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Saturday, February 23, 2008 -- 7:31 am

Is there something unhealthy and solipsistic -- perhaps narcissistic -- about the internet? I've been having the feeling more and more these days that I should really just put the computer aside and talk to someone or pick up one of the books eagerly awaiting my attention -- and I've been doing that -- because unlike the internet, the books and people actually have novel content. A search for blogs on "ethnomusicology", for example, revealed a couple of single-entry websites that both look like they were started in the last 30 days. There's not much else. It reminded me of that scene in The Truman Show where the protagonist was starting to realize that everyone around him was just an actor, and the cast had to scramble to respond to his increasingly erratic behavior. If I were paranoid (and who isn't, in that odd, quiet moment?), I could suppose there was a computer program hastily patching together a response to my inquiry that hadn't existed before, so as to lull me into continuing to surf complacently.

And in the end, would it be all that difficult to pull that off to the satisfaction of most internet surfers? The vast majority of posts on the internet are simply people (if they are people) talking about themselves, rather than generating new and interesting content about something else, and web-surfing risks becoming little more than a long and searching study of the bathroom mirror hoping to find something new. I guess that's why I decided to generate my own content: very few others seem to be pulling their weight.

And this raises a couple of larger questions. Would the internet pass the Turing test, or some suitable modification of it? Would the people who supposedly post on it? Would I? The test, after all, is simply for the interlocutor to persuade the human subject that it, too, is human. In the course of the typed conversation, you could test its fund of knowledge, real-life experience, ability to react to jokes, surprises, and word games, ability to learn new skills and concepts, ability to get its feelings hurt, and so on, but for any test you devise, there would be a lot of real people who fail it for any number of reasons (including, I suppose, failing on purpose). In other words, requiring the computer to pass such an exacting test to qualify as "artificial intelligence" seems like a bit of a double standard when we don't demand the same of the people around us. And that brings me to a few more questions, none of which I feel prepared to answer. What is the true evolutionary purpose and benefit of our theory of mind? What criteria have we evolved or learned to look for in assessing the behavior of an object in our environment to be conscious and sentient? What corners were cut in developing that list, if you compare the standards of the existentialist or cognitive scientist with the behavior of the adaptive unconscious? And how do those criteria get overridden?

That last, of course, is a deep and perplexing area of political psychology, at the root of understanding stereotypes, genocide, and crime. At least arguably, a lot of the violence and discord in the world stems from a failure, or refusal, to recognize the other party as a sentient and autonomous being rather than an object or means to some other end. And the state of the world today (as yesterday and the day before that) strongly suggests that our internal mechanisms for recognizing sentience in others could use an upgrade.

What does this have to do with the vacuousness of the internet? I'm not about to say that the internet encourages anti-social behavior by encouraging the habit of talking to oneself, because it may or may not, and I would almost certainly be misunderstood if I suggested such a thing. But extended and isolated pontification, without external input, resistance, and criticism, tends to dull our critical faculties and our handle on reality, and very well may weaken the tendency to check for external minds and perspectives in the first place. In psychologists' terms, the notion of other people could become less "accessible", meaning that it's not foremost in our minds, something that readily occurs to us, or something we're apt to notice or remember because it's a train of thought that's fallen out of habit. It would be very odd indeed if Aristotle's political animal, through technical acculturation, lost its one defining characteristic.

Friday, February 22, 2008 -- 8:29 pm

As a rule, I find it highly suspect when people write things like "LOL" or other pretend-vocalizations of laughter and other emotions in their online writing. It always sounds insincere to me -- or like they're trying too hard to pretend to be something they're not. Real humor or emotion is only genuinely (and competently) expressed through actual words, including tone and syntax. Conventional punctuation should be more than sufficient as well. Anything else is a failure of imagination trying to distract us from the writer's own lack of anything to say. I guess this is a long way of saying that I think emoticons are stupid.

Thursday, February 21, 2008 -- 8:06 pm

People are just so damned hypersensitive. (Myself included, I suppose.) Is there truly anyone out there who can take a little constructive criticism? Fortunately I'm not referring to anyone taking offense at me, at the moment, but I did stumble upon an enthusiastic but somewhat thin-skinned blogger whose reaction to a little teasing in his general direction from another site has rapidly plummeted into somewhat deranged conspiracy theories, extraordinary defensiveness, and rather bizarre ad hominem attacks. Can't the guy take a joke? Apparently not, and as a result he's walled himself off, apparently, from a good part of the internet. The scary thing about this is that I seem to find some website taking this approach every couple of months.

Nor is this sort of hypersensitivity unique to the internet. After all, although some claims of discrimination in employment or accommodation are valid, a great many of them are based on nothing more than grudges or perceived slights that really, for all the world, look like a cynical attempt to cash in on civil rights statutes that were designed to address an entirely different purpose. Could someone really believe that an idle and good-natured comment is a reflection of deep-seated discriminatory malice? From my own encounters with such individuals it genuinely seems so.

So what to make of this? Is this an indelible facet of human nature -- I doubt it -- or does this suggest something specific about our society in general? (The third option, that I'm just compiling a series of flukish and unconnected anecdotes, also can't be ruled out, of course.) On the one hand, we have the notion of the free marketplace of speech and ideas, where every comment has to stand on its own. On the other hand, we have a rather stunted concept of civility in which children are punished for calling one another stupid or ugly in a way that reinforces the notion that calling someone a name makes it so, and that's a form of punishable violence, rather than teaching children to defuse these remarks for themselves by recognizing them for what they are: for example, if you called me ugly, it's because you have poor eyesight, and if you call me stupid, it's because your mind is closed. As far as I can tell, it boils down to the fact that although we pride ourselves (fictitiously or not) on having a marketplace of ideas, very few people have actually been trained to conduct transactions in that marketplace, and so it's all too prone to lapse into thuggishness and protection rackets rather than reasoned discourse.

And yet how could this be? Isn't the whole point of publicly funded education in a republic to prepare citizens for participatory government? And precisely how long has it been the case that public education isn't carrying out this facet of its intended purpose?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008 -- 6:53 pm

In my line of work I see and participate in a lot of adversarial proceedings. I can certainly understand, and indeed regard it as entirely natural, that partisans and advocates quickly become blind to the weaknesses of their own case and the strengths of the adversary's case. It's an essential aspect of human nature, after all, that people will tend to believe the position on whose behalf they find themselves making arguments. But of late I've been struck by the smugness and self-righteousness of my adversaries, who strut about as if they made some significant point or landed a crippling blow during the direct or cross-examination of a witness when in fact their case was and remains entirely insufficient from a legal standpoint. Have they truly missed the forest for the trees? Or do they need to posture and put on a show for their clients? It's impossible to say. From my point of view, it certainly appears that the less competent the advocate, the more self-satisfied he or she appears after winning the utterly pointless concession, for example, that something didn't happen to be reduced to writing. Far be it from me to tell these people how to do their jobs. If spinning their wheels is their idea of progress, the chances are that they wouldn't be interested in a little coaching even if it were appropriate for me to offer it.

It serves to remind me, though, how there's a certain fraction of the population that tries to make their way in the world with nothing but sheer brazenness and presumption at their disposal. There's definitely a lesson to be learned there. For my part, I suppose I've always focused on the merits of my position -- truth, logical consistency, the weight of evidence, and so on. If I decide I'm wrong, I change my mind or concede the point, and I focus my efforts on airtight reasoning. I never, or hardly ever, argue solely for the sake of winning, and it never even occurs to me to try to prove a false position simply for political reasons. But what these other people do, it seems, is disregard the merits of their position and try to assert their entitlement to some reward, or a declaration by some authority figure simply so they can have it. First, this appalls me because it assumes from the outset that the process is arbitrary, and the only goal is to get as big a slice of the pie for yourself as possible. Second, though, I'm reminded of the anthropological phenomenon I referred to a few days ago whereby people will simply declare reality to be other than it is, and get away with it, through force of personality and their standing in society. This strutting about by my adversaries is no different, I think: consciously or not, they're trying to see what they can get away with. And because I'm polite about it (neither backing down nor picking a fight), they seem to lapse into delusions about their prospects of success in the world.

There are definitely situations where that sort of tactic will rapidly get the upper hand: making one's case to the press, courting public opinion, the world of politics itself. And for those reasons alone, I suppose it's important to master these empty rhetorical flourishes; as everyone knows, history is full of situations where truth and reason did not prevail in the short run, and people were only vindicated, or exonerated, decades too late. But on the other hand, that's almost to say that the ends justify the means, and that it's appropriate to wallow in cheap rhetoric for the right cause, and that's a position that I'm wholly unprepared to accept. Fortunately, in my own profession, the answer is easy: although it must be presented clearly and succinctly, truth and logic will prevail -- at least on appeal -- and these australopithecines who try to rely on nothing more than posture, attitude, and intimidation are out of luck. It's a pity they haven't realized it sooner, but they will, to their own chagrin.

But what about the larger picture? Is cheap rhetoric ever justified? There's no denying that it's often effective -- and especially where most people lack the time, interest, energy, or resources to get things right, it may make headway where truth, reason, and merit will not, because people tend not to be interested in parsing through detailed arguments. The concern, though, is that in indulging in cheap rhetoric we've abandoned the process. Kant would presumably disapprove, because cheap rhetoric discounts our audience's rational faculties and simply uses them as a means to some private end. But beyond that, if we abandon reason, we've abandoned the only yardstick we have for true vindication; anything else is cheating.

What Kant doesn't seem interested in grappling with, though, as best I can remember, is that it's all well and good to uphold the integrity of the process, but it still seems foolish for someone to risk unjust incarceration, unfair loss of property, or undue ridicule and humiliation for the sake of an abstract principle. Not all of us, after all, are cut out to be martyrs. But the costs and benefits of martyrdom comprise a question for another day.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008 -- 7:34 pm

Today's New York Times has an article, which I haven't bothered to read and haven't bothered to archive, titled "Cruise Shore Excursions: Seeing the Sights, Ditching the Shipmates" which for some reason just triggers both my bile and my blood pressure. I can't say I've ever had any desire to go on a cruise. My vacations, more typically, are some hastily thrown together patchwork of travel plans and accommodations that call for navigating treacherous roads in a mapless country that uses the wrong side of the road (e.g., my honeymoon), learning some smattering of the local languages (especially the more obscure ones, this naturally being a pretext to acquire rare and out-of-print books on indigenous and moribund tongues), and in general having as little contact with fellow Americans as possible while savoring the tangy, sometimes gamey flavor of culture shock. I invariably have a wonderful time, even if it once involved food poisoning in a country that shall remain nameless. Why, then, would I spend the bulk of my time closeted with irritating (and, horrors, anglophone) shipmates? Is it because I want to catch first-world viruses rather than third-world ones, or is it because I enjoy the droning of pseudo-intellectuals who want to congratulate local cultures for tolerating patronizing treatment in exchange for the western currency needed to pay for their children's education and medical bills? It seems to me that a cruise is nothing more than a convenient solution to the problem of getting away from it all while managing not to experience anything else. Watching television with the phone unplugged might be a cheaper alternative.

Now, that may be unfair. There are people I respect who go on cruises regularly, and as a result of which they manage to learn a lot about the world and see pockets of it they otherwise wouldn't feel comfortable exploring. That the world must be explored, by as many people as possible, is of course a dictum I must subscribe to even if it means running into all these other people as I'm doing so myself. And I'm sure that there are people who aren't quite so brazen as I am about plunging into foreign languages and foreign cultures and just making do, and who may even feel threatened by the idea of a society in which none of the food looks or tastes terribly appetizing, or where you discover that no, the toilet just won't be quite what you were hoping for, and the third world has a whole lot of poor drivers who would never make it three blocks on a Sunday morning in New York. For them, especially with small children, or if they're bitten by the travel bug for the first time in their retirement years, a cruise might be the most palatable way to experience the world. I don't begrudge them that, nor do I wish to sound condescending when I describe them. To the contrary, I respect people who want to learn and shake up their settled expectations, quite as much as I respect the obviously out-of-shape person I see at the gym every day at 5 am. Their current physical condition is irrelevant, and their display of character and dedication is praiseworthy. And nothing I say should be taken amiss by such a reader -- if I have one. It's probably too late for that anyway.

But if travelers on cruise lines need to be urged to leave their shipmates behind to see the sights, it begs the question for me of why they're going on a cruise in the first place. But then, I'm the sort who can't sit on the beach without getting bored, so maybe I'm just not cut out for that sort of thing.

Monday, February 18, 2008 -- 4:26 pm

I have previously postulated a syntactic template that would serve as a guide for cataloging (and thereafter learning) the ways that words are strung together in a language to produce the various shades of meaning so essential to communication and systematic thought. I've been putting in a little more thought on that lately (in all my free time, of course), and will probably post a bit more on that when the dust settles. But it simply wouldn't do to complete one project before starting the next. My recent (and not yet entirely successful) experiments with African cuisine have introduced me to some new herbs and spices. That, together with the age-old game of people mixing complicated drinks and then asking me to guess what's in them (they're never willing to reciprocate, for some reason), have prompted me to wonder whether there would be a systematic way to tabulate all of the culinary ingredients (prepared in various ways) that contribute to the flavor (and perhaps, ambitiously, the texture and mouthfeel) of a dish. At an elementary level this would include the generic names of spices, but eventually it would need to break things down into the proportions of various chemicals, variously mixed and kept distinct.

Unlike the case with foreign languages, I'm not sure that such a gustatory template would have any real use aside from being kind of cool. I suppose it's theoretically possible that someone could use it, like a sort of culinary periodic table, to infer the existence of new tasty dishes, but it seems more likely that those would be discovered through simple experimentation, and aren't liable to exposure through traditional means of logical inference. I suppose it would also be theoretically possible, though unlikely, to uncover trivial genetic similarities between ethnic groups based on their preference or aversion for certain kinds of chemicals that may be present in disparate ingredients, or nutritional information that may contribute overall to an understanding to historical trends of prosperity and the contrary. It could gradually be expanded into a more general ethnobotanical database covering medicinal or ritualistic uses of plants as well as culinary ones. Just a thought.

Sunday, February 17, 2008 -- 9:42 am

Off and on I come across references to the notion that there's something about contemporary culture -- it could be consumerism, it could be the way idle notions take on a life of their own on the internet, it could be the way that popular misconceptions become more important, and more efficacious, than the truth -- that is slowly replacing reality with a solipsistic hyper-reality where, to put it bluntly, asserting something is enough to make it so. Although typically couched as an assertion of metaphysics, I can't shake the feeling that this is invariably being raised as a moral critique of modern society -- in particular, a critique of its fundamental injustice and blindness to certain aspects of an ordinary and non-hyper reality.

Critiques of injustice are all well and good (even if they can sound a bit preachy at times). The fundamental error, as I see it, is to assume that this phenomenon of so-called hyper-reality is anything new. As I see it, it's been with us as long as we've had bureaucrats and authority figures, and possibly even longer. Anthropologists have documented societies that see themselves as hunters when they're really farmers, or where people fall prey to real diseases with no physiological basis. In many societies, witchcraft and sorcery don't even seem to have emerged except as a response to colonial occupation. And it's not at all rare for powerful people in Amazonian tribes to be able to redefine kinship relations altogether to avoid a particular union being regarded as incestuous, where people of lower status would have to content themselves with existing social norms. But in less exotic locales, it's a commonplace for someone to find themselves in limbo, and to have suffered real harm, as a result of an arbitrary ruling or error in paperwork that tampered with their social existence. (How can a phrase like "identity-theft" otherwise have meaning?) There are modern cultural diseases, such as anorexia, that have replaced prior disorders like hysteria. It's also fairly common for people to make purchasing decisions on the basis of branding, even though personal experience, consumer reports, and taste tests would persuade them in a vacuum that another product on the market is superior in every respect. And don't forget that under a certain recent administration, ketchup was declared to be a vegetable. To me, all of these various phenomena are cut from the same cloth, and represent not so much a shift in reality as a continuation of it. "Hyper-reality" turns out to be just another term for "reality".

Sunday, February 17, 2008 -- 7:35 am

There's been some talk, and some press, of late about the seed bank being built in the arctic permafrost to preserve some fraction of the world's botanical resources beyond the apocalypse. But will anyone know how to germinate these seeds after the apocalypse? It seems to me it's as varied and complex a process as animal conception, with many seeds needing to be frozen, or scarified, or soaked, or incubated, or some combination of the above in order to get the process going. And once germinated, will people know how to keep them alive, and get them prosper? Will they know, for example, that cacao cannot tolerate the fertilizer that it's now so difficult to buy potting soil without? There's a lot of sympathy for preserving the plants of the world, but not so much for the millions of insect species that fertilize them, and not so much lack of interest as complete lack of awareness of the unnumbered and unknown species of soil fungi that facilitate, for example, the absorption of nutrients by root systems.

So while I'm completely sympathetic to the desire to catalog and preserve the world's botanical species, there really does need to be a larger goal: cataloging and preserving a regenerative template of the world's ecosystems. Many of the plants we realize we depend on for survival almost certainly depend, in turn, on bacteria, fungi, insects, and other less glamorous beasties that we're hardly aware of. Granted, there are tremendous technical challenges in such a preservation effort, because most living things aren't so easily preserved as seeds, and because we really don't have a handle on what's needed other than an organism's DNA to grow it from scratch and keep it healthy -- there are the organelles, epigenetic phenomena, imprinting in the womb, and so on. And the research in this area, while it's begun, is nowhere near where it needs to be in order to regerminate the world.