Friday, July 28, 2006

Sunday at the beach in Chicago

Until Sunday, the Man Ray image of the woman as a cello was just another Twentieth Century work of art, on the fringes of my consciousness. I won't spoil the fun for my readers by explicitly enumerating its successes compositionally, narratively, socially and philosophically, but, trust me, it is extremely profound and certainly deserves a few moments of contemplation.

I was happily reminded of Man Ray's piece when, as I was reading at North Avenue Beach in Chicago last Sunday, I looked up from my book, and saw a young lady who had tattooed the marks* on her own back. What a delightful break from the tweeties and anime figures that adorn most other twentysomethings. Smiles of aesthetic recognition rippled among the art historians splayed out on the shoreline as she passed us by. Until that day, I had never seen a person whose looks were enhanced by a tattoo...

* (it seems vulgar to call them by their technical name, particularly because of the startling and surely unintentional resonance with Theodora's fervent desire for extra orifices, as described Procopius' Anecdota ix.18)

Monday, July 24, 2006

Chicago's Big-Box Ordinance: What Would Aristotle Do?

When I was a teenager, I chafed at the implicit class bias in Aristotle's insistance that a strong middle class is the key to political stability. Influenced by G. M. S. de Ste. Croix's poetical and sweeping account of the Class Struggle in the Ancient World, my budding proto-Marxist mind identified Aristotle as a "class enemy", defending "property rights", and fighting the social trends that might have created a "just society" in the ancient world.

From my middle-aged middle-class perspective, my teenaged views seem like so much hogwash. Aristotle wants a strong middle class because when people are invested in their society, they will keep politics prudent, avoid unnecessary wars, and generally pursue the modest goals of gently improving the quality of life in society and the world. By contast, the most unstable system is a democracy with a large dispossessed class: politics becomes entertainment, chaos is inevitably more interesting than order, and a truculent nationalistic foreign policy provides the ego-compensation for low-status citizens (think Creon in Thucydides). A neo-Aristotelian friend of mine further adds that the level of American household debt creates a natural base for a cleansing wave of social disorder, and it is quite possible that this was a subconscious motivation for the people who voted our current President into office. Two unasked follow-up questions for the 48 percent of Americans who think that we are in the opening phases Armageddon are whether they expect to personally benefit from the apolocolypse and whether they are trying to hasten it.

A sensible and solvent middle class protects society from extreme viewpoints, and the real issue with WalMart is not whether it helps or hurts the poor, but whether it destroys the commercial middle class. The numbers clearly show that WalMart benefits the poor, particulalry in offerring alternatives to predatory prices at other commercial establishments in low-income neighborhoods. In our historical moment, however, the middle classes are an endangered species, and the predatory prices that they charge at their small businesses are, in fact, the habitat that allows them to survive. One way to give them the same protection that we give the spotted owl is to legislatively create barriers to entry for retail operations that would eviscerate their businesses. If the "Big Box Ordinance" succeeds in forcing WalMart to pay a "living wage" to its drones, it will have failed in a much broader sense.

Friday, July 21, 2006

reposted riposte

Larry Santoro's blog has an extended and pessimistic passage from Kurt Vonnegut's newest collection of essays, which caused me to wonder where will the Kurt Vonneguts of the future come from?

It is clear that the types of people who populate the earth is about to change. Once genetics are fully understood, and people select genes for their children, terms like "offspring" or "descendants" will no longer have any meaning, because people will no longer share DNA with their "parents". This will certainly affect the willingness of parents to make economic sacrifices for "their" children, which could lead to either state-run or privately financed orphanages with different castes of children, tailored to different social roles, or, also likely, a massive depopulation.

When people choose the genetic predispositions of their successors, will they select the traits that are associated with success in our civilization? In other words, will the coming generations of ultra-rich parents choose conscienceless aggressively psychopathic genes for their genetically modified children? Do these last generations of freeborn children have the final traces of the Jesus gene, before it is effectively rooted from the species?

No matter what, assuming it survives, the species is certainly in for another major shift. The first shift "weakened" the stock, when medical technologies allowed higher survival rates for mutations whose parents had been exposed to toxins (i.e., almost everybody in the world today). The next shift will radically "strengthen" the stock to levels never before seen, in ways that would terrify the weak-willed and excessively compassionate humans who now walk the earth.

My guess is that Nietzsche was wrong: man is not a link between ape and superman, but an interlude between ape and super-ape.

{ As a side note, notice how well liquor and compassion go together, while coffee is often coupled with mercilessness. Watch and weep as Starbucks outlets continue to replace bars as neighborhood hubs and coffee replaces alcohol as a consciousness changing drug of choice. }

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Another brief review

John Collier's "Fancies and Goodnights" might be the most perfect beach book ever written. The slightly macabre undertow creates a perfect counterpoint to the idyllic and peaceful beach environment. The stories are well-structured, amusing, architecturally simple, memorable, and, best of all, short -- giving plenty of breaks to go in the water or toss a football with your kids. There may be better short story writers, but I have never found one as perfectly suited to the langorous rhythms of a Sunday beach.

Very brief review

Nick Cave's new movie, The Proposition, is probably not art, but it is definitely worth seeing, if only for the beautiful cinematography coupled with Nick Cave's excellent taste in literary quotations. The Film makes the case that the American Wild West was part of a global Zeitgeist, and many people will leave the theater thinking that Australian Outback was, in fact, wilder and more depraved than the North American western territories. You probably will not remember much about the movie in ten years time, and it has the sort of borderline R rating that could be pushed into NC-17 if you just breathed on it, but if the theater is chilled and the weather is hot, there are worse ways to pass a Summer evening.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


Today's New York Times has a pair of articles on how newer models of human brain functions are finally successfully emulating aspects of human intelligence on a computer. This is a story that makes people very nervous. As mentioned in the article, it was a big story two years ago when the DARPA sponsored 132 mile race in the desert ended in a series of technical failures at the 7th mile, but it was barely noted eighteen months later when the technical problems were solved and Stanford University's robotic vehicle successfully navigated the entire course. One can clearly see that this will be the next major political issue: Once we've solved the problem of outsourced labor or securing our borders, we will have to confront a post-human economy, and the question will be whether capital accumulation from previous periods in our civilization should dictate social status in the new world.

Computers compete against humans in the financial markets, and are winning every day. The returns of institutions like Jim Simon's Renaissance Technologies or DE Shaw's eponymous firm are essentially human error that is harvested by computers. These firms detect market participants operating on multi-day horizons, and then insert themselves into the order flow, going with the market participant at the beginning of their period, and going against them at the end. The net result is that the market participant (often a pension fund or a mutual fund) will achieve a slightly worse average execution price and Jim Simons or D. E. Shaw keeps the difference. The opportunity exists because, despite all the studies, people think that they can "beat the market", at least find a proxy who will "beat the market" for them -- when the biggest opportunity lies not in beating the market, but in beating the people who think they can beat the market. In other words, the wealth that Simons and Shaw have accumulated comes from arbitraging the difference between human and mechanical nature.

Market participants transferring value to technologically savvy financial institutions is only the beginning, but they serve as an object lesson on the ability of computers to out-think humans in very human environments. In coming years, artificial intelligence will be integrated into the managerial structures of companies. This will, of course, push another class of labor into obsolescence. Remember the folk-tale? If you proceed slowly and carefully, you can roll up the entire carpet (country). The most disturbing thing about the global push towards authoritarianism is that it is happening when we will need our democratic structures in order to preserve what is valuable about human life.

On the one hand, a computerized world could lead to a renaissance of humanity, where a thousand community theater projects blossom and everyone creates and appreciates unique and beautiful works of art, but the same inexorable scientific processes that are improving computers are also providing the scientific legitimation for a world-view where human beings are understood as just so much biomass. As the mysteries of human intelligence and human biology are being solved, the very lack of mysteriousness will almost inevitably lead to a devaluation of human spirit.

People who professionally profit from this shift in knowledge and culture are quick to deride religiosity as a pathetic and reactionary response to the overwhelming evidence for a reality-based system of belief. In fact, the anti-scientific religiosity is reactionary in the same way that the body's immune system is reactionary to toxins that are introduced to it. So when fundamentalists are fighting evolutionists, they are not fighting evolution at all, but rather they are fighting the robots. And a subconscious fear of the potential threats to human existence posed by technological progress helps explain the popular appeal of a president who is openly contemptuous of science.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Why call it a maket, anyway?

Who realized there was such a gap between the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal? The subtitle of the lead business article on the Washington Post's website says that "Up to a Third of Oil's Stunning Ascent Traces to Psychology". The article itself is a marvelous jumble of misunderstood economic half-truths, leading to the general impression that markets are not driven by market forces.

In the article, the reporter quotes a Deutsche Bank economist saying "Supply and demand are not the only things people look at" when they are trading oil futures. What can this possibly mean? Financial exchanges exist to balance supply and demand -- "supply and demand" may not be "what people look at", but they certainly determine price.

The context of the economist's quote was probably that present supply and consumer demand are not the only things people look at. Since an object will trade for the maximum of a current price and the discounted expected mean future prices

D = Max(D1, D2*C2, D3*C3, D4*C4, ...) = S

D = Demand (Bid price)
S = Supply (Ask price)
D1 = current consumer demand
D2 = Next period mean expected price = (D2a * likelihood + D2b * likelihood + ....)
C2 = cost to carry multiplier for period 1
D3 = Second period mean expected price (D3a * likelihood + D3b * likelihood + ....)
C3 = cost to carry multiplier for period 2

Of course, anticipated future supply and anticipated future demand affect current price, because present supplies can be set aside to satisfy future demands, so the price will go to the maximum in the discounted stream. The misquoted economist even hints about an algorithm for calculating the affect of potential political, meteorological, and geological shocks on present prices, and attributes about a third of the price of oil to the risk of those events (which the journalist encapsulates as "political and psychological"). But the journalistic personification of the market as "anxious" leads people to ascribe psychological states to purely economic phenomena. Definitially, an anxious person is almost never rational, and misdescribing markets leads people to think markets are irrational.

So, if the journalist had listened to the economist, the subtitle would probably have read "Up to a Third of Oil's Ascent Traces to Carefully Modelled Mathematical Economics and Probability Theory". Recent highs in petroleum inventories bolster a practical rather than psychological interpretation of the current price of oil -- they are holding on to it because they expect to sell it for a higher price in the future.

The chosen subtitle of the article was particularly unfortunate because traders sometimes talk about a psychological compoment in markets, to explain the difference between the theoretical value generated by their model and the price found by supply and demand in a marketplace (this difference is sometimes also called "noise"). Usually, what appears to be a "psychological component" is just a difference in models between different players, each of whom thinks they are economic and rational, while the market is deemed "psychological".

As it is used in the article, "psychological" is about as meaningful as -- and rather more dangerous than -- a term like "Polkadots". When journalists describe the premium in the market as "psychological" rather than "mathematical" or "economic", they lead uninformed readers to think that gas prices would fall, if the traders could just calm down and stop worrying about things that haven't happened yet. But one of the great things about being a human being is that we can plan for the future, and one of the great things about markets is that they do a pretty good job at attaching a number to the mean value of that expected future.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Benjamin Graham was intelligent, but he wasn't always right

Benjamin Graham once said that the study of Greek and Latin is the best possible preparation for a career in finance. An absolute attention to minutiae, faith that perseverence is rewarded with glimpses of truth, the ability to intuit a living breathing structure from a few fragments, the lofty isolation that comes from living inside a dead culture, along with the patience and rigor, are all ideal traits in a securities analyst, who needs to visualize breathing companies from the dead letters of accounting information and rise above the tedious waves of market crowd psychology.

In a recent employment situation, however, my classical education ended up costing me money. In preliminary negotiations, we had agreed to a ten thousand dollar a month draw (along with an appropriate split and a fifty thousand dollar equipment budget). After I had been there for a few days, they asked me whether a hundred thousand a year would be okay. The proper answer would have been, "no, we agreed to ten thousand a month". But here is where my classical education debilitated me. I have always been more Grachian than Julian and experience a slight irritation every time I represent September, October, November and December as numbers. So I thought, "sure, let's think of it as a ten month year, with Julius and Augustus finally purged from the calendar, and December being the tenth month for the first time since 45 BC". Amused by these thoughts, I willingly agreed to the pay cut, and set a precedent for them to renege on almost every other aspect of our original agreement.

X hits the spot

People experience obesity as a highly personal failure, but this animated obesity map shows that it is fundamental social shift made up of a series of individual capitulations (thanks to BoingBoing for the link). But maybe a social system that stresses personal responsibility to the point where many people experience personal failure is more accurately described as a social failure.

One of my favorite conspiracy theories involves a secret nocturnal meeting in the CEO's corner office in a cookie company. A nervous research scientist scuttles in, clutching the single copy of the TOP SECRET RESEARCH. The TOP SECRET RESEARCH shows that INGREDIENT X bypasses the satiety reflex, and that people consume thirty percent more cookies if those cookies are spiked with INGREDIENT X. In the old-fashioned version, the wild-eyed CEO laughs maniacally, lightning flashes outside, and he gives the order to introduce INGREDIENT X into the food supply. In the updated version, the calm and fit CEO -- who does yoga, has a beautiful and charming wife, and pictures of three lovely children on his desk -- looks at the research, runs some spreadsheets, and reluctantly concludes that it would violate his fiduciary responsibilities to his shareholders if he did not immediately alter the recipes to include INGREDIENT X. In the traditional telling, the CEO is vaguely aware of the dangers posed by by INGREDIENT X and achieves his revenge on the world by poisoning the children, but in the newer version the CEO is supremely uninterested in possible side effects, since his job is simply to increase the revenue of his company.

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) looked like a good candidate for INGREDIENT X, but recent preliminary research is showing that the internet paranoia around HFCS might be overblown. Another candidate is the absence of fiber in processed foods, but many countries have lower fiber diets without obesity. The most interesting explanation for the rise in obesity is to correlate it with the decrease in smoking. It is quite plausible that self-destructive oral fixations have remained fairly constant, while manifestations have shifted. This is wonderful news for the lawyers, since it means that after they have finished taking on "big tobacco" and "big fat", human nature will continue to provide them with a series of new and successful industries that profit from poisoning America while slowly becoming vulnerable with growing popular sentiment against them.

{Yes, there is still hope, HFCS could still be INGREDIENT X! The research mentioned above was paid for by the corn refiners association, and compares HFCS with processed sugar rather maple syrup, honey or other alternative sweeteners -- though lots of studies show that maple syrup, honey and processed sugar are basically the same. Even so, though conspiracy theories make great Hollywood, but not very good history: when the optimal path survives, it is usually because suboptimal paths have been winnowed out, and not because someone actively chose it in a dark room with lightning flashing. }

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Fighting for space in the zoo

The next big challenge to our patent system will come from computers rather than people. The computer scientists are working not only on machine learning, but also on machine guided experimentation, with machines able to emulate causal reasoning and engage in rudimentary problem solving. Once these techniques are perfected, software-guided robots will generate untold numbers of "improvements to the state of the art" for many disciplines. Will the patent office really grant protection to organizations that just pushed a button to create inventions? With luck, this new development will lead our civilization to reconsider its entire relationship with intellectual property, and technology and science will be seen as the common heritage of all humanity, rather than the specific prerogatives of the lucky few.

{As a side note, once robots can do science, progress will advance at warp speed, and many of today's most intractible problems will be solved. Miniature robots to clean up landfills? Done! Networked reflector systems to manage the earth's weather? Simple! Guided virtual reality experiences to insure positive psychedlic wisdom trips? Nothing could be easier! There may be a few problems, but people are worrying about the wrong things. Trying to help the environment by limiting human impact is like trying to avoid a playground bully by curling up into a ball: we will only succeed if we are brave. The downside is that, unless the transition to our mind-blowing technofuture is carefully managed, there will be a catastrophic economic downturn, with very few jobs left for people in a monetary economy (as seen here). It is hard to blame the kids for refusing to study math and science, when the machines will be doing those jobs before some of today's kids enter the labor force, anyway. }

Mr. President, I need a job

As Wikipedia slowly and inexorably advances to become a viable resource, new uses for wikis are already evolving. The unfunny uncyclopedia is a demonstration that comedy is too specific and quirky to be susceptible to a wiki hive-mind (while the best parts of "The Show's" experiment in wikicomedia openly simulate Ze Frank's voice and content), but wikis have proven quite successful for coordinating small-scale pot-lucks and charitable drives. It is still too early to think about a wiki-style participatory democracy, but can wikis be used for bigger things?

I am eagerly awaiting a success story from a wiki-style management structure and corporation. An ideal situation would let team members coordinate goals and assignments, and volunteer for tasks that are congenial to their temperaments. Following true herd-mentality, the wages and credit would be divided, hours in the office would be held constant (to avoid freeloaders) but ineffective people would be voted off the island. Management by wiki would make it easier for people to ask for help as they realize they are in over their heads, and holding wages constant would reduce politics. It should be more efficient, less expensive, and more pleasant for the people involved. Would wage-parity keep Pareto at bay, or would the 80/20 law assert itself in a particularly insidious way, with twenty percent of the team members would doing eighty per cent of the work?

Monday, July 10, 2006

Who would you vote for, Hitler or Roosevelt?

Historically, of course, in most times and places, comedy has been too undignified for successful adults and was primarily reserved for children, adolescents, the powerless and the incompetent. From the perspective of Heidegerrian authenticity, Maslowian actualization, or even a Csikszentmihalyi flow-state, peak experiences are singularly humorless. Comedy thrives on unexpected twists and turns, competent people proceed in a clear path, so competence is usually antithetical to comedy.

Comedy is, by its nature, a diversion, and people satisfied with their lives have little need for entertainment. Maslow would tell us that the need for diversion arises when a homeostatic disequilibrium summons the desire to pack condensed pleasure into short periods of time because deeper pleasures are absent (and, indeed, “abrupt hilarity” is symptomatic of depression). The "entertainment" industry thrives in proportion to the degree that the rest of the economy spreads misery, as a safety valve to keep people sane. Sometimes, the audience's response to comedy owes more to biological imperatives and crowd psychology than to the inate quality of the material.

What makes people laugh? What are the characteristics of quality comedy? Distracting people from their misery is a big business, and has been studied exhaustively. Nonetheless, while good jokes can be quantified and described mathematically, they is notoriously difficult to generate. There are dozens of different types of comedy, but they all share the basic mechanism of surprise, repression and frequency:

C = (S & R) * log(F).

S: People react with laughter to many surprises. For example, a startling musicological moment can generate laughter, as can an aesthetic breakthrough, or even bad news.

R: Too much repression, and a person is humorless. Too little repression, and a person has no need for comedy. Often, laughter is a valve that releases the tension that accumulates through neurosis. The superficial opinion is that neurotic women are sexually attracted to men who make them laugh, but neurotic women are more likely to laugh at men to whom they are sexually attracted.

F: The James-Lange theory of emotion tells us that, once a person is laughing, it is easier to keep them laughing. A comedian’s use of catch-phrases is a technique by which emotional memories of laughter are summoned, to put people in a frame of mind to laugh at future jokes. The optimal frequency for humor is e (~2.71), which rounds to three as the comic number. Some comedians insist that seventeen is also a comic number, but, as far as I know, there is no laboratory experimentation in support of this.

Comedy was traditionally an under-class consolation for the Paretian masses, to make their powerlessness bearable. Social power affects comedy, and political comedy is funniest when a person who is denied social power uses it to assert moral authority. In a social hierarchy of A-B-C, it is somewhat funny if C mocks B, very funny if C mocks A, somewhat funny if B mocks A, somewhat cruel if A mocks B and very cruel if A mocks C. The same caricature yields different comic effects depending on social context. According to the above formula, when comedy breaks social boundaries, it increases both the amount of surprise and also the amount of repression.

In America, a sense of humor is considered a very desirable trait, “funny people” are rewarded with social power, and people go to great lengths in quest of amusement. Still, there is a constant need for new comedians, because comedians generally deteriorate over time, becoming more familiar (reducing surprise), more powerful (reducing the social impact of the comedy) and less repressed (living alongside their neuroses, they either cure themselves or succumb to substance abuse). As a comedian rises in social class, routines that were once surprisingly funny become overly familiar and cruel. Seinfeld stopped being funny but Larry David has stayed funny because he steadfastly maintains himself as the brunt of his own jokes: the pleasure generated by his material is fundamentally predicated on David's misery.

Political anxiety has replaced sexual anxiety as a major cause of personal neuroses, and, for the last few swings of popular sentiment, political comedy has been a leading indicator of a change in political climate. It is generally true that whichever side is funnier will probably be in power within fifteen years. In the sixties, people like Lenny Bruce and Paul Krasner mocked the rigid, incompetent seriousness of the ruling elites. In the late Carter years, Rush Limbaugh was genuinely funny, because he flexibly satirized the rigidity of American liberal dogma, which had turned the positive values of the sixties into social programs that were hurting the very people they purported to help. Twenty-five years later, the welfare state has been dismantled, and the conservative movement has ossified into an out-of-touch model of reality, with the three horsemen of the liberal apocalypse (Jon Stewart, Hosea Frank, and Stephen Colbert) ready to usher in a new age of liberal comedy, followed by, let us hope, enlightened goverment. Gandhi’s famous formula for political movements – first they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win – misses the next four steps, which complete the cycle: then you lose touch with reality, then they mock you, then you lose, then they ignore you.” (The difference between “ridicule” and “mock” is the difference between Ann Coulter and Ze Frank.)

In our society, everyone likes a good laugh, and powerful people are judged by their willingness to laugh at themselves. One would think that leaders would be appreciated for demonstrating competence and their ability to handle the serious business of making decisions in the public interest. In America, however, politicians run on their borscht-belt schtick, eagerly host comedy shows, and hire professional comedians to script jokes that will prove they do not take themselves too seriously. Foreigners find it shocking that more Americans vote for American Idol than vote for President, but it is more shocking that the Americans who vote for President apply many of the same criteria that they applied to voting for American Idol.

{Ze Frank's show has moments of inspired social satire, coupled with a good sense of traditional comedy and a bit of college-scatology. His use of a single-person webcam and editing to mimic the dynamics of a comedy duo is a fundamental genric addition to filmed comedy. Watching his show is almost as exciting as watching Charlie Bowers discover hidden potentials inside the singer real surrealist comedy. Frank's willingness to be the brunt of his own jokes presages a long and successful career. His humor oscillates between absurdist, social satire and scatological, intermingled with thirty-second condensations of recent psychological and political research.}

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The face of the future is identical

Confirming their role as the fashion leaders of Europe, the Poles are experimenting with Presidential clones. Their low-tech approach gives the rest of us a preview of what a genetically pre-screened administrative class will look like, and I kinda like it.

But the issue of genetic preselection and cloning raises the complicated issue of people who are fighting the estate tax with outsized dreams of huge intergenerational empires. Taking care of your descendents might have made evolutionary sense a hundred or a thousand years ago, but future technologies will probably study it as an example of DNA gone amok. Today's moguls probably share more genes with the current rulers of Poland than they will with their own progeny. So what exactly are they fighting for? The abstract principle that unfairness will be allowed to endure for its own sake?

Friday, July 07, 2006

Computers answer Freud's famous question

What do women want? As a sometime browser of online personals, I often see "sense of humor" listed as a prerequisite for an ideal mate, alongside universally desireable and obviously alpha traits such as being "fit", "solvent" or "good-looking". "Sense of humor" somehow does not belong in that list, and its presence in the personals has probably drawn many overweight, insolvent and ugly people to misunderstand their prospects. In general, I assume that the desire to be amused is symptomatic of an entire generation of women that has gotten their conception of romance from sitcoms rather than novels, but there is also a deeper significance.

But what exactly do women want when they ask for a sense of humor? Remember the Lenny Bruce schtick about comedians who destroy their careers by trying to make the band laugh? What passes for a "sense of humor" in the general public is a set of reflexes, funny voices, and intellectual sleight-of-hand which deep students of comedy only find engaging on the third or fourth convolution. Measured technically rather than by audience response, the "funniest" comedians have a sense of humor pitched outside the range of normal human hearing.

Women may want comedy, but their taste is limited to very specific subgenres. The recieved opinion is that "knowing calculus never got anybody laid", and that "being funny is key to women's hearts", but my experience is that there are few things funnier than trying to use calculus to get yourself laid, and the first proverb powerfully refutes the second, every time. Further, for pure laughs, I don't know of a single comedian who can hold their own against the Congressional record, but mention the Proceedings of the House of Representatives on a date, and the woman will mistake you for a "wonk" or a "bore". It gets worse: as you convulse with tearful laughter while recounting elements from the choicest monologues, she will probably conclude that you are crazy, and inch towards the exit.

Superficially, the feminine desire for laughter promises respite from the tedious evolutionary protocols for breeding, but closer examination shows that it is tied into the whole boring matrix. The Jester gets to sleep with the Queen because, in the carnivalesque comic space, he has established himself as an alpha male over the king. Conversely, in beta-boys, humor is a necessary criterion because its absence is deadly, a beta who is not ironic about his own lack of alpha is usually a miserable and insufferable bore headed to a premature death. Most of those poor women in the personals are really saying that they are willing to fish in gamma waters as long as they can hope to catch something with a level self-confidence, an absence of rigidity, and a willingness to simultaneously engage and respect repression.

So maybe this is the secret of a site like eHarmony: people are unwilling to ask for what they need or are likely to get, and the exclusivity essential to the romantic narrative is antithetical to satisficing. By trusting an algorithm, both parties happily allow a black-box computer to put them together. Each can believe that the other is "the one", while the sad fact is that their position on most bell curves firmly places them among "the many".

{As a side note, just as many writers should never perform their own material, C-Span is insufferably boring, while the transcripts are hilarious. Further, if a person advertises for "someone who can make me laugh", they are acknowledging that they are an individual with a set of neuroses who is looking for compatible individual; if they say, "someone with a sense of humor" they are representing themselves as an existential ideal in quest of absolute diversion or as a gamma looking for a gamma. }

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Derrida's critique of positive morality is being tested in the lab

An interesting overgeneralization from a very specific study points toward the conclusion that morality is a symmetric trading strategy -- offering almost as much profit on the short side as on the long side. In other words, avoiding a punishment can be as pleasureably motivating as getting a reward. This conclusion quickly leads into an argument for mores over morals: when behavior is regulated by a set of customs that define membership in a specific group, morality no longer exists in a dialectical abusive relationship with immorality, and moral behavior increases.

{ I apologize for pandering to groovy search engines by putting Derrida in the title, since it is also Hegel over Kant, Aristotle over Plato and maybe even Scotus over Aquinas. Though I love Derrida and would never underestimate his significance to twentieth century philosophy, I follow the man's example and reject the word "postmodern" to describe his broad intellectual movement. Historically, "postmodern" was a polemical term from a war that is now pretty much over, a slogan that allowed factions to gain political and economic control of various cultural institutions by recasting a perennial debate as a fundamental shift. The term "antimodern" better shows the deep traditionalism that underlay much so-called "post-modernism" without presupposing a radical discontinuity in intellectual history. }

Monday, July 03, 2006

Accepting Exceptionalism

The AP article on the soldier with a "personality disorder" who has been charged with raping and murdering an Iraqi civilian and killing her family has the following two paragraphs that deserve highlighting.

The suspects belong to the same unit as two soldiers kidnapped and killed south of Baghdad last month, a military official said on condition of anonymity because the case was under way.

The military has said that one and possibly both of the slain soldiers were tortured and beheaded. The official said the mutilation of the slain soldiers stirred feelings of guilt and led at least one member of the platoon to reveal the rape-slaying on June 22."

Even more than Haditha, this sounds a lot like a "tipping point". American soldiers are involved in a gruesome cycle of violence, with the crucial difference being that our attrocities elicit their revenge, while their attrocities elicit our remorse. Needless to say, those are asymmetric rules that favor their team.

If we accept the statistical inevitability that there are a few "bad apples" in every few thousand barrels, one consequence of American exceptionalism is that, as a country, we are stunned when our soldiers obey statistical laws for psychological deviance. It's a drag that American exceptionalism gets us into wars by asserting that our motives are purer than those of other countries, but the consolation is that our exceptionalism also gets us out of those wars when our soldiers show the same humanity that we expected to rise above. In contrast, when the Russians slaughter entire villages in Chechnya, their response is "this is war: what do you expect?"