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Do we force the real world into being a “just world”?

First of all, I’m back in the saddle again so to speak. Was out of town for several weeks and neglected blogging.

While away I read most of a book I’ve been meaning to tackle: “Brainwashed – The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience.” It’s a book coming from the “neuroskeptic” school—a viewpoint arguing that many of the claims neuroscience makes are inflated. It’s hard to argue with that basic point; you do see seemingly unlikely predictions coming out of neuroscience (and science) all the time. But that said, I find the book rather mushy. I just read through the chapter on free will and found it hard to follow the arguments. Sam Harris’s eBook called “Free Will” seems more cogently argued. (He argues against the existence of free will, the opposite view of “Brainwashed.”)

The free will chapter did have an interesting anecdote about Martin Lerner, a sociologist who developed the idea that people like to believe in a “just world hypothesis” (e.g. that the good are rewarded and the bad punished.) It seems a harmless enough delusion, but what if we alter our perception of the world to map it to a just world. And in doing so, what if we presume people who suffer deserve to suffer? The book states…

In one of his seminal experiments, Lerner asked subjects to observe a ten-minute video of a fellow student as she underwent a learning experiment involving memory. The student was strapped into an apparatus sprouting electrode leads and allegedly received a painful shock whenever she answered a question incorrectly (she was not receiving real shocks, of course, but believably feigned distress as if she were). Next, the researchers split the observers into groups. One was to vote on whether to remove the victim from the apparatus and reward her with money for correct answers. All but one voted to rescue her. The experimenters told another group of observers that the victim would continue to receive painful shocks; there was no option for compensation. When asked to evaluate the victim at this point, subjects in the victim-compensated condition rated her more favorably (e.g. more “attractive,” more “admirable”) than did subjects in the victim-uncompensated condition, in which the victim’s suffering was greater.)

I think it’s possible to extrapolate too much from these kinds of experiments, but this does kind of jibe with my sense of the world. We see someone suffering for whom we can do nothing and as a result we lower our opinion of them, basically saying, “sucks to be you!”

Ha! Humans are scum!

Is artistic skill really about measurement ability?

Artistic skill is certainly a mystery. Some people struggle to paint or act or play the piano. Myself, I’ve struggled with music and writing and a few other skills. Let me tell you: progress has been slow coming.

I’m thinking about two friends of mine. One was a guy I knew in high school. I was in a band with him though he was a mediocre musician. He was, however, a great tennis player. I think he was ranked in the top ten of the state (Hawaii) for his age group.

I learned that after high school he took up painting and very quickly became a professional. To this day he makes his living as a visual artist. He’s had great success despite the fact that when I knew him he had zero interest in the field.

My second friend was someone I also met during my high school years. At the time, he was already a great pianist, songwriter and visual artist.

I don’t want to say these talents came “easy” to these guys but they definitely seemed to have had a head start. They hit the ground running so to speak. So what could that advantage be? I’m posing an interesting theory here: Artistic skill is really an ability to measure.

Think about it. A lot of art is actually about measuring certain kinds of distances. This is most obvious in drawing and painting and other visual arts. You draw a person and the head looks too big for the body and people aren’t impressed. You sculpt a figure and one arm is too short and the work looks ugly. To do a good job with (representational) art every element needs to be sized correctly in relation to the other elements.

With music, the role of measurement is a little trickier. Consider this though: it’s not uncommon to find people who really seem to play by feel… they just reach for the note they want and it’s there even if they can’t explain how they know how to find it. I suspect that if you have a refined ear (particularly if you have perfect pitch) you develop a sense of how far notes are away from each other on the musical scale (which is really just a tool to standardize certain sound vibrations to pitches.) You may not know the terminology that a certain note is a major third away from another but you “know” it on an unconscious level. Then you pick up an instrument and quickly learn that to get “this” music interval you move this finger from here to there, and to get “that” one you perform a different move.

I myself have long struggled with music; I don’t think I have any kind of “magic” ears. But occasionally even I have found myself locating notes or chords via this intuitive process.

What does this have to do with my two friends? Well, I mentioned that the first one was a great tennis player. Tennis is also about distance measurement—where is the ball in three dimensional space? I wonder if the measuring skills honed in tennis could be applied to visual art? And with my second friend: could his twin skills— art and music— support each other? Is his real talent not so much drawing or playing piano, but gauging kinds of distances?

Part of what got me thinking about this is looking at myself. I recently, after 20 years, got back into drawing. I’m not great (Here’s some samples.) but what I find is that drawing is much easier than I remember it being. I used to take a stab at drawing something—say, a muscular male superhero—and it would take a few tries to get something passable. (And my female figures fucking SUCKED!) Now I find myself hitting something decent on the first try.

Like I said, I haven’t practiced art for years. But what have I been doing? Music, in particular, playing guitar and piano. Has that practice been building up a larger skill—measuring—that I’m now applying to art. Maybe. Who knows?

I think I’m going to do some drawing.

Caught on tape

Readers may recall my piece on Michelle Shocked a while back. Shocked, at the time, had just been recorded making controversial comments about gays during a performance in San Francisco. The audio of her comments went viral and denunciation was swift. Her career, if not ruined, was certainly wounded. (Resurrection, of course, is not uncommon in the music biz.)

I was reminded of this when the Donald Serling scandal popped up. He too was recorded, though this time while on what he presumed to be a private phone call. His racist comments have now been heard by millions and he lives in infamy.

Slightly related to this: Rapper Jay Z being caught on tape being attacked by his sister in law. Or Mitt Romney’s caught-on-tape comments about the 47 percent.

In all this cases there was not necessarily the assumption of privacy but I don’t think any of the victims thought their words or deeds would be observed by millions.

The L.A. Times has an interesting article on the topic. In closing, the author observes that we can spy on our fellows easily now. And we are facing the death of privacy.

You can be a flaneur now without leaving the house. Without your shoes on! Voyeurism is clickable. Our curiosity and digital technology have come together to produce a beast.

The beast is nimble, able to leap duplex walls or suspend itself, like the hero of an action movie, above the heads of famous people in elevators.

The beast is everywhere. The invasion of privacy has been democratized. Governments do it. Google and Facebook do it. V. Stiviano and hotel security cameras do it.

For most of us average joes, the threat of being constantly on tape doesn’t matter all that much. If someone recorded Wil Forbis making racist statements, I doubt they’d be able to find a media outlet to air the tape. But I think we may be entering an era where something we say—at a party for example—is recorded without our knowledge and then shared with our boss, our significant other, or posted to our facebook page for all our friends to hear. Basically the Serling situation on a smaller scale. And at that point we have to ask ourselves whether everything we say in confidence is sterile enough to avoid the judgment of our peers.

In my case, the answer is absolutely a big, fat, fucking no.

Good teacher, bad person?

Andrew Sullivan has an interesting post on the fact that college students are rejecting their commencement speakers with a seeming newfound vigor. Their reasons are usually an objection to the proposed speaker’s political views or actions. Sullivan quotes another author who says:

The entire point of college is to be exposed to different things: Different types of people, different ideas—and maybe some of those people will hail from organizations that negatively impacted poor countries, or maybe they were partly responsible for a war that ate up the country’s resources and resulted in human rights abuses and lots of needless death. But if, at the end of your time as an undergrad, you haven’t learned that oftentimes you find great wisdom in shitty people, or just that there might be some value in hearing what someone you don’t like or respect might have to say, what on earth have you learned?

“…oftentimes you find great wisdom in shitty people…” Boy, ain’t that the truth.

Reminds me of an old lyric of mine.

You say I’m a hypocrite
Well, I’ll pay that price
Listen up fellow because sometimes hypocrites
Give the best advice

Uncomfortable truths

I’ve been admittedly lax in blogging and will continue to be so for a while. I’ve gotten caught up in learning some cartoon animation software and it has grabed my focus.

That said, I’ve been interested in the discussion that’s risen over NY TImes Science writer Nicholas Wade’s book, “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History.” As many have stated, Wade is arguing two things: There is such a thing as race and humans have been continually evolving up to present day.

When stated as such, it’s hard to see what the fuss is about. Most people, egalitarian platitudes aside, buy into the premise of race as a useful dividing line. Few people, for example, are oblivious to the race of an actor or celebrity. But what Wade is noting is that people have variations of genes specific to their race. Race is more than skin deep. (See here, particularly the seventh paragraph, for more on this.) If we accept that our behavior is influenced by our genes (which I think is the prevailing view though there are dissenters) then we open ourselves up to the idea that different races have different behavior tendencies. For example, a tendency towards increased violence. And, if we accept that intelligence has a genetic factor then we open ourselves up to the notions that certain races will be statistically “smarter” than others, and you know what a can of worms that is.

It’s interesting that this book came along when it did. A couple months ago I stumbled across discussion of the HBD movement. These are people who argue in favor of “human biodiversity” – the notion that there’s qualitative variation in our genes and these lead to variation in our behavior and traits. When stated in that fashion it generates at best a yawn from most people. But what’s really being said here is that some people are smarter, more violent, less sociable, more empathic, etc. than others. It drives a sword into the heart of the “everyone is equal” sentiments found (usually) on the left.

I have to say, when you nose around in HDB web sites like this one, you don’t have to look hard to come across commenters who have a disconcerting zeal when they advocate recognizing racial differences. That said, there’s some thought provoking ideas there.

I don’t really have a conclusion here other than I want to follow the debate. I haven’t read any of the criticisms of Wade’s book so far, so I’m relatively unlearned on the topic. But I do think science has a way of revealing uncomfortable truths.

Silence your emotions!

Several years ago I wrote a blog post that argued that we cannot trust our feelings. (I can’t seem to track that damn post down, however, so no link.) This viewpoint—the distrust of emotion—is at odds with beliefs prominent in our society and especially our entertainment. Think of Obi-Kenobi telling Luke to trust his feelings. Of the general hippy adage “If it feels good, do it.” (I’m not sure a hippy ever actually said that.) Modern society still is in the throes of European Romanticism. We still want to believe feeling something means that it is true.

For myself, over the past couple years, I’ve been moving away from that belief. It simply isn’t hard to catch your feelings lying to you and quite often—telling you that you’ve been slighted when you haven’t, that you’re afraid when there’s really no need etc.

I’ve been reading an interesting book entitled “Emotional Awareness.” It is a transcribed converstaion between the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman, a psychologist. At one point Ekman says:

When most people experience an emotion or act emotionally, they are not conscious of doing so. They could not tell you, because they do not know themselves, “What I am doing now is acting fearful,” or, “acting angry.” It is not that they are unconscious. But they are not observing themselves and realizing, Maybe that really is a coiled rope and not a snake, and I do not need to be so afraid. To be conscious of that, we would have to acquire this ability which nature does not give us.

In essence, Ekman is arguing we need to learn to see the past the deceptions of our emotions. I find this view, so contrary to Romanticism, interesting and appealing. I might even say, “It feels right.” ;)

The death of individuality

I’m working on my next article for acid logic and it’s essentially a list of modern day fears that I think could be exploited by horror movies creators. One fear is fairly esoteric: a fear of the loss of identity brought about by the hyper-connectedness of the age. In essence, we are so hooked in to each other that when a subject comes up we immediately know what everyone else thinks about it and tailor our opinions and ideas to match the group we want to associate with. (Political tribes are an obvious example of these groups.)

The fear is not so much about this process but the crisis of self it could bring about. If you wake up one day and find that your opinions totally match some subset of the masses, would you start to wonder whether you really exist on a meaningful level? Would you conceive of yourself as merely a vessel for popular opinion?

Tackling the new atheists

In one of my recent articles on heretical ideas I noted that a) I’m an atheist, and b) I don’t think there is any way to divine morality. This puts me at odds with most of the “New Atheists” like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins who argue we can have morality without God.

There’s an interesting article in the Spectator by a writer named Theo Hobson. He is presumably religious and takes a rather snippy tone to atheists. But I think he makes some points that complement my own and his piece is worth reading if you need something philosophical to curl up with.

In these paragraphs he points out something I’ve thought about. New atheists dismiss faith, but their insistence that some kind of moral rule can be ascertained sounds an awful lot like faith itself.

The trouble is that too many atheists simply assume the truth of secular humanism, that it is the axiomatic ideology: just there, our natural condition, once religious error is removed. They think morality just comes naturally. It bubbles up, it’s instinctive, not taught as part of a cultural tradition. In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins tries to strengthen this claim using his biological expertise, arguing that humans have evolved to be altruistic because it ultimately helps their genes to survive. But in the end, he admits that no firm case can be made concerning the evolutionary basis of morality. He’s just gesturing with his expertise, rather than really applying it to the issue at hand.

Here’s his muddle. On one hand he believes that morality, being natural, is a constant thing, stable throughout history. On the other hand, he believes in moral progress. To square the circle he plunges out of his depth, explaining that different ages have different ideas of morality, and that in recent times there has happily been a major advance in our moral conventions: above all, the principle of equality has triumphed. Such changes ‘certainly have not come from religion’, he snaps. He instead points to better education about our ‘common humanity with members of other races and with the other sex — both deeply unbiblical ideas that come from biological science, especially evolution’. But biological science, especially evolution, can be used to authorise eugenics and racism. The real issue is the triumph of an ideology of equality, of humanism. Instead of asking what this tradition is, and where it comes from, he treats it as axiomatic. This is just the natural human morality, he wants us to think, and in our times we are fortunate to see a particularly full expression of it.

It’s interesting that he argues that new atheists feel moral truth is “instinctive.” I tackled this very premise in my article.

Another New Atheist, Sam Harris, hints at something similar in this Big Think video when he says (after arguing that we don’t need God for morality) that we have “some very serviceable intuitions about what good and evil are.” The problem, however, is that feelings and intuitions (programmed into us via evolution or not) are not a logical means from which we can define moral behavior. Most of us would agree that proposing the murder of a 10 week old baby feels wrong, but that doesn’t mean it can be logically shown to be so. We can even construct scenarios where killing the baby is the right thing to do for the greater good (say, the baby is the carrier of a deadly disease that cannot be allowed to spread). In such cases, killing the baby might be the right thing to do (according to conventional ethics) but I think we all know that it would still feel awful to carry out the act. From that we must conclude that feelings/intuitions are not a trustworthy source of divining morals.

Robo-sales

It seems like all I ever do around here is comment on the increased use of robots and A.I. software in the workforce. (But I sure look good doing it!) I’ll try and keep it in check. Nonetheless, this little tidbit caught my eye. It’s from an article in the April 3, 2014 New York Times Book Review called “The Programmed Prospect Before Us.”

Recently, Michael Scherer, a Time magazine bureau chief, received a call from a young lady, Samatha West, asking him if he wanted a deal on health insurance. After she responded to a number of his queries in what sounded like a prerecorded fashion, he asked her point blank whether she was a robot, to which he got the reply, “I am human.” When he repeated the question, the connection was cut off. Samantha West turned out to be a system of recorded messages that were part of a computer program created by the brokers of health insurance.

If this is true, this is such a clumsy application of computer intelligence that it makes me think we have nothing to worry about. Nobody likes talking to robo-software, much less robo-software that claims to be human. It seems these sorts of efforts are designed simply to annoy people. (Note: Read update below for more details on Samantha West.)

Of course, maybe there a kind of spam-mindset going on. “We annoy 100,000 people with bullshit robo-calls but 10 of them actually buy the insurance and we clear our margins.”

The article continues.

The point is not that humans were not involved, but that experts had worked out that far fewer of them needed to be involved to sell a given quantity of health insurance. Orthodox economics tells us that automating such transactions, by lowering the cost of health insurance, will enable many more policies to be sold, or release money for other kinds of spending, thus replacing the jobs lost. But orthodox economics never had to deal with competition between humans and machines.

I’m not sure that final sentence is exactly correct, as a rumination on the tale of John Henry should illustrate, but I get the gist and it’s thought provoking.

Update!
I was intrigued by Samatha West to look up details. It turns out they are a little cloudier than stated above though the concerns raised are legitimate.

Robot-denying telemarketing robot may not actually be a robot.

As Time is now reporting, the telemarketing robot is actually a computer program used by telemarketers outside the United States. According to John Rasman of U.S.-based Premier Health, the system allows English speaking telemarketers with thick non-American accents to sort through leads to find real prospective buyers before passing them off to agents back in the United States. “We’re just contacting people in a way they’re not familiar with,” said Rasman. The human agents who trigger Samantha West’s responses act as brokers for health insurance companies inside the U.S.

So it’s not robots stealing our jobs, it’s those damn foreigners!

Robo-milking

I frequently talk about the robotization of the workforce. Today’s NY Times has an article that caught my eye. “With Farm Robotics, the Cows Decide When It’s Milking Time.

In essence, robotic devices are now available to milk cows. It frees humans from a disagreeable task and…

The cows seem to like it, too.

Robots allow the cows to set their own hours, lining up for automated milking five or six times a day — turning the predawn and late-afternoon sessions around which dairy farmers long built their lives into a thing of the past.

With transponders around their necks, the cows get individualized service. Lasers scan and map their underbellies, and a computer charts each animal’s “milking speed,” a critical factor in a 24-hour-a-day operation.

For some reason I’m reminded of an old New Yorker cartoon my dad often recollects. A farmer is milking a cow and the cow looks back at him and says, “Gently, please. It’s Mother’s Day.”