Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Stone Age Never Ended

The term “evolutionary psychology” was popularized in the 1990s but is really just the current label for the longstanding argument that human behavior is as least as much nature as nurture and that the nature is a product of deep evolutionary history. Cf. Carl Jung regarding a newborn: “He is not born as a tabula rasa [clean slate], he is merely born unconscious. But he brings with him systems that are organized and ready to function in a specifically human way, and these he owes to millions of years of human development.” This seems obvious to most people, and it is clearly the case in all other species. Yet it is not obvious to academic sociologists among whom the tabula rasa doctrine long has been dominant; humans are different, they argue, and among humans culture trumps nature. This is not as crazy as it sounds to most outside of academe. We do have the mental capacity to choose to act against our natural predilections, whether from personal choice or from indoctrination (submitting to which arguably is also a personal choice), and I know of no major evolutionary psychologist who dismisses nurture as irrelevant. But to say a slate can be overwritten is quite different from saying that there is nothing to overwrite. Also, slates never can be wiped entirely clean. Something shows.

The Savanna Principle that underlies evolutionary psychology is very much in line with Jung’s remark. The earliest hominid remains so far discovered date back 6,000,000 years. Anatomically modern humans have been around for some 200,000 years. For nearly all that time all of them were hunter-gatherers; a handful of humans still are. People, initially in small numbers, switched over to pastoralism and farming starting around 12,000 years ago. The very first cities formed around 5000 years ago, though only in the 21st century has a majority of the world’s population come to live in urban areas. The Savanna Principle states that 12,000 years is not nearly enough time to alter humans fundamentally. (It is long enough for trivial changes, e.g. adult lactose tolerance in a minority of the world’s population, but not fundamental ones.) We still have minds evolved for a Stone Age world. Adapted for life on the savanna, we navigate Manhattan and Shanghai as best we can, which isn’t always well.

Two books that address this mismatch are Mismatch: How Our Stone Age Brain Deceives Us Every Day and What We Can Do about It by Dutch authors Ronald Giphartand Professor Mark van Vugt and The Ape That Understood the Universe: How Mind and Culture Evolve by Steve Stewart-Williams, associate professor at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. Stewart-Williams’ book is the more general one and is best suited to anyone new to the subject. He uses the device of an imaginary extraterrestrial trying to make sense of human reproduction, violence, cultural memes, tribalism, and bad eating habits. Giphart and Vugt, apropos to their book’s title, focus more specifically on the mismatches. You can take a test quick test of your own degree of mismatch here: I scored a 28.

Both books are serviceable and I’ll give them a mild thumbs up for what they do, but a rather more entertaining book from a decade earlier covering much of the same ground is Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters by Alan Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa. The larger part of what the authors have to say is not only obvious, but blindingly obvious. Not all, but most. They tell us the burdens of parenthood often make people unhappy. They tell us men are motivated by sex. They tell us women are more selective than men in their choice of sexual partners and that they take social and economic status into account. This hardly is startling stuff, and even tabula rasa sociologists agree with it; the latter simply assert the reason is culture and socialization. The authors refer to studies that are quite persuasive that there is more to it than that.

Does evolutionary mismatch make us unhappy? Freud certainly thought so 90 years ago, which he expressed in Civilization and Its Discontents. He thought the trade-off was worth it though. Others are not so sure. They think that stepping out of the cave was a bad move. Perhaps so, but I don’t think I’ll be abandoning central heat and LED television in order to return to it even if that means my inner caveman will sometimes grumble and demand things that are bad for me.

The Cramps – Caveman

Jerzey Derby Brigade (JDB) vs. Dutchland Derby Rollers in Season Opener

The Jerzey Derby Brigade (JDB) opened its 2019 roller derby season last night on its home track in Morristown, NJ, hosting the Dutchland Derby Rollers All Stars visiting from Lancaster, PA.

Dutchland demonstrated strength from the outset as #7 Mega Pixel scored the first points of the game in the first jam. In the next four jams Dutchland scored 29 more points while keeping JDB to 1. Dutchland not only put several good jammers on the track but put up a strong defense that JDB struggled to match during the first half. Dutchland blocking walls were solid and the blockers were effective at breaking up JDB walls to let their own jammers through. Individual blockers, notably #0202 Punk Sue Tawney, hit hard as well. #8 Lil Mo Peep and #3684 Californikate nonetheless both had limited success scoring for JDB while individual JDB blockers, #221 Det. Sure Bock Holmes, repeatedly took down Dutchland blockers. #12 Dead Pull put Dutchland over the 100 mark in the final minutes of the first half. At halftime the score stood at 29-106 in favor of Dutchland.

A reenergized JDB returned to the track in the second half. JDB jammers, backed by toughened and well-organized blocking, broke through to be lead jammers for the first five jams in a row. Mo Peep, Californikate, and #138 Incindyous closed the point gap to 50-114. Dutchland strength didn’t vanish, however, and their lead was daunting. #7 Mega Pixel expanded it again with a 20 point power jam. Despite spirited jams by both teams and hard hitting defense, Dutchland never gave up its lead. Though #64 Madeleine Alfight managed to score points for JDB in the last jam of the bout, Dutchland took a solid victory with a Final Score of 86-191.

#12 Dead Pull (jammer)
#77 Schmid Vicious (blocker)

#3684 Californikate (jammer)
##221 Det. Sure Bock Holmes (blocker)

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Binge Snacks

In the past 70 years a vast archive of television content has been built up, and much of it is now available on DVD or online sites. Even the most dedicated couch potato would be unable to watch more than a small fraction of it in a lifetime. Nor would anyone want to. The 80/20 rule of thumb that applies to so much of life should warn us that 80% of past (and current) content is garbage. The remaining 20% (which ranges from “not bad” to “excellent”) is still a lot of content for those sleepless nights when we are too tired to read but not satisfied by staring at the ceiling. There is little correlation between a show’s quality and longevity. Some very promising shows failed to build an audience and lasted one or two seasons. A few examples:

Werewolf (1987–1988): a surprisingly good show tripped by a writer’s strike before it could get a solid footing.
Freaks and Geeks (1999–2000): better than average teen dramedy.
Twin Peaks (1990–1991): notoriously weird but intriguing mystery crime drama from David Lynch.
The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. (1993–1994): high concept sci-fi Western set in the 1890s starring Bruce Campbell.
Dark Skies (1996–1997): sci-fi show about an extraterrestrial conspiracy in the 1950s and 1960s.
Tru Calling (2003-2005): Eliza Dushku as a morgue attendant able to re-live days and sometimes prevent a death.

This past week I sampled two others that I neglected to watch (aside from a snippet here or there) when they first aired. The limited number of episodes make for binge-watching snacks rather than the full course banquets of more commercially successful shows. For dessert (even snacks sometimes are enhanced by dessert) I picked up a series-related comic.

Painkiller Jane (aka Jane Vasco) is a comic book heroine created for Event Comics in 1995. The adaptation of the comics for the Syfy channel (still called the Sci Fi channel at the time) aired in 2007 and starred Kristanna Loken, best known for her role as a terminator in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. I met Kristanna at a Chiller Theater convention several years ago. While sifting through photos I indiscreetly mumbled to myself, “That was a weird show” when I recognized one picture as being from Painkiller Jane. “Why?” she asked quizzically. The question was natural enough but caught me off guard since I hadn’t intended to voice my remark. I didn’t make things better by answering truthfully, “A bit SM.” (I ended up selecting a Terminator 3 photo.)

A revisit to the single season series (actually the first extended visit: I’d only seen the pilot in ‘07) confirmed that my answer was, if impolite, on target. The character Jane Vasco discovers the hard way that she is able to recover from any injury. This makes her a superb crime fighter and secret agent since she can expose herself to any risk including gunfire. But the key word is “recover.” She does get injured and does suffer pain; she just regenerates quickly – not instantaneously but quickly. So, every week this beautiful woman accepts horrible injuries in order to prevail in the end. Sadomasochistic is a term that barely covers it. The series has some interesting concepts and writing, but some viewers might find it unsettling. In ‘07 apparently too many did.

The terminator connection of the Painkiller Jane actress prompted through stream of consciousness a look at Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles, which ran 2007-2008. This was critically a well-regarded show at the time, as I well knew, but it didn’t fit my schedule back then. My belated opinion is that the critics were right. It is a well-written and entertaining show. The events take place after the events of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The series ignores subsequent films in the franchise, which is probably wise. Sarah Connor is played by Lena Heady, and John by Thomas Dekker. Summer Glau is superb as the terminator reprogrammed by future John and sent back in time to protect them.

Summer Glau in turn brought to mind her earlier role in the exceptionally good one season sci-fi series Firefly (2002–2003). Joss Whedon, creator of the series, was as unhappy with the early cancellation as the fans were, and tied up most of the loose ends with the theatrically released movie Serenity. Most. For the remainder of the dangling strands, he turned to comic books. Originally published by Dark Horse but presently by Boom, the collected tales in Firefly Legacy Edition Book One provide us with more backstory for the characters: notably of the mysterious Shephard Book. They add details of events between the last Firefly episode and the movie Serenity. There are also post-Serenity stories. Joss and Zack Whedon wrote most of the entries, but one was written by actor/comedian Patton Oswalt of all people. Oswalt at the time had a role in Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse – which, by the way, is another excellent short-lived (two season) TV series. The comic is for Firefly fans only – anyone unfamiliar with the series would be lost – but for those fans, Thumbs Up.

When in the mood for a late night visual snack, one could do worse than these two shows and the Firefly comic collection.

Painkiller Jane trailer

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Same Old Song

When I make generational generalizations I usually remember to add the caveat that exceptions to the rule are as numerous as adherents to it. (When I don’t I should.) In every generation there are slackers and workaholics, libertines and prudes, authoritarians and anarchists, extroverts and introverts, and so on. Yet that doesn’t mean such generalizations are useless. There really is such a thing as a Zeitgeist. Think of it as a shift of the centerline of the bell curve for any one trait to the left or right. Mainstream centerline behavior really is wilder among equivalent age cohorts in some decades and more reserved in others. Some eras and age groups really are characterized by more cautious saving and others by more free spending – once again at the centerline: there are always profligates and misers on the bell curve tails in any age group in any era. That said, I’ll go ahead and generalize.

The prompt for all this was a brief broadcast interview of a 100-year-old World War 2 veteran. He wasn’t one of those rare old birds still chirpily on his mettle. The clip reminded me of vintage newsreels from the 1930s with interviews of doddering Civil War veterans. Those of us old enough to have members of the GI Generation as parents (or grandparents) remember them differently. A few of us are lucky enough to still have them around. The very youngest of the GI Gens were 17 in 1945 and therefore are 91 years old in 2019; the vast bulk are several years older. At 1,900,000 they are not quite 0.6% of the U.S. population and their numbers are diminishing rapidly. Of the more than 16,000,000 U.S. military veterans of World War 2, some 450,000 remain. In their heyday they were a formidable bunch.

The GI generation (aka Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation”) consists of those old enough to have served legally in the armed forces in WW2 (whether they actually did or not), but not old enough also to have served in WW1 or to have been strongly shaped by the experience of WW1. So, the birth years for the generation are from about 1905 to the first several months of 1928. I’ve written about this age group before, and I won’t repeat the long list of its relative virtues, flaws, and quirks acquired from the experience of Depression and war. (I’m also writing from an American perspective; the impact of the war varied dramatically from one country to the next, so while there are parallels in the characteristics of the generation across borders there are large regional differences, too.) I will mention a couple though. The first is that they grew up early. Maybe the word “early” is unnecessary.

The GI Gens and the so-called Silent Generation (b. the latter half of 1928 through 1945) that followed them were the last adult generations. Those who know them know what I mean. My Boomer generation didn’t always appreciate that when we were in our youth. In the 1960s “Don’t trust anyone over 30!” was a Boomer slogan. It was one we never really gave up: we didn’t trust ourselves when we passed 30 and for good reason. Generations after the Boomers seem if anything even less eager to grow up as evidenced by the contemporary usage of “to adult” as a verb to describe doing something hard and disagreeable.

It is hard to overestimate how much the GI Generation dominated the last half of the 20th century, mostly to the country’s benefit. Most of the benefit was in nonpolitical matters, but every President from Kennedy to George H.W. Bush belonged to the generation. The Silent Generation never got a President. The succession skipped over them to Boomer Bill Clinton. Most classic rock stars were (ironically) Silents however, so at least they got to star in something – which brings us to the second item: popular music.

The popular sounds of the 1960s so beloved by Boomers (performed mostly by Silents) really are special, but if there is a decade that outshines the ‘60s it is the 1940s. My parents weren’t shy about playing their music, so I grew up with it in the house. The big band sound was the most iconic, but was only one of various styles. Lyrics could be sentimental without (usually) being sappy, they could be silly, or they simply could be spirited – and, though youthful, somehow adult. Many songs became night club standards we still hear in some venues. Even the most familiar ones to me (and those older) may be unknown to younger people though. Anecdote: Some time ago I was watching a Young Frankenstein DVD with a Gen-X friend. (Gen-Xers are those born 1965-1980.) At one point in the movie Gene Wilder leans out the train window and asks a shoeshine boy, “Pardon me boy, is this the Transylvania Station?” I said to my friend, “You know, someone under 40 might not know that is a joke.” He looked at me puzzled and asked, “What joke?” Sigh.

Anyway, the interview of the old vet mentioned above prompted me to pluck a double CD off my shelf titled Those Were Our Songs: Music of World War Two. I’ve been playing it in my car the past few days. Though they aren’t my songs in the sense meant in the title, they do arouse nostalgia. These tunes filled the air at home while I was growing up. I recommend the collection even to those too young for a nostalgia response, for some very good stuff was recorded in the 40s. Of course, any anthology reflects the taste (in some cases the budget) of the person who assembles it and so is idiosyncratic by its nature, which is to say I would have made several different choices for this set. Glenn Miller, for one, is glaringly absent: this is like a ‘60s collection with no Beatles or a ‘50s collection with no Elvis. I would have traded a few tracks for Ellington or one of the Dorseys or more of Goodman. What did make it into the collection is pretty good however – well, 80% of it, which is an unusually high proportion for this kind of hodgepodge. (On the off chance someone else is puzzled by Gene Wilder’s line, by the way, play disc 2 track 5.) I’ll probably play through the discs again on my car trips along with some supplemental 40s-vintage material to round them out. They still evoke a smile as many times as I’ve heard those songs before.

Harry James & Helen Forrest I've Heard That Song Before

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Sight Unseen

Whether singly or in herds, deer commonly stand outside the window next to my desk and computer. They are much the same hue as the background, so I rarely notice them unless they move a lot. They aren’t actually invisible but they don’t draw attention so most of the time they might as well be. They plainly prefer it that way, for if they notice me notice them they leave. I doubt the deer think about it much, but there is wisdom in this nonetheless.
The view out my window

This past Thursday night at around 10:30 PM power went out on my street and so did my Wi-Fi internet connection. (A road accident a few miles away had taken down utility poles.) The power didn’t return for 18 hours. My land line was down too, and my cell had little charge remaining, so I turned it off to preserve it for actual need. For a day I was invisible. But not really. My phone was still trackable even when turned off. My car has GPS. E-Z Pass registers every toll highway, bridge, or tunnel I might choose to take. Security cameras on homes and businesses tracked my moves on Friday as I drove to visit a friend in a healthcare facility; there, cameras recorded me in the parking lot, a security guard at the front desk asked for a photo ID, and interior cameras watched me in the elevator, down the hall, and then back again. On the drive back home I passed a parked police car equipped to scan license plates of cars as they pass. I was quite visible.

Even without deliberately filling our homes with internet-connected listening devices such as Alexa, we must make a deliberate effort to achieve privacy nowadays and we are likely to fail. In most cases our anonymity is preserved only because no one is interested enough to bother to pick us out of the crowd, but we are pick-out-able to anyone who does choose to make the effort. This state of affairs contrasts with my youth when privacy was the default state. In those benighted days we could speak and joke and act unguardedly without concern some frenemy with a cell phone might record it and turn it against us. We rarely encountered security cameras outside of banks and casinos. It never would have occurred to us willingly to put listening devices into our homes. In the early 1970s when I took shuttle flights from Newark to Washington DC I did so anonymously (no ID check) and bought the ticket on the plane in cash. Folks generally were invisible unless they chose not to be. Nowadays most of us broadcast our locations and activities on Facebook and Instagram, but even if we don’t do this we remain traceable.

We don’t have to give up a measure of privacy by posting things on social media, of course, but most of us do even though we know tech companies are watching and will try to sell us things based on what we search or post. That is our choice, but we no longer can count on privacy even when we don’t choose to surrender it – even in places where until recently we had a reasonable expectation of it. The always prescient Aldous Huxley worried about this long ago: “I’m afraid of losing my obscurity. Genuineness only thrives in the dark like celery.” Absence of privacy is unhealthy for a person and (at best) is unpleasant in a society. In his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being about the 1968 Prague Spring, Milan Kundera writes of how an important figure was undermined by the release of secretly recorded private conversations: “Instantly Prochazka was discredited: because in private, a person says all sorts of things, slurs friends, uses coarse language, acts silly, tells dirty jokes, repeats himself, makes a companion laugh by shocking him with outrageous talk, floats heretical ideas he'd never admit in public, and so forth.” This release of private conversation is presented as a dastardly act by a totalitarian regime, yet this sort of takedown is commonplace in the U.S. (and elsewhere) today, albeit far more often by private citizens with various motivations than by government agencies.

Akiko Busch repeats the Huxley quote in her 2019 book How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency. The title is a misnomer. This is not a guide to staying under the radar in contemporary society. The book is more about “why” than “how,” and for this she makes her case. In essence, we just need time when we are not “on,” just as we need time off from every other type of work – and maintaining a public persona is most assuredly work. Just as in art, sometimes the negative space is what matters. “Transparency” is a modern buzzword, and there is a place for it, but not everywhere. Louis Brandeis in an influential 1890 Harvard Law Review article stated a "right to be let alone," which means a right not to be transparent. Amendment Four of the Bill of Rights establishes a particular protection against arbitrary intrusions on privacy:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Today, as in the 18th century when this was written, authorities cannot be trusted to muck around willy-nilly through your stuff whenever it suits them looking for a reason to arrest you or embarrass you. They would be sure to abuse such power, particularly against political enemies. The restriction is against government power specifically, but it is a good ethical rule (nowadays often honored in the breach) for private citizens to follow, too. Some of our life is public, some for our close circle of friends, and some for us alone. It is a kindness (and common decency) to respect that.

Ordinary privacy is one thing, but people also long have fantasized about what actual physical invisibility would be like. There are ancient myths of heroes with invisibility cloaks. The idea has been a staple of science fiction since H.G. Wells wrote The Invisible Man in 1897. (The 1933 film adaptation of Wells is fun, by the way; on the other hand, I suggest passing on the movie adaptation of H.F. Saint’s 1987 The Invisible Man though the novel is quite good; my own short story about invisibility, titled Ghillie Suit, alas, has no film adaptation.) Griffin, Wells’ invisible man, becomes a criminal. Wells was probably onto something with this. H.L. Mencken remarked, “Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking.” We need our private places, but the secure knowledge no one is looking in public either would invite…well…unsocial behavior. So try to find some private space to be unguarded if you can, but maybe it is best to pass on Griffin’s potion should you (or I) happen upon a vial of it. I think I’d handle it more ethically than Griffin, but I’m not sure how much more.

Trailer for The Invisible Man (1933)