Archive for October, 2008

I and thou

Saturday, October 11th, 2008

I was having a conversation with my friend Andy today about the nature of consciousness, and how it relates to mortality. Andy observed that it is impossible for a conscious being to know what it would feel like to no longer exist (depending on your metaphysics, you might think of this as the merging of your self with some universal consciousness. In any case, the invidivual consciousness instinctually thinks of itself as existing only up to the moment of death).

I told Andy that I thought this inability was actually a necessary feature of consciousness – because it is the thing that makes consciousness useful as a tool for survival. Our conscious mind, with its focus on identity and selfhood, is the rallying point for all of these vast cognitive facilities at our brain’s disposal – the General who can rally the troops to work together for survival, when the need arises.

After our conversation I thought about these ideas some more, and was struck by how much our thinking, as humans, is so suffused with an emphasis on consciousness and identity. It would be quite hard for us to think in any other way. For example, when I say to someone: “I love you”, on one level I am just saying “this human loves that human” – the same statement I would make if I were talking about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

But I’m not just saying that, am I? I’m also saying that I have linked this other person (“you”) together with all of the strategies that my conscious mind will use, going forward in time, to ensure my own survival as an individual. It’s not just a statement of fact – it’s a promise of agency in the future.

And so we arrive at the supreme irony of human existence: Our very ability to express love for one another is based on a shared understanding of each individual’s own powerful instinct to survive and to forestall their own death.

Stealing beauty

Friday, October 10th, 2008

There are things in this world that are stupid, other things that are absurd, and then there are things that are so head-spinningly inane that you just gaze in awe, and even a kind of grudging respect, as your befogged brain realizes that it is witnessing a form of high art – sheer perversity raised to such a pitch of exquisite ridiculousness that the universe itself must be shaking in a deep rumbling jelly roll of laughter.

Yesterday I read an article in The New York Times about what was described as:

the “beautification engine” of a new computer program that uses a mathematical formula to alter the original form into a theoretically more attractive version, while maintaining what programmers call an “unmistakable similarity” to the original.

I hasten to say, at this point, that comparing a particular face to a statistical norm to study individuality versus “beauty” is very old news. Susan Brennan, who long ago moved on to research into psychology and spoken language, did exactly this comparison in her ground-breaking 1982 Masters thesis.

I had already known about the particular work in the Times article, since it was presented as a research paper at the ACM/SIGGRAPH conference this last summer. But I had sort of ignored it. Of course it’s based on a set of cultural assumptions that should turn your stomach (and if not, then what on earth are you doing reading this blog??). But in a kind of reverse ju jitsu of politically correct open-mindedness, I had convinced myself that if people really want to spend their time figuring out how to turn images of people into pretty mannequins, who was I to argue? At least none of that research money is going to build weapons that kill people.

But then I saw, in the Times article, the following before and after image, in which the “beautification” algorithm was applied to the face of the young Brigitte Bardot:

And that’s when the utter nuttiness of this quest struck home. Who in their right minds would turn one of the most beautiful and alluring sights in the history of humankind – the face of the young Brigitte Bardot – into what can only be described as a bad impression of Barbara Eden as reconstructed by Martians?

As I said earlier, I am impressed with the sheer perversity of this goal. It’s like that episode of the old Superman TV show in which an eccentric-genius scientist invents a machine that can create a pound of pure gold. The only catch is that to do this, the machine requires a pound of pure platinum. The hapless crooks who steal his invention almost go broke before George Reeves puts on his Superman costume and shuts them down.

I am as open-minded as the next fellow. Readers of this blog will recall that – in a fit of graciousness and extreme generosity – I recently entertained the hypothesis that Sarah Palin is not actually the head-thumpingly blithering and drooling idiot that she publicly and embarrassingly projects every time a microphone is shoved in her face. And I got a lot of flack for that generosity by my readers, let me tell you!

But enough of Sarah Palin – we were discussing serious things. What I think when I look at the above “before” and “after” images is that they are reversed. The scary Barbara Eden mannequin on the right forms a kind of aesthetic void – an absence of anything vulnerable, interesting, intelligent, sexy or lovable. It is the visual refutation of your very individuality as a human, as though George Orwell’s Big Brother had finally managed to worm his way into your soul, rip it out once and for all, and replace it with slogans like “Love is Hate”, “War is Peace”, “Freedom is Slavery”, and “Ignorance is Strength”. Oh wait, I’m sorry – that’s the 2008 Republican presidential campaign platform. My mistake.

What is the interesting lesson we can take from this bizarre exercise in aesthetic erasure? What non-trivial research question we can ask? I think it is this: What happens when we reverse the two images? Given the disturbingly bland image on the right, could we somehow transform its obscene nothingness, breathe life into it, and produce an image of the young Brigitte Bardot? What are the magical elements within Mlle Bardot’s enchanted countenance – elements missing from any mere cookie-cutter fashion model – that make us fall in love with her? What, exactly, are the quirks, the inimitable flaws and imperfections, that convey her true beauty? That convey anyone’s true beauty?

That’s what I want to know. And that, I think, would be worth studying.

My giant

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

I visited my parents yesterday, and I found myself looking at the closet in the bedroom that used to be mine when I was a little kid. Not really thinking, I opened the closet door and stared down at the floor. There’s nothing there now but some old boxes and the odd plastic hanger. But I found myself remembering that when I was eight years old, that closet floor was a place of magic.

Here’s how I remember it: One Saturday morning, when I was eight and my brother was ten, we decided that we were going to make a giant. We had an entire plan. It wasn’t necessary to make the entire giant – only the part that would be visible.

We got a pair of my dad’s old work pants, and stuffed it with towels. We did the same with an old pair of his socks and work shoes, the brown ones he used to wear when he worked on the garden out in the back yard. We took our time and laid everything out carefully. You see, the closet door slides to open, and if you slide open the right side, you mostly only see the right side of the closet – and just a little bit of the left side.

When we thought we had it all perfect, we called downstairs. “Mom! There’s a giant in the closet.” Our mom, who had probably been peacefully making lunch before we’d disturbed her, trudged patiently upstairs to see what all the yammering was about. We pointed to the closet door. Just as we’d hoped, she slid open the door and looked down at the floor. Sure enough, there he was, our giant, the first giant we’d ever had in our house, sleeping peacefully on the closet floor. Or at least what you could see of him – a pair of legs and big work shoes.

Mom smiled and said “that’s nice.” Then she slid the door closed and went back downstairs to finish making lunch.

I’m not sure what response we were looking for, but I’m pretty sure – even after all these years – that wasn’t it.

The path

Wednesday, October 8th, 2008

I walked a long path
I thought might lead me to you
Off in the distance

And I found you there
Not off in the distance, but
Walking beside me


Hate mail

Tuesday, October 7th, 2008

Today I received a hate mail. It was completely unexpected. Apparently someone I encountered in passing earlier today had created an entire fantasy around an actual set of events, and had rearranged things in their mind to create a fantasy version of those events. In their fantasy I was some sort of larger-than-life villain. The venom and sheer nastiness of the email I received was a bit overwhelming, and more than a little scary.

When something like this happens, a part of me wants to argue, to defend myself, to point out the various places where my correspondent’s version of events has deviated from reality. But it’s no use. The fact that someone has even sent such an email means that they are not invested in reality – at least not in the way that you or I understand it.

In the end I realized I needed to just walk away, to not answer the email at all. There is no such thing as a constructive argument with a person who is not starting from reality. And yet it feels terrible, this knowledge that I am simply walking away from a fellow human being – one who on some level is clearly crying out in pain.

Yes, it feels terrible, and yet there is no useful answer that I can give them, nothing that I can do – I cannot enter their reality, even to try to lead them out of it. The inner pain that leads this person to send such terrible messages of hate is not a pain that I could ever hope to heal.


Monday, October 6th, 2008

I was in a conversation today with some colleagues about the importance of raising children’s levels of belief that they are good at learning. Studies have consistently shown that people rise to their level of belief in themselves – if you think you are good at learning something, you actually do learn it better – and vice versa.

Unfortunately poor children and children from ethic minorities are consistently told they are inferior learners, and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s a difficult trend to reverse, but when children are given an opportunity to learn by doing things they already know they are good at -like playing computer games – there is real potential to level the playing field and give these kids better educational opportunities.

I am always astonished at how the mere knowledge that something is possible can change everything. Until Roger Bannister ran a four minute mile in May of 1954, many people believed it to be impossible. But then John Landy broke Bannister’s record a mere forty six days later.

I’ve seen this sort of thing operate in my own mind. For example, for many years I was completely incapable of finishing The New York Times crossword puzzle on Saturday. For those of you who don’t know, the Times puzzle increases in difficulty throughout each week – Monday is easy, Tuesday a little harder, and so on, with Saturday being the killer (the Sunday puzzle is very large, but it’s generally somewhat easier than Friday).

Each week I would start hopefully on another Saturday puzzle and then proceed to wrack my brains in frustration for an hour or so. At some point I would generally put down the paper – which was usually remarkably unblemished by answers – and go to the kitchen to make coffee. Then I’d circle back around warily, glare down at my fiendish newspaper nemesis, pick up my pen and look the whole thing all over again, scanning uselessly for something to dawn on me. Sometimes I’d doodle in the margins while waiting for inspiration to strike. Sometimes I’d even make more coffee. But none of it ever worked. Eventually, as the day wore on, I would always have to admit defeat.

But all this changed one day in March of 2002 – the day that The New Yorker came out with an article about the world of crossword puzzlers, and I finally got an inside glimpse into that fascinating collection of brilliant eccentrics and literate cranks. One datum in particular jumped out at me: one day in 2001 famed crossword puzzler Ellen Ripstein had managed to finish a Saturday puzzle in four minutes and forty six seconds flat.

Here I was not even able to finish the darned thing, and there were people out there who were doing it in under five minutes. The next Saturday, when the paper came, I vowed that I would stick with the puzzle until I finished it – and so I did. Then I finished it the following week, and then the week after that, and the week after that too.

In fact, in the six years since I read that New Yorker article I’ve never not finished a Saturday puzzle once I’ve started it. Sometimes it takes me a while – I don’t think I’ve ever done better than thirteen minutes, and it usually takes me about twice that, but I always finish.

All it took was to know it was possible. Go figure.

Aunt Tom

Sunday, October 5th, 2008

I’m just going to say at the outset – getting it out of the way – that I don’t think there is anything stupid about Sarah Palin. My sense is that she is an excellent politician, with great skills and instincts at what she does, which up to this point in her career has primarily been to win over voters.

But that doesn’t even begin to let John McCain and his political advisors off the hook. The fact is they appointed someone who is painfully unqualified for the job of vice president. She was clearly not vetted properly, and she doesn’t know the first thing about the issues she is being asked about. Even her supporters understand this.

Having said that, I’d like to return to last Thursday’s vice presidential debate. The Sarah Pallin “victory” consisted primarily of the Republican vice presidential candidate making use of a loophole in the debate rules to avoid showing any ability to answer questions. Or, in fact, to do anything other than recite predefined talking points.

Why does this matter? Can’t we just congratulate the Republicans on having successfully hacked the debate, by getting their underqualified V.P. candidate through a tight spot?

My argument is that it matters a lot. It matters because the Republican strategy is a gross insult to all women, with Sarah Palin as her gender’s stand-in. By putting up somebody who is completely unprepared not only to discuss the issues, but even to understand them, they are reducing Palin to the status of a talking chimp – one of those sad trained animals you see on roller skates in old T.V. shows.

None of the people cheering her “victory” last Thursday evening believes that she has any demonstrated knowledge of the issues. It’s rather obvious, from her performance, that her entire debate strategy was, in fact, to refuse to acknowledge such prosaic ground rules as the need to answer the questions asked by a moderator. She actually announced this strategy at the start of the debate.

If she were a man holding up as a “victory” the spectacle of having cleverly avoided needing to show any knowledge of issues, or even the ability to answer a simple debate question, she would have been laughed off the stage. The subtext here is clearly that because Sarah Palin is a woman, it’s ok for her to act like an ignorant clown, reciting pre-rehearsed speeches rather than responding to serious questions. In fact – if I understand the dynamics of this properly – people love her for this deliberate show of ignorance. They find it somehow sexy.

It’s like the bubble-head act that Jessica Simpson was putting on several years ago, before she started to realize that people were taking the act seriously. Sarah Palin is playing tha part of the non-threatening silly little woman. Sure, she drops her g’s, gets all folksy, and oozes a sort of down-home charm. But when you listen to what she actually says (and I think people do hear what she actually says – deep down people are not stupid) her statement is actually: “Because I am a woman, I don’t need to know the issues, or in fact to show any competence.”

Basically what the Republicans are doing – and my theory is that Governor Palin is too ambitious to allow herself to admit that she iis being roped into this agenda – is promoting their V.P. candidate as the female equivalent of an Uncle Tom. The subtext is that women are a slave race – pretty and stupid and very charming when they know their place. Make babies, pose with a shotgun when called for, and avoid serious questions by “answering” with non-sequitors. Let those menfolk worry about silly things like actually being able to answer a question or speak to an issue.

This positioning of Sarah Palin as a sort of modern-day minstrel show may be the single most focused assault on the dignity of women that our nation has seen in a very long time.


Saturday, October 4th, 2008

The wonderful thing about birthdays is that, according to the rulebook — I happen to have my copy of the rulebook right here and I’m looking at it as I say this — if someone misses your birthday because they don’t know about it until, say, the day after, but they still want to celebrate your birthday, that just means your birthday lasts longer, extending the general celebration.

That’s what it says in my rulebook anyway. 🙂


Friday, October 3rd, 2008

This video that Sally pointed out to me is just amazingly adorable:

Hey Sarah Palin

I have an image in my mind of this couple, who obviously get along really well, having a total blast writing these lyrics, this catchy tune, working the whole thing out together. It’s just too romantic for words.

Well, you know what they say: The couple that bashes a fool together is cool together. The couple that is aghast together will last together. The couple that gives peace a chance together finds romance together. The couple that exposes deceit together is sweet together. The couple that fights the good fight together will find delight together. The couple that battles greed together will succeed together. The couple that keeps fascism at bay together will stay together. The couple that stops wilderness drilling together is thrilling together. The couple that exposes G.O.P. ploys together finds many joys together. The couple that fights ignorance and hate together goes great together. The couple that gives Palin the boot together is cute together.

OK, I’ll stop now.

No wait, one more: The couple that helps defeat McCain together will remain together.



Thursday, October 2nd, 2008

I had been curious to see how Sarah Palin would answer questions in a debate. What I hadn’t anticipated was the clever strategy employed by the McCain camp, which was to make sure she could avoid answering any questions – a strategy that the debate format indeed allowed. While Joe Biden gave us real insights about how his mind works in real time, Palin used the lax rules of the debate to negate the debate itself — responding to pretty much every question by choosing a pre-prepared speech to recite.

These prepared speeches often had little to do with the question that had been asked. Since she rarely answered the specific question posed by the moderator, Palin was able to avoid that strange deer-in-the-headlights quality with which we’ve grown familiar – the one she gets when she is required to respond directly to a direct question, without notes.

In a sense this meta-performance was fair. The McCain camp had forcefully pushed the organizers of the debate into modifying the rules so that recitation of pre-prepared speeches would be permitted. The Democrats had taken a hands-off policy during these negotiations, no doubt figuring that any changes would maintain a level playing field. The Democrats figured wrong. When you allow your opponents to define the terms of the debate, then you are giving them a way to nullify the purpose of the debate.

So now we know, just as we did before, that Republican strategists are very good at redefining rules, and at replacing actual events with puppet shows. But we still have no idea – apart from a few glimpses over the last week in interviews – what Sarah Palin might do when faced with a crisis that does not call for a prescripted response.

Let us hope, for the sake of our Nation’s well-being and security, that we never need to find out.