Sunday, January 29, 2012

Meet Meat

There really is less than meets the eye to the attraction of VR romance of the sort discussed in last week’s blog. Technology allows us to play Pygmalion: to carve our own Galateas out of the computational cloud. We can, so we do. There is not much more that need be said about it.

Yet, there is something else going in the real world that is notable: the much-remarked breakdown in modern romance. Some argue there is no breakdown, and they have a point. People continue to pair (or sometimes multiple) up, whether in “traditional” or “alternative” ways – though both adjectives are misleading since all the ways are ancient, if not universally legal. Yet, there is no denying that something has changed in recent decades. The presumption that (after, perhaps, a wild oats phase) most of us will settle into lasting relationships has all but vanished. We actually are a little surprised when we encounter such a relationship. Celebrities on talk shows who mention, for example, a 5th wedding anniversary get astonished applause.

The percentage of adults who are single has trended steadily upward for decades. Currently, 49% of over-18 Americans are single, up from 28% in 1960; singles will be an absolute majority here within a year or two, as they already are in parts of Europe. Half of those singles say they have no interest in changing their status. Oddly, they have yet to form a significant political interest group (we don’t hear much from politicians about “preserving single values”) though this may soon change. (For some early rumblings, see Bella De Paulo’s Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, which details discriminatory practices against singles in everything from health insurance to social security.)

The trend was obvious by 1987 when Henry Jaglom made his quirky film Someone to Love. Jaglom belonged to the half of singles who aren’t happy with their status. In the movie he asks why modern relationships don’t last. (Once again, plenty do, but by the 80s the odds weren’t looking good.) Orson Welles, in his very last screen appearance, opines that equality and lasting intimacy may not be compatible ( ). He was not arguing for inequality, by the way, but merely saying there are consequences. I don’t pretend to know whether his remarks are sense or nonsense, but I do agree that fewer relationships last than they once did.

So they don’t last. That by itself is not a reason to avoid dabbling in them. In my life I’ve had five relationships I consider to have been truly serious. None lasted as long as four years, but there isn’t one I’d choose not to have had. OK, that’s not true. There is one I’d choose to go back in time and undo, but four out of five keepers aren’t bad. (On the other hand, those four are enough, too; presently I’m satisfied to remain in Bella’s squad of merry singles.)

Oscar Wilde: “I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself.” So, here goes: Don’t forgo the meatspace dalliances altogether. At the very least they’ll enhance the details of your VR sweetie. True, there are those awkward breakups at the ends, but, hey, contrary to a famous 1927 song, the best things in life aren’t free.

My favorite movie break-up,
by the way, is in Bananas. The copyright owners won't permit embedding, so you'll have to use the link .

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Feeling the Spark

In a sense, all fantasy games are virtual reality games, including traditional board games such as Monopoly, Clue, and Life. Yet, modern computing power makes a world of difference. VR worlds appear so satisfyingly real that many people choose to live much of their recreational lives in them, whether on websites such as Second Life or in video games. Life in cyberspace, after all, is so much more glamorous and exciting than it is in “meatspace.” We can make all our fantasies come true with a few clicks – well, virtually true anyway.

The technical possibilities for and the attraction of VR were foreseen in science fiction. Well before Caprica, Virtuosity, The Thirteenth Floor, and The Matrix, there were movies such as Blood City (1977) in which unwitting characters are tested for survival skills in a VR environment. As far back as 1935 characters in the short story Pygmalion’s Spectacles by Stanley Weinbaum don VR goggles and interact with virtual people in virtual worlds. Perhaps the silent film Sherlock, Jr. in which Buster Keaton leaves a theater audience and jumps into the action on a movie screen contains something of the idea, too.

Just how much of real life are some folks willing (or eager) to trade for virtual life? Japan is usually ahead of the curve when it comes to integrating technology into daily life, and the trend there is toward ever-more. In particular, romance is increasingly of the virtual kind, a trend that has prompted numerous news stories and editorials. “I don’t like real women,” commented one fellow on the Japanese 2channel. "They're too picky nowadays. I'd much rather have a virtual girlfriend." He’s not alone. A government study released a month ago reported a spike in the number of unmarried men; it also noted that 61% of the singles didn’t have a real girlfriend and 45% had no interest at all in finding one. Nor is it just a male phenomenon. "Maybe we're just advanced human beings," said one female Tokyo fashion editor,” according to an article in The Guardian. “Maybe we’ve learned how to service ourselves.” The majority of young Japanese still prefer live partners, of course, but who knows for how long? And will the rest of the world be far behind? Last summer the game maker Konami released the updated game Love Plus+, and, as a promotion, hosted a romantic holiday weekend at the resort town Atami for players and their virtual girlfriends. It was a smashing success.

Call me old-fashioned or stuck in the 80s, but virtual partners don’t do it for me. For my simulated romance, I want a real silicon-and-wire robot.

Wired for Love

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Barometer for Creativity

Back in 1969 my mother opened a small real estate office which I still somewhat desultorily operate. Among her early listings was a house she called a dipsy-doodle. Stairs abounded and doubled back: no two rooms in the house were on precisely the same level. The footprint of the house was anything but rectangular; it twisted this way and that. The lot was just as irregular, and it sloped down from the road with grassy terraces cut into the bank. She wrote a newspaper ad for it that asked, “Are you creative?” It pulled the best response of any ad she ever wrote. She even got a couple of letters (this was before e mail) from out of state, which answered, “Yes, I am creative,” and which asked for more information. It seemed that pretty much everyone, by self-judgment anyway, was above average in creativity.

In the end, none of those who answered the ad bought the house. (The property eventually sold, but to a walk-in who hadn’t known about it previously.) The customers who showed up in response to the ad and eventually made a purchase chose, without exception, very conventional properties instead. (Some afterward were radical enough to paint their walls colors other than white.) The dipsy-doodle evidently required a more creative approach to daily life than most people in the end were willing to contemplate. Whenever I see a mention of creativity in the news, as in a recent LiveScience article asserting that creative thinkers cheat more often than conventional thinkers, I recall the ad and ponder what “creative” means at bottom. I think most folks who answered the ad erroneously equated it with “bohemian,” though they proved to be not even that.

The usual casual definition of creativity is an ability to think outside the box, but that is not entirely adequate. An idea is not creative just because it is outlandish or original. It also has to make some kind of sense (or, in humanistic endeavors, achieve some artistic end). For example, when you are faced with a task of moving an object too heavy for you to lift with your own muscles, a friend might suggest, “Get a million ants to lift it for you.” That is certainly outside the box thinking, but it is not creative; it is just crazy. Rigging a makeshift block-and-tackle out of materials in your garage would be creative.

A real example of creative thinking is related by Dr. Alexander Calandra, a physics professor at Washington University. A colleague asked him to be an impartial judge in a dispute over a test score. The colleague had asked his students to describe how to determine the height of a building using a barometer. One student answered, “Take a barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower the barometer to the street, and then bring it up, measuring the length of the rope. The length of the rope is the height of the building.” The student thought he should get credit because he answered the question, but the professor was reluctant because the student had evaded the intent of the question. Calandra suggested that the student simply should answer the question again. The student immediately came up with several more answers, not one of which involved atmospheric pressure. They included the following: drop the barometer off the roof and time its fall to the ground using the formula d = 1/2at2 to calculate the height; on a sunny day, measure the height of the barometer, the shadow of the barometer, and the shadow of the building, and then by the law of proportion calculate the height of the building; and, my personal favorite, knock on the superintendent’s door and give him the barometer in exchange for telling you the height of the building. Calandra said to give the student credit.

By the way, I don’t think creative people are more likely to cheat. They merely define honesty creatively.

Creative accounting
I think some financial institutions in the news employed these two.


Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Incredible Shrinking Brain

Among the DVDs on my shelf is a box set of the The Outer Limits (original series), the early ‘60s science fiction TV show. The budget for each Outer Limits episode was too spare even for shoestrings, so the producers employed cheap off-the-shelf special effects that are laughable to young 21st viewers accustomed to state-of-the-art CGI. Nevertheless, many of the scripts were clever and imaginative, so it remains a fun series to sample on occasion. 

My sample from the set two nights ago was the episode “The Sixth Finger” in which a very ordinary fellow (David McCallum) is given an evolutionary push forward in a scientist’s new handy-dandy evolution-speedup-device. As is common in scifi tales (and, to the annoyance of paleontologists, in the minds of many people), there is an assumption that human evolution has a particular direction and that the direction is toward ever more brainpower. Accordingly, the machine gives McCallum’s character a hugely enlarged cranium and an extra digit on each hand.

The assumption is not only wrong, it is very nearly backwards. Neither Homo sapiens nor any other species has any inherent predisposition to evolve in one direction rather than another, but it is true that external environmental pressures can sustain trends over long periods of time. So, for some two million years of hominin evolution, our ancestors’ brains indeed became progressively larger. Then a funny thing happened. Brain size peaked 20,000 years ago; since then, brains have shrunk. Some of this decrease can be attributed to the drop in human stature that accompanied the start of agriculture. On every continent, regardless of what crops were domesticated, whenever people shifted from hunting and gathering to farming they became substantially shorter and less healthy; farming reduces the variety and quality of diet. (People have been getting taller for the past 100 years as diets got better again.) Naturally, head size shrank along with the rest of the body. Yet, the decline in cranial capacity outpaced the decline in height. The typical 21st century human has a smaller brain than a Cro-Magnon of equal overall body size, and the difference isn’t negligible. All else equal, the average cranial volume has dropped from 1500 cubic centimeters for a Paleolithic male to a modern 1350 cc. Anthropologist John Hawks at the University of Wisconsin comments that if the rate of decline seen in the past 20,000 years continues for the next 20,000, we will be back in the cranial neighborhood of Homo erectus.

Why did this happen? Paleontologists David Geary and Drew Bailey (University of Missouri) speculate that people don’t need as much brainpower to survive and reproduce as societies grow larger, and, in biology, if you don’t use something it goes away. Geary and Bailey examined the skeletal evidence and concluded that the biggest drop in brain size occurred between 15,000 and 10,000 years ago as population densities rose everywhere, not just in agricultural settlements but also in regions dominated by hunter-gatherers. Apparently it becomes easier for dim bulbs to get along if there are enough other people around to help them out.

This raises the question of whether brain size and intelligence are actually connected, particularly as a ratio of overall body size. Between any two random individuals of the same species, the answer is no. Cranial volume doesn’t predict much of anything – big-headed dummies and little-headed geniuses abound. Leaving all non-anatomical considerations of intelligence aside for the moment, the physical substructure of a brain matters, too, and a smaller brain can be more complex than a larger one. Statistically, however, the answer is yes. Of course there is a correlation. On the bell curve of intelligence distribution, there are more big heads on the right side of the curve than on the left. So, too, when comparing different species.

It seems that recent advances in artificial intelligence are coming at just the right time. If Hawks’ projection holds, we’re going to need every teraflop.

In “The Sixth Finger,” by the way, (spoiler follows) McCallum gets back in the evolution device and asks his girlfriend to send him even further ahead. Jill Haworth, though, doesn’t like her men too brainy. So, she reverses the controls and returns him to one step above caveman. If Geary and Bailey are right, caveman would have been better.

Big-Headed and Temperamental (from “The Sixth Finger”)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Reflections in a Golden Oldie

My trips to the local supermarket sometimes turn into nostalgia trips. The market typically plays an oldies station as background music, featuring numbers from the 50s through 80s. I’m frequently unaware of the tunes, as we often are of background music, but sometimes they invade my consciousness, as do the implications of the fact that I know most of the lyrics to 40 and 50 year old songs. I even phonetically know some of the foreign language lyrics from that era, though I haven’t a clue what they mean. OK, I understand the title of Santana’s Oye Como Va (“Hey, how’s it going?”), which was playing when I stopped in the store this morning and which prompted this blog, but not much else in it.

Non-English songs never have been a big part of popular music in the English-speaking world, where most folks (Americans perhaps especially) are famously monolingual. Foreign bands rarely try to break into the Anglophone market in any other language. ABBA, for instance, didn’t even bother recording Swedish versions of the majority of their songs. Still, there always have been exceptions. As far back as World War 2, Lili Marleen was popular in the UK and the US as well as in Germany. While there were English versions (in which Lili’s profession is slightly obscured), Marlene Dietrich’s German version was the preferred one among Allied soldiers ( ). That one is too old for the supermarket’s oldies station, of course, but several songs with Spanish lyrics turn up on it occasionally (Guantanamara, La Bamba, Lo Siento Mi Vida, etc.). So does the Japanese Ue o Muite Aruko, which inexplicably was released in the US under the mouth-watering but irrelevant title Sukiyaki and which topped the US charts in 1963 ( ).

All popular music reveals something of its time and place, and much of it, regardless of language, fails to translate to another time; this is especially true of dance numbers which rarely are heard again unless someone revives the dance. LP Hartley: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." The songs that survive – which can be heard with pleasure decades later – are the ones that still can evoke some emotional response (not necessarily anything deep) in the listener. Sometimes melody and voice are enough to do that; you don’t have to understand a word of Sukiyaki, for example, to catch its wistful mood.

Nevertheless, it certainly helps to understand what you’re hearing. So, most commonly, then and now, when artists borrow from overseas they translate. Sometimes they more than translate, as when Paul Anka wrote the completely original lyrics of My Way to the tune of Comme d'habitude. The past is indeed another country, and there are parts of it (and people from it) I sorely miss. One background song as I left that very same supermarket brought that thought home. It was the 1968 hit song by Welsh singer Mary Hopkin Those were the Days (see below). As it happens, this is a translated song. The original, the Russian standard Dorogoi dlinnoyu, was first recorded in the 1920s.

Yes, those were the days. But, all in all, these aren’t so very bad either. I’d better tune the radio to something current on the drive home tonight, and, if I find I forgot something on the grocery list, I'll try the A&P. I’m pretty sure they don’t play the oldies.

Those Were the Days

дорогой длинною

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

It’s The End of The World as We Know It

While paying bills yesterday, I successfully wrote 2012 on every check instead of 2011, but then forgot the banks were closed when I went to make a deposit. Well, the mail wasn’t delivered either, so the deposit I made this morning will still beat the outbound check payments.

“2012” seems an unreal number to me, as has every year after 1999. Can it be possible that someone born in 1994 is a legal adult? It seems so, even though the first time I read Orwell’s 1984, that was still a date comfortably in the future. Yet, in only three more years Marty McFly is scheduled to arrive from 1985 in his time-traveling DeLorean. Of course, that won’t really happen because there will be no 2015. Rumor has it that the world will end December 21, 2012. An ancient Mayan said so on the calendar he chiseled into stone, and he must have been right. Then again, he might have just run out of room on the stone.

I’m not sure why apocalyptic visions appeal to us so much. They always have. They were a staple of ancient prophetic literature. In popular culture, the world has been destroyed in every imaginable way: a Martian invasion in Well’s 1898 War of the Worlds, nuclear warfare in On the Beach, an asteroid impact in Impact, a supermodel robot from the future in Terminator 3, and so on. (My own post-apocalyptic novel available on Amazon, by the way, is titled Slog; my end-of-the-world short story Soot is online for free at .)

Freud had some thoughts about it. He concluded that pleasure-seeking (or, stated negatively, pain avoidance) was an inadequate explanation for human destructiveness and fascination with violence. He eventually developed a theory of a death drive in tension with (sometimes conspiring with) the pleasure principle. (See Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Civilization and Its Discontents.)  This is often characterized as Thanatos vs. Eros (though Freud himself didn’t put it that way). His odd but intriguing notion of a death drive is hard to summarize in a few sentences, but I’ll try.

Animation is an unstable state.  Imagine a single celled organism (Sig’s own example). Its natural tendency through entropy is to disintegrate – to die. Yet, it will resist threats to its natural decay process from poisons, predators, or environmental conditions; it “wants” to decay – to die – in its own way and will develop defenses against any interference with that process. So, in a peculiar way, its will to live derives from its will to die – to die on its own terms. (He does not suggest anything conscious about a single cell of course; “will” in this context is shorthand for non-conscious chemical and physical processes that give the appearance of purpose to an observer.) The death drive remains integrated in the natures of advanced creatures including humans in very complex but still very fundamental ways. The drive is at the root of aggression (which often has survival value), whether it is directed toward others (sadism) or toward oneself (masochism). People can and do take pleasure in wanton destruction; witness the string of arsons this past week in LA. The suppression of such destructive acts through force and through the inculcation of moral standards in the citizenry is an absolute necessity for civilization, but this inevitably leads to unhappiness in individuals whose natural drives are thwarted – the trade-off is a worthwhile one, but all the same it is a trade-off.

The popularity of apocalypse tales, of death-mocking Halloween, and of horror movies, in this view, goes beyond facing our fear of death with graveyard humor. We are seduced by death and by destruction – all too often by the real thing in war and crime. The marriage of death and Eros in literature, myth, and film is impossible to miss (e.g. Shakespeare, the poetry of Poe, and movies such as Ghost). First person shooter games in which the player gets to wreak mayhem on a vast scale are standard fare in video games; one wonders if, contrary to usual concerns expressed by would-be nannies, the cathartic value of such games is partly responsible for the drop in violent crime since they came on the market. End-of-the-world scenarios, which take destruction to its highest level, tickle our inner Thanatos in socially harmless ways.

So, while we can’t allow arsonists to get away with setting real fires in LA, we at least can enjoy watching the whole city slide into the Pacific in a movie, damn it. Then we can enjoy Disneyland all the better.