Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Cuss Politely

A few blogs ago, the topic, inspired by an angry driver, was incivility. This is something widely regarded as a modern plague, though one against which few of us choose to inoculate ourselves. In her 2009 book I See Rude People, “Advice Goddess” Amy Alkon attributes incivility to the modern lifestyle of living among strangers. Citing solid research on the subject, she argues that humans are wired for social groups of about 150. When we live among 150 people who know us by name, peer pressure is enough to keep us in line. This lifestyle was common as late as the 1950s when people in a neighborhood typically knew each other. Nowadays, a person’s 150-group is likely to be scattered geographically. We move frequently and no longer know our physical neighbors or the patrons in the local coffee shop; “neighborhood” now simply means a contiguous area where real estate values are similar. Anyone we encounter on the street we’re unlikely to know or to meet again. We don’t feel peer pressure from those around us; any rudeness goes mostly unremarked and unpunished. We get out of the habit of behavior that once was called “neighborly.”

Having enjoyed I See Rude People, I picked up a copy of Alkon’s 2014 book Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck (asterisk in the original). The title alone says something about how manners have changed since the 1950s. Language has become salty in situations where it once wasn’t. One example: Before the start of the off-Broadway play Triassic Parq, a musical parody of Jurassic Park, the announcer warned, “If your cell phone rings, the dinosaurs have permission to eat your fucking face.” This evoked nothing more than a few chuckles. Arguably, though, this just indicates a swing back toward the earthy linguistic pattern of the 18th century, an era in which manners otherwise were more formal than today. For example, during the debates in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Elbridge Gerry – whose district-drawing skills are honored in the word “gerrymander” – argued against a standing army by comparing it to an engorged penis, “an excellent assurance of domestic tranquility, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure.” The simile is as unlikely in Congress today as is the eloquence with which it was constructed. What passes for polite vocabulary in contemporary general company, however, is less important than behavior, such as letting your cell phone ring in a theater.

If you’ve never read Alkon before, I recommend reading I See Rude People first. It is the most entertaining of her books and it covers all the basic points she has to make, but as a supplement Good Manners, etc. has some value, too. Once again she describes her efforts to shame rude people publicly as a way of restoring peer pressure to a community of strangers. For example, when a person from a nearby area disposed of empty boxes by dropping them by the side of the road on her street – and was careless enough to leave address labels on them – she posted photos on her blog along with the name of the dumper, so that if you google the person’s name the photos pop up. Most of the book, though, is indeed a manners guide with especial attention to modern communications technology and social media, areas uncovered by traditional etiquette books. Failing to turn off a cell phone is more likely forgetfulness than an intentional rudeness, but we’ve all been distracted by the blue glow of cell screens in theaters by people who can’t wait 90 minutes to read and send texts. Then there is texting at the table during a dinner date, which she likens to “whipping out a pen and legal pad and saying to your date, ‘You busy yourself with that pork chop, sweetcheeks. Got a couple letters I need to mail out first.’” She writes at length about what sort of online presence you want to have, how much to reveal, and how to manage posts and responses. She advises against “trying to ‘cure’ someone’s political point of view by barraging them with yours…” Then there is her chapter on (primarily hetero) dating, titled “Dating is War.” She not just describes common rudeness, but suggests making allowances, too: “The truth is, in dating, a good bit of the hurt and anger people feel is caused not by rude behavior but by misconceptions about the opposite sex and the way things ‘should’ work as opposed to the way they actually do.”

At bottom, though tilted toward modern tech, the book has the same fundamental advice found in etiquette books of a century ago: treat people the way you want to be treated whether they “deserve” it or not. The advice is the same for cyberspace as for meatspace. It’s a trite message, but that doesn’t make it any less sensible – and in a world of strangers a reminder of it is welcome.

Too Rude – Rolling Stones

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Ask Me No Questions…

Lies are part of everyday life. Research published in the Journal of Basic and Applied Psychology indicates that a person in active conversation in a social group typically tells 2.92 lies every 10 minutes. We’re not talking about serious deceits or money-inspired cons – at least not very often. Overwhelmingly they are insignificant white lies intended to lubricate conversation or to avoid potential conflicts. They can be anything from false compliments (“your hair looks nice”) to false explanations about why one didn’t answer the phone earlier. The 2.92 number doesn’t even take account of “lies of omission,” i.e. intentionally giving a false impression by leaving out pertinent information. Most of us acknowledge this foible in ourselves, and might even debate the term “foible.” We still likely consider ourselves honest “in ways that matter.” Nonetheless, the taboo of dishonesty we learn as children (and at the same time learn selectively to violate) still can make us feel guilt when we are forced to face our prevarications.

An acquaintance of mine makes a sport of catching people out. If you slip in conversation by giving two contradictory statements of where you ate lunch yesterday, most of us (perhaps not a jealous spouse, but most of us) will just let that slide without mention; we know you just wanted to frame a restaurant recommendation or some such thing. Not this fellow. He’ll acquire a satisfied grin and say, “But I thought you said”… etc. This is socially objectionable and explains why he seldom is invited to parties. There are people, however, who detect lies not just to be annoying but for a living. Actually, “lie detection” is a misnomer. No one who starts out uncertain of the facts can detect a lie. He or she, if competent, merely can detect emotional responses that might indicate a person is lying. Then again, they might indicate something else. People get emotional for lots of reasons. Sometimes the truth triggers emotions.

The man who literally wrote the book on lie detection is Paul Ekman. A professor emeritus at UC, Ekman consults with police, national security agencies, private companies, and legal specialists on such things as facial cues, voice inflections, and polygraphs. In his book Telling Lies he describes experiments which demonstrate that most people are terrible at detecting lies. They misread body language and voice patterns and rarely beat pure chance results on controlled tests. Police superficially appear to have a higher rate of success than the general population but only because their job breeds such cynicism that they often assume everyone is lying; you won’t miss the liars if you accuse everybody. If you include their false positives – people assumed to be lying who are telling the truth – police typically are not any more accurate than the general public. Contrary to the claims of some enthusiasts, polygraphs also are not much better than chance in the hands of the average polygraph operator. As Ekman repeatedly points out, the machines do not and cannot detect lies directly. They merely record emotional responses. They do not even specify which emotion the subject is feeling, just its intensity. It is easy to misinterpret the data.

The good news – or at least the useful news – is that by combining the polygraph with a serious study of expressions, micro-expressions, and questioning techniques, the success rate at lie detection can be boosted. An example of a useful questioning technique for a polygraph test would be as follows. Rather than ask a murder suspect what weapon he used, recite to him a list of possible weapons (assuming you know the answer yourself but that the public doesn’t know); a guilty suspect will almost surely have an emotional response when he hears the right weapon while an innocent person likely will have the same response to each weapon named. It is not always possible to frame questions this way, of course. The police do not always have sufficient knowledge to do so. But with training a minority (about a third) of trainees can achieve success rates as high as 80%.

Therein lies the promise and the rub. Even this elite cadre is wrong 20% of the time. Most so-called experts are wrong far more often than that. A 20% error rate sounds a lot like “reasonable doubt,” and the odds are against getting an expert as good as that. False positives, and they are common, can cause innocent people a world of trouble. Further, just as a person can be trained to detect lies better, a person can be trained to tell them better too, including to polygraph machines. Lawyers train their witnesses in a limited way all the time. Courtrooms are ideally designed to aid liars anyway. Cases come before a jury long after the event, so the emotional responses of the witnesses have dulled. Furthermore the type of questions is restricted and the witnesses are coached. It also has been demonstrated that some people are natural liars who regularly defeat interrogators and polygraphs; on the other hand, some other people can’t tell convincing lies to save their lives, and training helps them very little.

Ekman’s conclusion:
“…I do not believe that judgments about who is lying should be allowable evidence in court. Such judgments, however, may provide a sounder basis for deciding, at least initially, whom to investigate further…”

This seems to be a sound policy recommendation. He has similar reservations about polygraphs used by private companies for employment reasons. They simply are not reliable, especially in the hands of the typical operator.

While a skilled analyst’s 80% success rate may not be proof, it is worth noticing. Ekman’s techniques are useful and his books are intriguing reads. But, if you learn his methods, I urge against using them to confront people with their harmless fibs in social situations. The number of invitations you receive to parties will fall drastically.


Thursday, June 18, 2015

That Light Bulb Moment

Elementary school students love field trips. Trips beat parsing sentences and doing long division any day. In 1963 (I think), one of the trips taken by my class was to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in nearby West Orange, NJ. This was where Edison opened his research laboratory in 1887. It dwarfed his previous facility in Menlo Park. Nothing like it on this scale had existed before anywhere. Edison’s movie studio was built on the same grounds in 1893. The lab was in operation until the 1930s and hasn’t changed much since then. Thomas’ son Charles Edison (governor of NJ in the 1940s) saw to that; he donated the site to the federal government in 1956.

For no good reason, I hadn’t been back inside the place since 1963 – until, that is, a week ago when friends from CA (see http://innermammalinstitute.org/), in the area for some business at the Bronx Zoo, suggested I meet them in West Orange. There was no need to ask twice. Revisiting the site was fun. I appreciated all of it on a different level than in 1963, of course.

I’ve been mulling a question that arose during the tour. The question was whether Edison, for all his 1,093 patents, was as important as all that. Could it be that the time was just ripe for his inventions? Wouldn’t someone else have invented them had he not existed? I didn’t respond to this particularly well at the time, but I’ll do it now. The answer is yes, but… emphasis on the “but.”

The “times” don’t create anything. People do, individually or in teams. The surprising thing is not how often several inventors are working on a similar idea at the same time, but how few those inventors always are. To be sure, the times do matter. For example, the ancient world cared little for Heron’s steam engine or (except for slinging bolts and rocks) Archimedes’ levers. The ruling classes were perfectly happy with slave labor and saw no need to exploit mechanical power in its place. By 1800 circumstances were very different in parts of Europe and North America. Yet, the social conditions which made the 19th century ripe for the industrial application of science were created, once again, by people – people with names, even if we no longer know most of them. The “times” did not simply emerge out of the ether. Nothing “just happens.” Somebody makes it happen.

I remember growling something similar to myself while slogging through War and Peace years ago. About 1,000 pages into the book Tolstoy seems to lose interest in his characters and instead treats us to more and more of his theory of history. He tells us how the times were responsible for creating Napoleon and how his defeat was inescapable. Um, no. The times (created by specific people, many of them Revolutionaries) did make Napoleon possible, but not necessary. Had he died in Italy there is no reason to believe anyone else would have or could have duplicated his career. Nor was his defeat in Russia woven into the fabric of time. Alexander had something to do with that. It all could have turned out quite differently with different actors in place. I'm not sure why this is even a matter for dispute, but apparently it is.

In short, I don’t think we make a mistake by admiring people who revolutionize our lives, whether in business, science, politics, or culture. Without them, might others come along sooner or later with comparable contributions? Yes. In that case we wouldn’t be making a mistake by admiring them instead. One way or another, it always takes a real live human being, not some nebulous chronology. 

Thomas Edison deserves a park with his name on it.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Back at Trackside

Having missed the last home bout, I was suffering some derby withdrawal symptoms. Fortunately, last night’s exciting bout between the Morristown Corporal Punishers and the Backyard Bullies visiting from Westchester County satisfied thoroughly.

In an opening power jam #60 Leggy Fleming, assisted by well-coordinated blocking by her team-members, put 23 points on the board for the Bullies. Bullies jammer #33 Force Majuere then showed her name was well-chosen (if idiosyncratically spelled), powering through Punishers blocking by force majeure. At the end of only two jams the Bullies led 44 -14.  It had the look of a runaway night for the Bullies. The look was deceiving. Punishers jams by #22 Apocelyse, #8 Lil Mo Peep, and #3684 CaliforniKate filled in the gap. #1 LL Kill J put the Punishers into the lead 77-70 at 15 minutes into the first half. The lead then see-sawed, with the first half ending with Bullies in a slim 104 – 99 lead.

At the opening of the second half it was anyone’s game. Power jams, notably one by #451 Tear’n’Fight, and very effective blocking by the Bullies opened up a sizable lead, but once again the Punishers clawed back to a threatening position at 127 to the Bullies’ 139. The Bullies pushed back; they were able to exploit power jams and build solid blocking walls and thereby re-open their lead. Punishers blocking stiffened, taking down #33 Force Majuere hard at one point. Doom Hilda and Beast Witherspoon notably checked Bullies jammers at key moments. It wasn’t enough. Redoubled efforts by the Bullies showed up on the score board, as the whistle blew with a final score of 219 – 153 in favor of the Bullies.

For Corporal PunishersBeast Witherspoon as blocker, Apocelyse as jammer

For Backyard Bullies – Leggy Fleming as blocker, Mz. AfterMath as jammer

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Sights and Sounds

Mini-reviews of four looks and listens from the past week:

Mr. Nobody (2009, sort of)
The qualifier on the date of this scifi film comes from its delayed release. It was shown at the Venice Film Festival in 2009 but wasn’t in general release until 2013.

The film is set in 2092 when “telomerization” has ended death by aging – except for the decrepit 118-year-old Nemo Nobody. As the “last of the mortals,” his rapidly approaching demise has become a media event. A reporter sneaks past security and interviews Nemo about his life. Nemo decides to cooperate but, to the reporter’s exasperation, relates several distinct and mutually exclusive life histories. Nemo insists that all are true and valid until he closes his options by choosing among them. Though he never explicitly says so, the parallel is plainly to elementary particles each of which follows multiple paths until you look at it.

Nemo has a car accident and doesn’t, has a motorcycle accident and doesn’t, is hospitalized and isn’t. Three women figure prominently in Nemo’s lives; he has known all of them since childhood. Nemo and the girls/women are played by different actors at different life stages. The adult Nemo, including the heavily made-up 118-y.o. version, is played by Jared Leto. One of Nemo’s lives is with Jean; on this life path he is extraordinarily successful materially but is emotionally empty. Nemo simultaneously has a middle class life with nice kids but a nightmarish marriage with the mentally ill Elise. Then there is his materially unsuccessful (at one point homeless) life that nonetheless includes true love with Anna; the teenage version of Anna is played by Juno Temple who, as usual, steals scenes. The alternate lifelines are shaped to some degree by obviously key events, such as during his childhood when he does and doesn’t choose to live with his mother when his parents divorce. However they also are deflected by butterfly effects, which is to say that seemingly insignificant alterations in decisions or happenstances nonetheless lead to radically different outcomes.

The movie has some points to make and the surreal elements work. Yes (*partial spoiler*), Nemo does at the end collapse the probability wave.

Thumbs Up.


Jupiter Ascending (2015)
Wow. This is an awful movie…and yet… It is bad in the way the Flash Gordon serials of the 30s were bad, which, despite the completely over-the-top special effects and whiz-bang action of Jupiter Ascending, is the comparison that kept going through my head. There is some fun to be had in the badness.

For some strange reason, futuristic and alien civilizations commonly have medieval political arrangements. No exception to the rule will be found here. Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a lowly toilet cleaner in Chicago, by virtue of her genetic pattern is told she is the heir to the throne of the galaxy. It comes as a surprise to her. Becoming the queen would seem only fair compensation for that horrible name were it not for the lethal intentions of her aristocratic siblings who aren’t keen on sharing their inheritance which includes the earth. Naturally, Jupiter has a bad boy would-be protector (Channing Tatum) with whom she can argue and make goo-goo eyes while they combat space-baddies. There is one difference between medieval rulers and Jupiter’s family. Medieval aristocrats and monarchs didn’t actually harvest their subjects. Yes, humans on earth are not indigenous after all; they were seeded here (and blended with native life, as they were on many other planets) so that one day they could be harvested and processed into anti-aging bath oils for the galactic one-percenters. Really.

Don’t try to make sense of it. Just watch the spaceships explode and cities crumble while Jupiter repeatedly escapes in the nick of time. There is a lot of that. A lot.

I can’t possibly give this a thumbs up. But it is a Thumbs Sideways. I personally enjoyed the badness for one viewing. Unlike the ‘30s Flash Gordons, however, which I still can re-watch with pleasure, I can’t imagine enjoying Jupiter Ascending twice.


Veronika Decides to Die (2009)

OK, I admit it. When I alit on this movie during a channel-surf I stayed on it solely because it starred the fetching Sarah Michelle Gellar. That is a legitimate reason to watch it. Sadly, there aren’t many others.

Veronika (Gellar) is an attractive young woman with good health, a good job, and good prospects. Yet she is depressed. She feels her life – and life in general – lacks meaning, and she has had enough of it. She seeks a symbol of pointlessness online and quickly finds one in an article on fashion. She posts a comment: “I want people to know that I'm killing myself rather than participate in the collective madness of this world we are all living in.” She then gobbles pills.

Veronika’s suicide attempt fails and she wakes up in a private mental institution where her parents have installed her. Veronika is told that she damaged her arteries in her attempt and that she will die in a matter of weeks if not sooner. “I have to wait that long?” she asks. As the movie drags on, soon we the audience ask the same question. Her shrink is determined to get her to appreciate life before she dies. His methods are not merely unethical but criminal. She interacts with other patients, in particular the weird young man Edward (Jonathan Tucker) who hasn’t talked since his fiancĂ© died in a crash in which he was the driver. Given the set-up, it can’t be much of a spoiler to say that Veronika slowly does learn to appreciate life. I don’t think anyone will be surprised by the ending.

Gellar and the other actors do a serviceable job with the material they have, but the material is weak. Girl Interrupted, which this movie inevitably brings to mind, remains by far the superior choice. Thumbs Down.


Human (2015) – Three Days Grace

For years there has been a singles vs. albums debate on the future of music. There isn’t much to debate. Singles have won hands down. Singles always were strong contestants, going back to the old 45 RPM format (or, for that matter, Edison’s cylinders) and continuing through the '80s when we self-assembled mixed tapes. But there was a time (high point early 70s) when double-albums were likely to hit just as big as any singles on them. That era is long gone. Digital formats just lend themselves better to individual song-by-song downloads. A generational divide exists, with under 40s seldom buying albums and over 40s still doing it.

Well, I’m over 40 and I still do it for much the same reason I like to become familiar with a favorite author’s body of work, not just his or her best-seller. Sometimes the lesser known tales are junk and sometimes they’re gems – usually they’re a hodge-podge of both. But, whatever they may be, you get to know the author’s mind better, and that is rarely unrewarding. So, too, with musical artists.

The Canadian “alternative metal” band Three Days Grace has been around since 1997 and has turned out solid if unremarkable sounds ever since. (Their best known single might be I Hate Everything about You.) Their fifth and latest album is Human, the first since lead singer Adam Gontier was replaced by Matt Walst for health reasons. It is still very much the same band, with an album that once again is fairly good but not exceptionally good. Painkiller is the track getting the most radio airtime. That said, if this is among your preferred genres and if, along with your stand-by favorites, you’d like to load something less old and crusty into the CD tray– if you’re buying albums you’re probably still playing CDs on a stereo – you could err worse than Human. Thumbs Sideways.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Second Law

I have a sweatshirt that says “Made in 1952 All Original Parts.” The assertion is true only to the extent one would expect if said of an automobile of the same vintage. Even if nothing on a particular ’52 Chevy has been replaced (other than, say, tires, which we’ll count as non-integral, akin to shoes), the car almost surely is no stranger to body putty, sanding, and paint. Equivalently, while I still have 32 teeth – or at least underlying portions of them – most are capped and all but a few of the rest have at least one filling. Cars rust. So do people. Without some maintenance both fall apart sooner rather than later. But all fall apart eventually. The cars can last longer.

OK, the pumpkin-head isn't original

Old Physics joke:
First Law of Thermodynamics: You can’t win.
Second Law of Thermodynamics: You can’t break even.

Entropy affects everything. My house was built in 1978, which doesn’t strike me as very long ago. (It probably does to those born after 1978.) Yet I must constantly push back against loose tiles, rot on exterior wooden steps, disintegrating roof shingles, seal leakage on the double-glaze windows which creates a cloud between the panes, peeling parge coats, mechanical failures (e.g. furnace, water heater, pressure tank) and so on. So far I’m almost holding my own. Almost.

In his book Rust: The Longest War Jonathan Waldman emphasizes metallic corrosion, but he also has in mind this broader sense of decay and the ultimately doomed fight against it. It is not just radioactive elements that have half-lives, he tells us. All metals do in the sense that they oxidize over time or otherwise alter in response to their environment. He quotes a Roman general in Egypt complaining that catapult hooks weakened by rust (ferrum corrumpitur) “are causing more casualties to our own army than to the enemy.” The problem remains today. The Pentagon spends billions annually combatting corrosion on vehicles, ships, and aircraft. Yet, helicopters crash when rotor bolts rust, rusted electrical contacts bring down aircraft, and several F18s have had alarming landings due to corrosion of landing gear parts. On average, military aircraft are out of action three weeks per year over corrosion issues. All ships need endless chipping and painting. So, too, ground vehicles.

In civilian life bridges, train tracks, and brake lines fail from rust. While rust can be delayed by various treatments, it cannot be stopped. Rust-induced failures always will happen and can be reduced (not eliminated) only by timely replacement of parts. Those of us who are old enough can remember the refurbishing of the Statue of Liberty in the 1980s, which was almost too late. The frame and cladding proved to be in poorer and more dangerous shape than anyone had imagined.

Waldman spends chapters on the humble beverage can, which most of us take for granted. Back in the 1950s crushing an empty beer can by hand took considerable strength. This sounds odd today when we are used to cans that crush if you drop your mail on them, but at the time the cans were steel. Moreover, they had to be thick enough to withstand chemical assault from the contents inside and from oxygen on the outside long enough for the product to be used. Aluminum, if anything, is trickier than steel. Today’s thin aluminum cans rely on epoxy interior coatings (tailored to the beverage to be contained) to keep the inside away from the outside. Even so, they do fail, most typically in the trunk of a car parked under direct summer sunshine; the issue in that case, however, isn’t corrosion.

In the end, what can one say but that nothing is permanent, least of all ourselves? There are only different degrees of impermanence. In some respects that is just as well. That which is in decay is literally decadent, and that has a pleasant ring to it. All the same, I wonder if an epoxy coating would work for me?

Steam Powered Giraffe - I'll Rust with You