Sunday, October 26, 2003

The Happiness Paradox

My friends know that I've been preoccupied lately with the nature of happiness. This morning, my Powell's Review-A-Day subscription brought me a review of The Happiness Paradox by Ziyad Marar. The meat of the argument:

Underlying the question of whether I am happy are two more fundamental questions: "what do I really want?" and "how ought I to live?". Marar takes the first of these to be about freedom; the second has to do with morality and what Marar regards as the basis of morality, namely "justification" -- ie, approval, trust and love.

The paradox of happiness is that we want both freedom and justification, but the freer we become the less we depend on the approval of others, and the more we want the approval of others the less free we become. This would suggest that freedom and justification are mutually exclusive, and that happiness is elusive precisely because it poses this apparently intractable dilemma. ...[deletia]... the desire for happiness consists in the desire for freedom and for approval and this is why happiness is paradoxical. We can live with this paradox only by having the courage both to face the judgement of the audience and the courage to be independent of its judgement and risk humiliation. But courage does not make us happy: it is merely the motor which keeps us going. Happiness is not a goal, but a process: "It's a retreat from security and an advance towards risk, while being a retreat from risk and an advance towards security -- a perpetual oscillation".

All interesting enough; and superficially similar to stuff that I've been thinking and writing recently.* However, I'll be completely unfair to Marar (by rushing to judgment without reading the book) and say that I find this explanation deeply unsatisfying, for the same reason I find nearly all philosophy unsatisfying: namely, it's extraordinarily arbitrary.

OK, sure, we want freedom, and we want justification, and there's a conflict between these urges, but why should this conflict be the key to the nature of happiness? Why should the central problem be the conflict between those two particular urges, and not, say, the desire for sex versus the desire to avoid death? Why not the desire for pleasure versus the desire for power? Why not the desire to have a slice of cheesecake versus the desire to lose weight? I can pick nearly any two desires and observe that they come into conflict. What makes one desire more fundamental than any other?

If you really want to know about the nature of happiness, neurology is a far better place to look than philosophy. Why is happiness elusive? The answer's terribly simple: happiness is a brain state caused by certain stimuli; our brains are built out of neurons; and neurons are learning devices that learn to become accustomed to any given stimulus. We therefore become acclimated to feelings of approval or independence or anything else. If we hacked our neurons not to become acclimated, we might very well be entirely satisfied with our current level of approval, and independence, and everything else too. (We'd probably also be extraordinarily lazy.)

One might claim that, compared to the plain truths uncovered by neurology, Marar's explanation has more respect for the mysteries and confusions of the human condition; but I think this claim is basically a form of masturbatory, pseudointellectual mystification. Keats was wrong; unweaving the rainbow doesn't destroy its charms, unless you're so small-minded that the only charm you can appreciate is the veil of your own ignorance.

And, as for courage:

Daniel Gilbert, Professor of psychology at Harvard, calls the gap between what we predict and what we ultimately experience the "impact bias" --- "impact" meaning the errors we make in estimating both the intensity and duration of our emotions and "bias" our tendency to err. The phrase characterizes how we experience the dimming excitement over ... any object or event that we presume will make us happy. ... Gilbert has noted that these mistakes of expectation can lead directly to mistakes in choosing what we think will give us pleasure. He calls this "miswanting."

... [deletia] ...

[George Leowenstein] goes on to describe the "empathy gap", the difference between how we behave in "hot" states (those of anxiety, courage, fear, drug craving, sexual excitation and the like) and "cold" states of rational calm. This empathy gap in thought and behavior --- we cannot seem to predict how we will behave in a hot state when we are in a cold state..."These kinds of states have the ability to change us so profoundly that we're more different from ourselves in different states than we are from another person." ... He also adds that a better understanding of the empathy gap --- those hot and cold states we all find ourselves in on frequent occasions --- could save people from making regrettable decisions in moments of courage or craving.

This doesn't mean we ought to ignore every moment of courage or craving, but to me this sort of empirical research says far more about the real nature of courage than most philosophy (and certainly more than the gloss on Marar's philosophy rendered in the review quoted above).

* I think the difference between Marar's thesis and what I wrote earlier is that I think happiness is an instrumental good which motivates you to achieve your various ultimate goals. Marar assumes that happiness is the ultimate good, and furthermore that achieving this state requires an oscillation between two particular instrumental goals (freedom and justification).

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Why we need elective calliagnosia

The Higher Education Chronicle notes that good-looking professors get better evaluations. Article ranges from hilarious...

Mr. Lang has always earned high marks from his students at Assumption College, but he doesn't consider himself a "Baldwin" (for the clueless, that's a term for a hot guy, popularized by the movie Clueless). Apparently, though, some of his students do. More than one of them has made comments about his "buns" on student evaluations.

Now the assistant professor of English says he's self-conscious about his looks and his teaching. "I work very hard at my teaching," he says, "and I am a little disturbed at the possibility that students are evaluating my courses based on such a superficial criterion." He wonders if he's as good a teacher as he thought he was, and he's afraid to turn his back to his classes to write on the chalkboard. surprising...

Some male professors also may be dismayed about another finding of the study: "Good looks generated more of a premium, and bad looks more of a penalty, for male instructors," say Mr. Hamermesh and Ms. Parker in a paper about their findings, "Beauty in the Classroom: Professors' Pulchritude and Putative Pedagogical Productivity." According to their data, the effect of beauty (or lack thereof) on teaching evaluations for men was three times as great as it was for women.

I'll do what the Chronicle does not, and link to the original academic paper: summary at NBER; alternate link.

BTW the title of this post comes from a term used in Ted Chiang's marvelous story "Liking What You See: A Documentary", which appears in his collection Stories of Life, and Others (available in hardcover and paperback).

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

David Foster Wallace on Infinity

I'm sad to report that Quicksilver was a bit of a disappointment (maybe one of these days I'll write up why), but today I found something new to look forward to: David Foster Wallace's latest, Everything and More, a discourse through the history of the concept of mathematical infinity.

DFW's pretty much my favorite author these days. He's not only an excellent writer; he's uncommonly perceptive in thinking about writing: what makes writing work, the relationship between writers and readers, and the place of writing in our larger contemporary culture. Also, as an undergrad majoring in philosophy, he specialized in mathematical logic and semantics; maybe it's because I double majored in English and computer science, but there's something about the way his mind turns around in his writing that really clicks with me.

Of course, reading the new Wallace book is yet another claim on my copious free time. Sigh.

J. B. DeLong weighs in on globalization

A while back, I was quite surprised by leftist George Monbiot's series of articles ([1], [2], [3]; originally from The Guardian) defending the WTO. Now, it looks like Brad DeLong is weighing in on the side of globalization, with a long quote from a Nation article by Doug Henwood:

As the results of the ministerial show, the WTO was never really the institution its critics said it was. From the outset, it wasn't really dominated by big capital in the rich countries. It's a one-country, one-vote system, like the UN's General Assembly. The rich countries, especially the United States, don't like this arrangement. They prefer the Security Council, with its big power vetoes. The United States is especially fond of the structure of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, where votes are weighted roughly by GDP, giving the United States a 17 percent share of the vote and an effective veto. The rich countries finance the various institutions in revealing ways. At the Bank and Fund, both salaries and headcounts are high. The WTO has a small staff that's engaged in industrial action over pay and working conditions. As Columbia University economist Jagdish Bhagwati points out, the WTO's entire budget is smaller than the IMF's travel budget.

What might a weaker WTO mean? There was no sign of disappointment coming from the Bush Administration: US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick was quite optimistic after the talks collapsed. Zoellick hopes to induce a regime of what he calls "competitive liberalization," with countries eager for access to US markets fighting among themselves to please Washington. The US government is happy to negotiate separate deals with individual countries; it's always going to be the stronger party in any bilateral conversation. A weaker WTO will only stimulate the Bush Administration's unilateralist lusts. One of the organizers of the CancĂșn demonstrations told me people in the streets knew that what they were doing would strengthen the United States, but they wanted to damage the WTO regardless.

DeLong himself adds:

At one level, I want to tell Doug that although he is very welcome, he is about four years late to this particular party. Back when he was having his exhilarating time in Seattle, the protesters included:

  1. Hollywood workers who objected because NAFTA did not prohibit the Canadian government from subsidizing Canadian culture.
  2. NGOs that argued that Mexico's urban poor should under no circumstances be allowed to buy cheaper tortillas made from Iowa corn.
  3. U.S. steelworkers who argued that Brazilian steelworkers needed to lose their jobs, now.

With no vision of what a better world would look like, the "anti-globalization" movement was from its birth doomed to become the puppet of whatever particular bunch of special interests catches their fancy--whether it is U.S. steelworkers who want Brazilians and Koreans to lose their jobs, subsidized Korean farmers who want to keep Filipinos and Indonesians poor, Louisianians who are upset by imports of Vietnamese catfish, or whoever.

DeLong's last paragraph overstates the case against the anti-globalization movement; but as of now, I am officially an "off the reservation" liberal w.r.t. globalization and the WTO. Global trade is a good thing. No Brazilian or Vietnamese company is going to beat Intel or AMD at making computer chips anytime in the foreseeable future; they won't even come remotely close. Ergo, the only way for such nations to acquire a competitive information technology infrastructure is global trade. The same holds for countless other kinds of goods and services.

Given that global trade must exist, some international entity must govern it. The alternative is a power vacuum which the most powerful player (viz., the USA) will fill. Given that some governing entity must exist, it may as well be the WTO as anything else --- as Monbiot points out, the IMF and the World Bank are fundamentally less egalitarian by design; and the anti-globalization forces haven't put forth a better alternative, unless you think anarchy is a better alternative. The right goal is to reform the institution, not to tear it apart.

Sunday, October 19, 2003

Notes on Kill Bill

Saw Kill Bill last night with SL and J (coincidentally, it looks like MS did too). The advance buzz has mostly been about the excessively gory, relentless, and conscience-free violence, which I did find annoying and cheap --- in a culture where a murderous robot can be elected governor, it doesn't take much imagination or courage to make a movie that merely depicts even more trivialized violence --- but I thought the real failure was that the action simply wasn't shot that well. Yes, I know this seems like a ridiculous assertion, given Tarantino's obvious visual fluency in general, but bear with me.

Tarantino shares the misapprehension, disappointingly common among American blockbuster directors, that the point of cinematic action is its result: he's quite careful to convey that the table gets knocked over and smashed up, or that so-and-so's body part gets hacked off, or that the blood gets splattered against the walls. But he fails to portray effectively the motion of the human body, which, for me, is what it's all about. Action is a form of dance. Well-executed action has a certain rude grace, and for me it's only satisfying when the film captures that grace visually.

It's instructive to compare the fight scenes in Tarantino's film with those in The Matrix or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Of course, those other movies had quite different aesthetic aims, but all three share the same choreographer; and the Wachowski brothers and Ang Lee were both, in their own ways, vastly better at showing you the action than Tarantino. When Morpheus and the Agent are fighting on top of the 18-wheeler, you never doubt for a moment exactly how the Agent knocks Morpheus over the side. You grasp every instant, every block and punch and reversal, and you can appreciate the impact of each individual motion. Likewise with Jen Wu and Shu Lien's first fight, following the rooftop chase sequence; this fight was additionally masterful because the specific motions of the fight/dance were actually an embodiment of the differences between their characters. Swashbuckling, romantic rebel Jen Wu repeatedly tries to take flight, and is pulled back to earth by Shu Lien, whose misguided attachment to tradition later dooms her own love. Compare these to Kill Bill's climactic showdown between O-Ren Ishii and Black Mamba: the swords clash (you can't tell how they clash; you see steel flashing and you hear the clang, but you don't know what's really going on); Uma Thurman falls; Uma gets up; the swords clash again; Lucy Liu gets scalped; game over. The difference between Ang Lee and Tarantino is like the difference between a comedy with genuinely funny, sharply-written dialogue, and one where the dialogue makes no sense but you know it's supposed to be funny because of the laugh track.

In short, Tarantino's movie depicts not so much action itself as the idea of action. Tarantino makes all the right manneristic cinematic gestures associated with action, and he positively relishes the gory result of action, but ironically he doesn't have much sensibility for the action itself. He's better at showing gushing blood than bodies in motion.

Now, all that said, Kill Bill wasn't exactly a bad movie. The music was great, and the film's packed with visual style. There's a cool anime sequence, in which the action's actually quite effectively conveyed (which is ironic, since there's much less motion in this sequence than in, say, the big swordfight in the club). But in a movie with so little of dialogue or character, the action's all there is; and if that's not spectacular, then the movie can't really be entirely satisfying.

Saturday, October 18, 2003

Song lyric of the day

We communicate more and more
In more defined ways than ever before
But no one has got anything to say
It's all very poor
It's all just a bore

--- Stereolab, "The Seeming and the Meaning".

You'd almost think they're talking about the Internet, except this song dates back to 1992.

Monday, October 13, 2003

Bestest post office on Earth to become train station

Maybe I'm just a sentimental expatriate New Yorker, but: *sob* they're taking away the post office on 33rd and 8th! This was the only public post office I knew in the metro area where you could send packages through USPS really late at night. Also, ever wonder how that line about "neither snow nor rain" came to be associated with the mail?

The building, which stretches across two city blocks, with a grand sweep of granite stairs rising to a Corinthian colonnade, will forever be linked to postal lore because of the engraving that runs above its 280-foot frieze: "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." The quotation, inspired by Herodotus, was selected by the building's architect, William Mitchell Kendall, and over time became the postal service's unofficial motto.

As if Republicans weren't evil enough --- it's their obscene grave-dancing national convention that's providing the wedge to get the post office out.

Sunday, October 12, 2003

Wage discrimination and gender

Alas, a blog's recent series on wage discrimination and gender is quite informative; I hope someday the Alas folk will package this series up as a PDF, like David Neiwert's Rush series. The point that hits closest to home for me, as an apprentice scientist:

What the Nature study did was examine productivity (measured in terms of publications in scientific journals, how many times a person was a "lead author" of an article, and how often the articles were cited in scientific journals) and sex. Publication in peer-reviewed scientific journals is often considered to be the most objective and "concrete" sign of accomplishment in the sciences. These factors were then compared to how an actual scientific review panel measured scientific competence when deciding which applicants would receive research grants. Receiving grants like these are essential to the careers of scientific researchers.

The results? Female scientists needed to be at least twice as accomplished as their male counterparts to be given equal credit. For example, women with over 60 "impact points" - the measure the researchers constructed of scientific productivity - received an average score of 2.25 "competence points" from the peer reviewers. In contrast, men with less than 20 impact points also received 2.25 competence points. In fact, only the most accomplished women were ever considered to be more accomplished than men - and even then, they were only seen as more accomplished than the men with the very fewest accomplishments.

It probably wouldn't surprise the average layperson to learn that computer science is an overwhelmingly male profession. A 9-to-1 male to female ratio is a typical ballpark figure at all levels, from undergrad major enrollment through junior faculty, though it gets worse as you go up the ladder. Furthermore, my own specialization (programming languages and tools) is even more overwhelmingly male. When I go to the top conferences*, there will typically be a mere handful of women in a room of two hundred researchers.

I don't think these population numbers reflect disciplinary sexism. In fact, I think my profession's less sexist, on average, than society as a whole; and certainly the individual women researchers with whom I'm familiar are quite well-regarded. But the sobering studies cited by Alas do reflect disciplinary sexism (in science in general), and should lead us all to question the way we approach women and their work. Sexism in this context won't generally be a conscious act --- it could be a mere statistical differential in the probability that we'll cite particular papers, or chat with particular individuals at conferences, or chat about particular people's work with other people (the latter two are quite important for generating "buzz" around people's work).

This leads to an interesting question: should scientists practice a form of "personal affirmative action" for women researchers, whereby we consciously make an effort to pay extra attention to women and their research?

* Note for any curious scientists in other fields who may be reading this: conferences are a much bigger deal in computer science than in most other sciences. The year-or-more lag time for reviewing journal papers means that cutting-edge research is basically never published in journals. If you want to keep up, you must attend conferences, and publish your best research in them. As a result, the bar for conference publications is also much higher than in other fields: the top conferences in programming languages are well-known for rejecting even quite strong submissions because the competition's so intense.

Once you get a paper at a good conference, you may fill out the paper with all the details and tedious proofs, and attempt to publish the extended version in a journal; but this step's not strictly necessary to build a reputation. A fresh Ph.D. could get a faculty job at a top-ten institution without a single journal paper.

Cult of Shirky holds forth on future of file sharing

The latest NEC-list post discusses the probable future of file-sharing behavior. NEC (Networks, Economics, and Culture) is a low-traffic mailing list authored by Clay Shirky, who's something of a cult guru in new media circles. When I was an undergrad, I worked for a company that did an earlier iteration of his website; he was regarded by others with a curious reverence that nobody in our company could quite understand or justify. Anyway, he's interesting enough, and the list low-traffic enough, that you have no good reason not to subscribe to it.

Saturday, October 11, 2003

On Lost in Translation

Saw LiT last night, with SL and others. If you follow film at all, you've probably heard all about it by now, so I'll just write that, frankly, I don't see the big deal. It's a good movie, sure, but I've seen plenty of better movies in the past twelve months. The film's pacing and narrative drive seemed not only slow (I have no problem with slow movies; see the links in the previous sentence) but lazy. Many reviewers have found ways to excuse this quality, but I find their assessments dubious. Take, for example, Salon's Stephanie Zecharek:

The picture's muted intensity isn't just a vague mood -- it's a subtle but very specific type of narrative drive. Coppola (who also wrote the screenplay) is a stealth dramatist: Instead of unfolding in precise pleats, her movies unfurl like bolts of silk. There are no handy place markers between scenes to help us tick off how many minutes are likely to pass between this or that point of conflict and the denouement. Revelations don't click into position; they swoop down, seemingly from nowhere, and settle in quietly, like a bird coming to roost.

To some people, this is a maddeningly diffuse type of filmmaking, but I'd argue that Coppola's precision is simply the sort that's measured in sine waves, not milliseconds.

That's pretty much all bull, but the last sentence is especially vacuous --- Zecharek's straining for a metaphor whose vagueness underscores the very point she's trying to refute: namely, that the movie's fat and fuzzy around the edges.

A film about messy, vague feelings does not itself need to be messy and vague. Steven Soderbergh would have pared this movie down to its sharp and devastating bone, and given you a boatload more visual pleasure to boot. One might hesitate, at first, to compare Sofia Coppola's second film with the best works of an accomplished master like Soderbergh. But with critics like Zecharek and Roger Ebert (among many others) calling this movie an instant classic, it seems only fair to ask the question: how does it stack up against great movies that received similar, or even lesser praise? And the answer, when considered dispassionately, is that it suffers by the comparison.

It's better simply to say that Lost in Translation's a good movie, of the sort that, absent the present groupthink hype, would normally make a splash on the festival circuit and fade away gracefully. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson are both terrific, as usual. Plus I'm a sucker for picturesque nighttime cityscapes, and the Tokyo presented here fills the screen admirably. The film offers many pleasures, but those pleasures are muted and diffuse, like the film itself.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

In case you doubted the Republican Party's insanity...

...K. Drum will set you straight.

Does rejection hurt? (Literally?)

In Science 302:290-292, N. Eisenberger, M. D. Lieberman, and K. D. Williams have shown that social rejection stimulates the same part of the brain as physical pain (journal abstract; HTML journal article (subscribers only); free 131KB PDF at UCLA):

A neuroimaging study examined the neural correlates of social exclusion and tested the hypothesis that the brain bases of social pain are similar to those of physical pain. Participants were scanned while playing a virtual ball-tossing game in which they were ultimately excluded. Paralleling results from physical pain studies, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) was more active during exclusion than during inclusion and correlated positively with self-reported distress.

Little did the reindeer understand how deeply they were scarring R. (allusion via)

(via today's Science Now; subscribers only)

UPDATE: New Scientist has further coverage.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Video games, ugly buildings, and whores...

...all get respectable if they last long enough (apologies to N. Cross). The Times is paying attention to video game music, although, predictably, they focus on the recent big-budget productions (which, after all, provide the news "hook") and overlook older, smaller gems that made the medium's limitations into virtues. My musician friends would no doubt gag at the following litany, but I'll list a few of the game soundtracks that rang my personal chimes...

First, there's the shockingly diverse music from Star Control 2 (a game which I loved when I was a teenager, and which some cognoscenti class among the greatest games of all time). This bizarre alien-planet bachelor pad music spans and explodes nearly every genre of techno, from ambient to house to breakbeats to weird-ass shit that doesn't even have a name.

Then there was the (much smaller) Privateer soundtrack (alternate links: [1], [2]), whose best pieces were essentially dime-store ambient knockoffs of the soundtrack Vangelis composed for Blade Runner. Call me crazy, stupid, and deaf, but I think there's something genuinely evocative about these minimalist pieces, something that speaks of loneliness and vast distances.

Finally, there's Grim Fandango (unofficial site), which had, among other things, some terrific jazz numbers. Grim Fandango was also a superb game in so many other ways --- the distinctively surreal visual style, the memorable characters, the well-crafted story and dialogue --- that it's one of the few games I've ever played that I'd cite as an example of the storytelling art, on a par with a film or a novel. It's essentially a comic picaresque --- a genre whose "lightness" may lead people to underestimate the work's brilliance --- but it's a superb example of the genre. And, if I recall correctly, at least one other historical medium first discovered its voice in the picaresque.

While I'm at it, I suppose I should also point to OverClocked ReMix, whose existence indicates that at least some electronic musicians were even more taken with computer and video game music than I was.

Anyway, I've basically quit playing video and computer games --- my life's too crowded these days --- and, objectively speaking, I have to admit that if I'd spent those hours of my youth doing something more productive, my life would have been qualitatively better. But, really, that's hardly less true of most people's childhoods. As a kid, you spend too much time watching teevee, or reading junky genre fiction, or playing video games, or (these days) on instant messenger or blogs. The best you can hope for is that you find some accidental beauty along the way.

Monday, October 06, 2003

Speaking of happiness, here's some music

Got my brick of CDs from today. So far I've listened, with great pleasure, to:

  • Stereolab's Peng!: truly brilliant. For context, so you know where I stand on the Stereolab canon: IMO Sound-Dust good, Dots and Loops not-so-good, contrary to the opinions of most critics.
  • Spiritualized's Let It Come Down, also insanely beautiful. Nobody mixes krautrock, gospel, noise-rock, orchestral strings, and epic crises of faith like Spiritualized frontman J. Spaceman; from I Didn't Mean to Hurt You:

    I love you like I love the sunrise in the morning
    I miss you like I miss the water when I'm burning.

    When he sings it, it doesn't sound corny; it sounds glorious. It even gets to me in spite of the fact that I'm usually rather hostile to religion, which is one of J. Spaceman's major themes.

Shiny happy transhumans holding hands

In my previous posts on happiness, I said that people only value happiness if it's achieved in a fashion consistent with their ultimate values. To tie this back thematically to transhumanism --- this is yet another reason that some people will choose not to undergo radical alterations, regardless of how happy or powerful the transformed beings become.

Some people value their humanity, however "irrational" that attachment, and any future transhuman society must respect the choice of some people to remain "merely" human, or "merely" anything else. I'm pretty open to radical alterations --- I once told my friends that I thought it would be cool to have my consciousness uploaded into a star for a couple of billion years (yes, that's right, a star, as in a gargantuan flaming ball of plasma; assuming, of course, that you could build a computational substrate capable of supporting consciousness in such a medium) --- but even I have limits. I do not want to be forced to exceed those limits, either by direct coercion or by competition for the resources I need to survive. (Incidentally, the last of these requirements implies that an ethical transhuman society must, to some extent, provide a welfare state for ordinary humans; as I've noted previously, it seems probable that transhumans will outcompete humans in every field of endeavor, making direct economic competition ruinous for humans.)

Foolproof, reversible no-baby treatment for men

Finally. (Alternate link at ABC Australia; also look for this result in a forthcoming JCEM, though the relevant issue doesn't appear to be online yet.)

Well, it'll be some years before this treatment becomes "productized", but it's still heartening. By the time it's been through the development process, I also expect they'll have the implant and shot on synchronized schedules, so you'll only have to go to the doctor 4 times a year instead of 7.

Obviously, it doesn't do anything for STDs, requires advance planning, and likely has a relatively large up-front cost compared to more casual methods like condoms. Therefore (warning: layperson's wild-ass speculation coming up), it probably won't much reduce the societal incidence of unwanted pregnancy --- most people would only use this as the primary contraceptive in the context of a long-term relationship, in which case they'd generally already be using something else if this weren't available. But, it will make couples' lives easier, reduce the pressure on women to be "the responsible one", and give men a near-foolproof veto on unwanted paternity, all of which are good things.

Also, female chemical contraceptives have always had unpleasant side effects for a significant minority of women, probably because a woman's hormonal cycle and reproductive apparatus are simply more complex than a man's. Extended studies will probably uncover side effects for some men, but I'm willing to bet it will be a smaller fraction, with less serious side effects on average, than for women on the Pill or Norplant.

My main question: why did it take so damn long? The treatment doesn't sound too terribly complex. Why did biologists figure out the Pill decades ago? Is the delay a product of social forces or scientific limitations?

UPDATE: New Scientist has further coverage, including the following:

But Anna Glasier, at Edinburgh University's Centre for Reproductive Biology, says it remains to be seen how acceptable couples find such treatment. She and her colleagues carried out an international survey of men and women's attitudes to male contraception.

"We found that the majority of men would prefer a pill [rather than injection or implant], but testosterone cannot currently be made in this form. So, I am not sure how successful the Australian treatment would be," she told New Scientist.

Odd. I can see the appeal of not having to go to the doctor, but the sheer convenience of only dealing with contraception four times a year seems really attractive to me.

Sunday, October 05, 2003

Anything Else

Saw Anything Else last night with SL, AM, and TM. I've seen most of the features Woody Allen's made in the past eight years (except: [1], [2], [3]), and this is the best --- which perhaps isn't saying much, so let me give it higher praise: it's genuinely funny, and although it's vastly inferior to his two late-70's masterpieces, it echoes them with a certain satisfying symmetry.

Unfortunately, the movie wasn't marketed properly, and hence has been a disaster at the box office. It didn't help that many of the reviews have been mysteriously vicious, which I will attribute to some kind of hype-driven critical groupthink: these days it's just not cool to have any opinion about Allen movies, besides "Oh, yeah, well, he's really lost his touch, hasn't he? Oh, and there's his embarrassing personal life."

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Dorktober report

Spent the evening attending the fall's first Dorkbot Seattle meeting, at CoCA. Tonight's program, from the dorkbotsea-announce list:

This month, Seattle artist and weaver LAURA MACCARY and her father and collaborator, Spokane-based sculptor, poet and electronics expert LAWRENCE MACCARY will be talking about the hows and whys of their "Dialectric" series of interactive artworks, which all consist of an electronic component woven of conductive or resistive material and a circuit designed around the weaving ( ); TOBY PADDOCK will explore "Magnetic sensors for the unwashed and lazy:  using Hall Effect devices without learning very much".  inside a magnetic sensor is a lot of science, but outside they're small, cheap, rugged, have few wires and are easy to get along with (  Local experimental music duo PINKY & REX will discuss their re-contextualizing of thrift-store toys, toy instruments and electronic oddities to create symphonic walls of sound.

IMO Laura MacCary's weaving-based sculptures were very cool. Pinky and Rex's musical performance was intermittently interesting, though it dragged at times (inevitable, perhaps, with improv techno performed on toy electronic guitars). The rest of the program, so-so. Anyway, dorkbot's weird and unique enough that I think I'll be going to future meetings.