completely banal. A century and a half ago, Wordsworth and the Romantics sought out their original voices in pristine nature, seeking a sublimity that transcended the merely human. In their own, arguably more complicated way, so did Emerson and the Transcendentalists. Of course, however majestic its artistic achievements, the project was doomed --- when we seek out transcendence, we are chasing an inevitably human idea (deconstruction does get that much right). As Wilde famously remarked, Wordsworth "found in stones the sermons he had already hidden there". But nevertheless the binary opposition between nature and artifice persisted as a powerful feature of consensus reality well into the twentieth century.

Denying (or deconstructing) that opposition once had a certain noteworthy frisson. Indeed, the pulsating ebb and flow of a character's illusory escape from (and reintroduction into) social constructions of identity is the engine that powers much great High Modernist fiction, from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to Invisible Man.

No more. [*] The contemporary construction of innocence no longer even bothers to wear the fig leaf of freedom from a priori influence. Innocence is knowingness, so much so that we don't even find it remarkable when people conceive of youthful innocence in terms of playing Kiss covers.

(Unless, that is, you're a former English major who occasionally falls off the wagon of literary theory abstinence and compulsively overanalyzes some random pop cultural artifact.)

In any case, Wilco's album kicks ass. And no, I am not stoned (or beautiful).

[*] This is a placeholder to indicate the spot where, if I were a real journalist, I'd probably insert a formulaic Matrix reference to give my article more editor-pleasing topicality.

As a member of the middle class...

Paul Ford on class and money:

As a member of the middle class I buy things. But the rich do things with their money. I've watched wealthy men and women turn a million dollars into respect, a partnership, a new business. They convert their funds into opportunities and relationships, translate cash into power, amplify their ideas into businesses, summer cottages, and tax shelters.


I've tried to learn the language of money, to fake the speech of the financiers, but I've had to accept that money is simply not a medium in which I can work. I am not a native speaker, and my middle-class accent betrays my ignorance.

(Via Everything Burns.)

UPDATE: Ah, what the hell, read this too.

Saturday, November 29, 2003

Ah, misspent youth...

Via MeFi comes an incredible 11-minute complete playthrough of Super Mario Bros. 3 (18MB Windows Media file).

I was wondering why watching this movie's so satisfying. I've reached the conclusion that it's rather like knocking back your first double espresso after a lifetime of sipping Coca-Cola.

Here's an interesting question: why is playing a Super Mario Bros. 3 so much more fun than, say, balancing your checkbook in a spreadsheet, which also involves manipulating little electronic symbols on a screen with a sequence of button presses? It's because SMB3, like all great games (video or otherwise), delivers a constant stream of little sensory rewards to the user for completing certain actions --- the jingle that plays when you earn a 1UP, for example, or the "plick!" sound (accompanied by the visual kick of seeing Mario double-jump) when you step on a Koopa, or the resounding "ding-ding-ding-ding" of grabbing a line of coins. The simple aesthetic pleasure that you experience when you receive these rewards make the game rather like a drug: each little victory is like a "hit" of the drug that keeps you playing in order to score another one. Which is why the ultimate compliment one can bestow on a great game is to call it "addictive".

When you string together a bunch of these victories --- making Mario leap through a sea of coins, bounce off a string of enemies, and then fly into the sky on his raccoon tail --- the "hit" becomes a sustained high, the dime-store cousin of watching a virtuoso performance in music or professional sports. Watching someone play through an entire game flawlessly is like mainlining a clean pure gram of the drug that you've only tasted previously in watered-down and adulterated form. (The experience is only slightly diminished in this case by the fact that this movie was produced by playing back a recorded series of button-presses on a SNES emulator.)

As I've said before, I've basically quit playing video and computer games; but this movie brought back fond memories.

UPDATE: As I was writing the above, I had a dim memory percolating around my brain about something I'd read that discussed reward structures in games, but I couldn't in it down. I've finally tracked down the reference: see Daniel Cook's thoughts on "reward schedules" and John Hopson's article on evolutionary game design.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Vollman completes mammoth meditation on violence

W. T. Vollman's Rising Up and Rising Down is finally available for ordering from McSweeney's. An excerpt was published in McSweeney's No. 9, and it was totally compelling reading: a record of Vollman's visits to the Paris catacombs and a Chicago autopsy room, and his correspondence with a friend in Sarajevo. For me, the prose in that piece has the rare and magical quality of being simultaneously discursive and magnetic; it tugs me along even as it spirals and loops unpredictably around its unbearable subject like a plot of the Lorenz attractor.

Rising Up and Rising Down stands a long way from the snarky po-mo pop-culture in-jokes on McSweeney's Internet Tendency. Vollman's book is a serious piece of work; and given its seven volumes (weighing 20 lbs. in total), and its undoubtedly miniscule audience, it's a nearly heroic effort on the part of the McSwys crew to publish it.

I'll definitely be ordering a set, however thinly it stretches my shabby grad student finances. That is, if the limited print run hasn't sold through by tomorrow.

Academics, children, gender

Two posts at Crooked Timber worth reading: on the childlessness of women vs. men academics; on the increasing duration of the professorial track in recent decades.

Off-the-cuff reaction #1: If you're a woman academic who wants to have children and get on the tenure track at a competitive research university, you should look for a man who's likely to stay home and take care of the kids. With all that entails. Unfortunately, most women's libidos are wired by culture to respond most strongly to men who are at least somewhat aggressive, ambitious, and dominating. Alas, these traits do not correlate strongly with the tendency to become a stay-at-home husband.

(Off-the-cuff reaction #1.5: Perhaps women who find their libidos wired in this tragic fashion could resolve this conundrum the way that men have traditionally resolved the converse conundrum. Let the sensitive house-husband raise the kids; cheat on him periodically with aggressive, dominating men. In case the "converse conundrum" for men is not obvious: most men are wired, by culture, to respond to perky taut-bodied young women who hang on their every word, which does not usually describe a wife after she's had a few children. The traditional male solution has been to cheat on the wife with a younger woman. I leave it to the reader to puzzle out whether I am seriously suggesting that women academics cheat on their model-father husbands, or whether I am suggesting that women academics should reconcile their libidos with their circumstances. I am not sure which of these suggestions is more offensive, but they seem like the obvious alternatives. Of course, the statistics tell us that most women academics are not having children, and hence probably not married to homemaker Dads, so this hypothetical situation isn't exactly representative of reality anyway.)

Off-the-cuff reaction #2: The inescapable conclusion of the second CT post is that, because of the asymmetry in male vs. female fertility, the current academic system is structurally biased towards men. The 22-34 window, during which you have to get your Ph.D. and then immediately work your ass off to get tenure, overlaps with most of a woman's prime childbearing years. This sounds utterly obvious but it has never before hit me with the same force.

We should move to a system in which junior faculty can take parental leave for a few years, sometime before the tenure review. Or, we should remove the stigma attached to getting your Ph.D. in your 30's instead of your 20's; and make it easier for grad students to take a few years off from the program after quals. Or all of the above. These reforms would have major benefits for men as well: not everyone fits into the classic 12-year career path anyway.

UPDATE: Inky points to a Nature article about a European Commission conference whose subject is promoting women in science.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Puget Sound Orcas in decline

Some activists are suing to get them placed on the endangered species list; the activists' science sounds dodgy ("The [activist] groups ... say the Puget Sound orcas are genetically distinct from other killer whales and therefore should be on the list.") but it would nevertheless be sad if our local pods were to disappear:

The Puget Sound whales include three pods of orcas and about 84 individual whales. That is down from more than 120 in the 1960's, before they were captured in large numbers for display at marine parks.

Monday, November 17, 2003

Hot or not, watch out

Here comes Rate My Kitten. It sounds so dirty, and yet it's so very very clean and wholesome! I can't stand it! I think my head is going to implode!

Sunday, November 16, 2003

Intolerable Cruelty

Saw Intolerable Cruelty last night with SL. I can't figure out why the reviews have been so mixed; I think it's the Coens' second funniest movie (after, of course, the insuperable Big Lebowski), and probably the funniest movie I've seen, period, since Adaptation.

The Coens have toned down their distinctive style quite a bit, and yet this movie's getting mediocre reviews from the same critics who used to complain about their allegedly stupid stylistic tics. How conventionally does a movie have to be shot before it makes these people happy?

And I don't understand --- indeed, I have never understood --- the chorus of perennial complaints that the Coens indulge in too much reflexive irony, i.e. they ask us to laugh at their characters, rather than with them. Maybe it's a generational thing? To me (and, I suspect, virtually everyone who's roughly my age --- I've literally never spoken to anyone in their 20's who doesn't like Lebowski), there's no bright shining line between irony and sincerity; the two bleed into each other like yin and yang. So what if you're giggling throughout Miles Massey's Faustian confrontation with his boss Herb Myerson? So what if you guffaw when Walter flubs the disposal of Donny's ashes? Does the laughter really subtract from the pathos, or does it sharpen it?

Plus, comparisons to old classics like The Lady Eve and Trouble in Paradise remind me of those Baby Boomers who are perpetually going on about how Bob Dylan's the greatest bard of the century and all the rock music today just can't ever measure up. Hey, guys and gals, maybe there's actually something a little different going on here? Granted, not completely different, but at least something worth judging on its own terms?

And, finally: George Clooney is awesome. Can any other living actor so effectively combine leading-man charisma with dead-on comic timing and an unwavering willingness to be vulnerable or silly or just plain dumb? If he were a little less incredible, straight men the world over would have to hate him for being so perfect. As it is, I can only admire him for being even better than perfect.

Saturday, November 15, 2003

Best of this month's Crypto-Gram

It's the 15th again, and that means you know what that means, kiddies: a new Crypto-Gram. My favorite links:

  • How to find hidden cameras (258K PDF). If you venture anywhere in public, or even private spaces that are owned by businesses,, you're probably in the sights of one of these cameras. The paper's got lots of fascinating details on camera design, common hiding places, and even countermeasures (most of which, alas, are beyond the budget and expertise of the casual citizen). Stuff like this makes me seriously want to buy a portable EMP device, walk into a Wal-Mart carrying it in my backpack, pulse the place, and walk out.
  • ID numbers: it turns out that your driver's license number may contain a bunch of encoded information about you. They don't just assign them consecutively or randomly. Also some information on credit card numbers, social security numbers, etc.
  • GrokLaw on security of Microsoft vs. Linux.

Teflon Considered Teratogenic?

Time to buy a cast-iron skillet, maybe? Caveats:

  • The EPA is still reviewing the subject and has not issued any warnings about Teflon products.
  • It's not clear that the reported birth defects are statistically significant.
  • The 20/20 transcript is maddeningly vague on the exact levels of C-8 found in the blood of humans who use Teflon. Is it one tenth of carcinogenic levels? One millionth? Nor are they very clear on the differences in exposure between DuPont factory workers and ordinary people who cook with Teflon pans or wear Gore-Tex.

On the other hand, the "Teflon flu" is definitely real, by DuPont's own admission. Don't leave your Teflon pans on the range too long. (Once again, the 20/20 transcript is infuratingly vague on this subject: exactly how long, on a typical home range, do you have to heat a pan before it reaches the 554-degree point where particulates come off the Teflon?)

I'll be keeping my eyes open for the EPA's report. Most of my cookware is Teflon-coated.

Thursday, November 13, 2003

"Think I'm in love/Probably just hungry"

L. Helmuth reports for ScienceNOW on two fascinating presentations from the November 11 meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. ScienceNOW requires a non-free subscription but some excerpts follow.

First up: A recent study by H. Fisher (of Rutgers), A. Aron, D. Mashek, G. Strong, and L. L. Brown provides some insights into the neurochemistry of love; from Helmuth's article (emphases mine):

College students participating in the study of romance had been with their One True Love for between 2 to 17 months and they displayed all the classic, feverish, delusional symptoms: obsessive thinking about their partners, sleeplessness, euphoria when things are going well. ...

These lovebirds --- seven men and 10 women --- then went into a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner ... Regions of the brain involved in the motivation and reward system lit up in response to the loved one, including parts of the caudate nucleus and the ventral tegmental area. ...

These results differ from those of a previous study ... which imaged the brains of people who'd been in relationships for more than 2 years, on average, and found lots of activity in emotional areas such as the insula and anterior cingulate. Fisher's team reexamined their data and found that the subjects in relatively longer-term relationships also activated these emotion centers when viewing their loved ones.

So --- watch my cynicism to swing into action --- the first flush of infatuation, with butterflies in your stomach and palpitations in your heart, has much more in common with basic physical urges like hunger or arousal than with genuine emotions. Spiritualized had it right all along. For infatuation to become an emotion, rather than merely an urge, you have to wait for at least a few months. Maybe a year or more (hard to tell from the articles and the abstract; this work has not yet been published as a complete, peer-reviewed paper).

Furthermore --- putting on my mad scientist hat --- maybe this research points to a solution to the problem of diminishing passion in long-term relationships: we just need a pill that stimulates the caudate nucleus and the ventral tegmental area. Whatever the hell those are. I suggest we call it Caudela---

Not enough spice in your marriage? Spouse doesn't send shivers down your spine anymore? Does your heart not burn with longing every moment that you are apart? Do you no longer feel that pulsating stream of joy every day that you go to bed and wake up next to each other?

Ask your doctor about Caudela™

DISCLAIMERS: Use only as directed. Caudela™ may not be suitable for all patients. Side effects may include insomnia, shortness of breath, cardiac arrhythmia, loss of balance, mood swings, stupidity, and selective blindness. Desperate singles and ovulating women should exercise extreme care when using Caudela™. Severe withdrawal symptoms have been observed from discontinued use. Some patients require psychological counseling when beginning or ending treatment. Older subjects, on the other hand, may experience sensations of relief when Caudela™ treatment ends and they can settle down to their saner, duller lives.

In other news, Helmuth reports on a study on orgasm in the fairer sex:

A brain-imaging study shows that, during orgasm, women's brains have about the same pattern of activity as men's. ... Compared to clitoral stimulation alone, orgasm caused greater activation in several parts of the brain, including the same reward region tickled by romantic love, the ventral tegmental area. The main difference between the sexes was a deep brain area called the periaqueductal gray. It's also the sine qua non of the female sexual response in cats, rats, and hamsters; if it's damaged, the animals don't assume a mating position. Other than that, the brain activity "is very much the same as during ejaculation in males," says Holstege.

Most men have, at one time or another, suspected that orgasm might somehow be better for women. Now we know that, well, it's basically the same. I don't know whether to be relieved or disappointed.

Anyway, this stuff is all cool. Sometimes I wish I'd been a neurologist. Alas, that I have but one life to give.

Alternate links for the Fisher et al. study on the neurology of infatuation:

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

"Content" may go a progress through the guts of a worm...

...but otherwise it is none-too-kinglike. A couple of years ago it was fashionable in "new media" circles to proclaim that "Content is King" --- i.e., that the Internet would be dominated by big media companies that owned the music, movies, and other stuff that people wanted to download.

More recently, people like Jack Valenti are going up in front of Congress and making noise about how piracy is stifling the growth of broadband. The argument goes like this: broadband can only grow if there's demand; only Big Media (music, movies) can produce that demand; Big Media won't provide Content unless they can be sure it won't be pirated. Valenti and his cohort would therefore have us all hand control of our computers and networks over to Big Media. Or, in other words: "Kill the Internet to save broadband!"

The lynchpin of this whole argument is, again, that Content is King.

Well, let AT&T Labs researcher A. Odlyzko disabuse you of these notions. Interpersonal communication, not broadcast, has always been the primary bandwidth consumer of communication networks, even before the Internet. When given networks that are capable of point-to-point communication, people want to communicate with other people, far more than they want to passively consume content. AT&T's old ad campaign had it right: what people really want is to "reach out and touch someone."

Monday, November 03, 2003

Misery is happiness. Ignorance is bliss.

Spent last week at a research conference in smoky LA with my research group. One night, after SL and I had a few drinks at the hotel bar, we ended up talking once again about the nature of happiness. He was claiming that we make all our choices because we believe those choices will make us happy; i.e., that happiness is the ultimate value. Therefore, when we make sacrifices that make us unhappy in one way, we're really doing it because it makes us happier in some other way. Sounds reasonable enough, but my friends who read this blog already know that I disagree completely.

We arrived at this subject while talking about ambition and why we're bothering to finish our Ph.D.'s. Suppose you're an ambitious person who believes that a person's career reflects strongly on his or her value as a human being. You've got a "successful" job, which brings you prestige and intellectual satisfaction; but that job takes a lot of your time, and getting that job entailed sacrifices --- like going to grad school for six years instead of getting a job in industry, making lots of money, and finding a serious girlfriend. Suppose you also know that you might get more pleasure out of life with a much less demanding career: you could take longer vacations; you could spend a lot more time with your future kids; etc. In this scenario, SL would say that, if you choose a more prestigious career over a more hedonic life, you're making that decision because it makes you more truly happy.

That's fine, as far as it goes, and in particular cases it might be true. But SL made the further (and in my opinion erroneous) claim that this example demonstrates a larger principle: Everything we do, we do for happiness. So, for example, if our principles lead us to make great sacrifices that ultimately make us miserable, we're still taking those actions because on some deeper level, it's really making us happy.

I think this claim imples a rather odd definition of happiness. I define happiness as a sensation of joy and contentment --- a definition that clearly distinguishes happiness from non-happiness, and also matches most people's casual intuition. SL's definition has neither of these virtues: it's both tautological (happiness is whatever you choose, because you choose that which (you hope) makes you happy) and counterintuitive. For example, if some dim and dusty corner of your conscience knows that you're doing "the right thing" with your life, but you're nevertheless miserable in your day-to-day experience --- if you're so emotionally tormented that you wake each morning with a palpable lancing pain shooting through your heart, and that pain doesn't go away until you fall asleep at night --- then I would not say that you are "happy" by any usual definition of the word. Yet people knowingly make choices that lead them into this position.

So, to convince SL that he was wrong, I presented him with a dilemma, in the spirit of my three thought experiments: Suppose I could offer you foolproof brain surgery that would make you perfectly content to sit in a corner drooling for the rest of your life. Would you accept this surgery?

"No," he said, "but only because you could never convince me that it would work. What if you make a mistake?"

I said: "Okay, a million people have received this surgery, and every single one of them has reported absolute bliss. Once a month they wake up from their drooling stupor and say, 'Man, I feel so fucking happy! Having the surgery was the greatest decision I ever made.' And then they start drooling again."

He smiled and thought for a moment, then said: "Well, then I'd say yes."

"Most people would not make that choice," I said. "And anyway, you're lying. I don't believe you'd make that choice, if I really offered it to you."

Ultimately, he agreed that he wouldn't accept if I really made the offer. He claimed this didn't contradict his framework, because accepting would make him extremely unhappy in the present. Hence, even though the unhappiness would be short-lived, the intensity of that unhappiness would be so great that it would outweigh the lifetime of happiness that awaited him.

At this point we finally reached our hotel room, so the conversation ended. (We were walking from the elevator --- and if you think this is a long conversation to have whilst walking from the elevator to the hotel room, you haven't been to the Anaheim Hilton.) However, if we'd had more time, I would have said that I wasn't satisfied by his answer. I think his explanation --- that present unhappiness counterbalances future happiness --- does not suffice to explain his rejection. Suppose I could arbitrarily increase both your longevity and the intensity of your happiness --- suppose it would be a continuous, eternal orgasm of bliss. There's only so much unhappiness that the human form is capable of experiencing in a finite time period. If you're really being honest with yourself, there's no way your momentary unhappiness prior to the operation would exceed a million-year orgasm.

So, the notion that happiness is the ultimate value requires convoluted reasoning, and it leads to some suspicious conclusions. Isn't it simpler and more elegant to say that happiness is one among many values, and that we choose among those values based on the form of our characters?

In my opinion, the happiness-maximization doctrine reeks of the fallacy of the Rational Human Being (a close cousin of Economic Man): by making happiness the ultimate value, we can pretend that all our actions stem from rational maximization of the Happiness Utility Function. This gives us the comforting illusion that we're sensible people in control of our destinies.

I don't believe we're rational actors at all. In fact, I don't believe we're even really decision-making entities in the form that people usually assume. I think that our brains long ago evolved to provide so much surplus capacity that mind viruses have hijacked the extra space, in much the same way that a rainforest provides so much surplus biomass and energy that it's home to billions of competing species besides the trees themselves. These mind viruses take many names --- aesthetics, religiosity, curiosity, etc. --- and when you make a decision, it's usually only because one of these viruses has momentarily prevailed over the others.

Your brain is not an organism; it's an ecosystem. Does a rainforest rationally act to optimize its proportion of red ants versus black ants? No; it's just a battlefield where sometimes the red ants win, and sometimes the black ants win. Searching for a motivation behind the victories is meaningless. Ask, instead, for the reason.

Your character has a shape. Your life is the trajectory that this shape carves through the ether of the world, just as a leaf and a rock will carve different trajectories through the air depending on their shapes. Conscience or ambition or any number of things may lead your path away from happiness. Is this a tragedy? Not necessarily. It depends on what you value.

Monoculturalism replacing racism?

Interesting comment from one of M. Yglesias's comments threads:

I'm from the South, and I don't agree that racism is the only thing behind the rise of the GOP and the decline of the Democrats. Racism is on the decline in the South, I believe. What is replacing racism is something that I'd called "monoculturalism" (an invented antonym of "multiculturalism"). Souherners (like people everywhere) want there to be cultural constants that they can assume everyone shares: constants such as belief in God, two parents (one of each sex), love of football, pride in Southern heritage, love of barbeque, etc. Southerners are uncomfortable around people who are too different---such as Muslims, Hindus, homosexuals or vegetarians. Racial diversity is not very important anymore, as long as people of different races can learn to act the same and support the same football teams.

Question: Is this actually an improvement?