Sunday, December 11, 2011

Just putting this here

Fodder for future discussion on evolutionary game theory + morality, neuro/biological bases of behavior, cooperation and social contracts, secular morality, and other topics of continual interest:

"The Better Angels of Our Nature" (book review, Peter Singer in the NYT)

"...Are aggressive tendencies heritable? Could declines in violence in particular societies be attributed to genetic change among its members? ... Are we getting smarter? Is a smarter world a better world?

In seeking answers to these questions Pinker draws on recent research in history, psychology, cognitive science, economics and sociology. Nor is he afraid to venture into deep philosophical waters, like the role of reason in ethics and whether, without appealing to religion, some ethical views can be grounded in reason and others cannot be."

"...The data vindicates Hobbes’s basic insight, that without a state, life is likely to be “nasty, brutish and short.” In contrast, a state monopoly on the legitimate use of force reduces violence and makes everyone living under that monopoly better off than they would otherwise have been."

"Pinker argues that enhanced powers of reasoning give us the ability to detach ourselves from our immediate experience and from our personal or parochial perspective, and frame our ideas in more abstract, universal terms. This in turn leads to better moral commitments, including avoiding violence. It is just this kind of reasoning ability that has improved during the 20th century. ... For reason does, Pinker holds, point to a particular kind of morality. We prefer life to death, and happiness to suffering, and we understand that we live in a world in which others can make a difference to whether we live well or die miserably. Therefore we will want to tell others that they should not hurt us, and in doing so we commit ourselves to the idea that we should not hurt them."

I really want this book: "The Maladapted Mind ... is the first book to bring together classic and contemporary readings illustrating the new subdiscipline, evolutionary psychopathology. Each chapter demonstrates how evolutionary arguments are being brought to bear on the study of a different psychiatric condition or pathological behaviour."

(And yes, I want it partly because I want to see how questionable, or not, I find academic evolutionary psychology, as compared to popular-science handwaving.)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

"Your words are paper thin"

MC Lyte discusses the tension between words and inner experience, as well as her resistance to social expectations of romantic and sexual interactions.

Mental "illness", and oddness

". . . a thin line separates the temperament of a promising entrepreneur from a person who could use, as they say in psychiatry, a little help. Academics and hiring consultants say that many successful entrepreneurs have qualities and quirks that, if poured into their psyches in greater ratios, would qualify as full-on mental illness."

"Just Manic Enough: Seeking Perfect Entrepreneurs",
NYTimes 18 September 2010

We're always having this conversation about artists, but this is a lovely glimpse into the business-world side of it. I'd love to know what the trends are in academia and the military.

In the past weeks I've gotten to see this from a totally different angle, too : elementary education, at a school with an absurdly high teacher:student ratio, a challenging academic program, and a commitment to an ethical/moral education too. I keep wondering about the difference between socialization and normal-izing--that is, making someone normal and flattening out all the oddities and weirdnesses which make them confusing to the general public but brilliant and interesting to their own world or discipline.

Then again, I have to say that it would've been useful to learn how to shake hands, make eye contact, and carry on a conversation while still in elementary school.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

J. Chou and the new J. Bond

J shared this with us recently, saying that she found it "a nice articulation of why I like the new Bond".

She elaborates: "I remember recently attempting to explain to Diana why I find the new Bond more attractive and more human than previous Bonds, and it's not because he's less of an asshole, because he is [still an asshole]. Despite a love of treating people like shit on the job, he seems to have some emotional depth, the slightest reason for me to hold back and ask, 'Why did he do that?' rather than 'What government dog is a double agent for what secret international corporation which just built a plant on which country's sovereign territory that ruins the reputation of which politician who was already bought out by which native terrorist group who wants Vesper Lynd and yes, a camel if you please?' The film presented someone who does not necessarily enjoy being dastardly, but had just converged on an unhealthy pattern of behavior out of habit and chronic unhappiness - suppressing irritability is not easily done, and given a professional excuse to screw other human beings, one'll probably use it. I don't know why I'm particularly sympathetic towards characters that have grown up alone and arrogant, but perhaps this narrative is close to my heart." At this point Janice scratches her head bashfully.

She continues, "Sometimes I feel awkward trying to articulate an impression of Casino Royale's Bond, simply because most people assume that I'm female, the lead is male, and a feeling of emotional connection on my part is merely a woman's fancy for a sad brute, but I think this theological fellow's short-and-sweet post might shed light on why I and other women may be unconsciously more inclined to give historically misogynistic Bond a second look."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

E.B. White on religion & politics

"The Herald Tribune headed the story, PRESIDENT SAYS PRAYER IS PART OF DEMOCRACY. The implication in such a pronouncement, emanating from the seat of government, is that religious faith is a condition, or even a precondition, of the democratic life. This is just wrong. A President should pray whenever and wherever he feels like it (most Presidents have prayed hard and long, and some of them in desperation and in agony), but I don't think a President should advertise prayer. That is a different thing. Democracy, if I understand it at all, is a society in which the unbeliever feels undisturbed and at home. If there were only half a dozen unbelievers in American, their well-being would be a test of our democracy, their tranquility would be its proof."
-from the essay "Bedfellows", written 6 February 1956; in the collection Essays of E.B. White

I'm down with this.

E.B. White on NYC

"I mention these [events] merely to show that New York is peculiarly constructed to absorb almost anything that comes along (whether a thousand-foot liner out of the East or a twenty-thousand-man convention out of the West) without inflicting the event on its inhabitants, so that every event is, in a sense, optional, and the inhabitant is in the happy position of being able to choose his spectacle and so conserve his soul.
. . . I am not defending New York in this regard. Many of its settlers are probably here merely to escape, not face, reality. But whatever it means, it is a rather rare gift, and I believe it has a positive effect on the creative capacities of New Yorkers--for creation is in part merely the business of forgoing the great and small distractions."
-from the essay "Here is New York", in the collection Essays of E.B. White

Disorganized thoughts:
1. I found this a fascinating and precise explanation of why so many artists find New York (and cities in general) to be The Place to Go.

2. Similarly, this seems a good partial explanation for why parenthood (in particular motherhood, for most women) has the potential to be intensely detrimental to an artist's work : if the artist cares at all for the child, even having time and space to work (e.g. in a studio upstairs, in the home office while the kid's napping) doesn't mean you're able to truly forgo the distractions of worrying and caring about them.

3. This is also then a good explanation of why it can be hard to write around family (for me at least); if, as Sarah Arvio said to me, writing is like entering a trance and waiting, it would make sense that it would be difficult to confidently enter a "trance" with your full attention when it could be interrupted at any moment.
(So perhaps "family" is more precisely "people whom you feel obligated to pay polite and respectful attention to no matter the situation".)

4. Diana, what do you think?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Dude in distress

I dithered for a while about posting this video because I couldn't think of anything more incisive and less obvious to say about it other than "it inverts the damsel-in-distress trope!" Regardless, though, it's an adorable video and quite hilarious, as well as a catchy song. So if it strikes your fancy, you can watch Brandon Flowers, (attractive) lead singer of the Killers, being rescued from evil ninjas by (attractive) Charlize Theron about five hundred times in one music video: