Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for March 2018

The fitness indicator

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To be reliable, fitness indicators must be difficult for low-fitness individuals to produce. Applied to human art, this suggests that beauty equals difficulty and high cost. We find attractive those things that could have been produced only by people with attractive, high-fitness qualities such as health, energy, endurance, hand-eye coordination, fine motor control, intelligence, creativity, access to rare materials, the ability to learn difficult skills, and lots of free time…The beauty of a work of art reveals the artist’s virtuosity. This is a very old-fashioned view of aesthetics, but that does not make it wrong. Throughout most of human history, the perceived beauty of an object has depended very much on its cost. That cost could be measured in time, energy, skill, or money…

Our sense of beauty was shaped by evolution to embody an awareness of what is difficult as opposed to easy, rare as opposed to common, costly as opposed to cheap, skillful as opposed to talentless, and fit as opposed to unfit…From an evolutionary point of view, the fundamental challenge facing artists is to demonstrate their fitness by making something that lower-fitness competitors could not make, thus proving themselves more socially and sexually attractive. This challenge arises not only in the visual arts, but also in music, storytelling, humor, and many other behaviors…Beauty conveys truth, but not the way we thought. Aesthetic significance does not deliver truth about the human condition in general: it delivers truth about the condition of a particular human, the artist.

Geoffrey Miller, The Mating Mind

Written by nevalalee

March 31, 2018 at 7:30 am

The Long Good Friday

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Every week, my five-year-old daughter brings home a handout from the children’s class at our local church, which we’ve attended now for several years. I’m agnostic, but my wife and I like the community there, and I make a point of finding out what they’ve been telling Beatrix. Usually, we just talk about it for a minute and then move on, but earlier this month, she showed me a worksheet with the five pictures that I’ve reproduced above, which were scrambled up at random. The instructions said: “The Bible story puzzle pieces are all mixed up! Use your stickers to put them in the correct order.” And if they had simply told the story of, say, Noah’s Ark, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. Instead, they presented a series of episodes from the death and resurrection of Jesus—the crucifixion, the sealed tomb, Mary Magdalene in mourning, the appearance of the risen Jesus to Mary, and his meal with his disciples. And it occurred to me that if you weren’t familiar with the source material and were asked to put these scenes back together, you’d probably end up with something very different. Reconstructing the sequence wouldn’t take any special knowledge or narrative sophistication. It would be more like a rudimentary logic problem. In the absence of any other information, a reasonable person would presumably come up with an order much like the one that I’ve reproduced below, which goes from the encounters with Mary and the disciples through crucifixion, mourning, and burial. The final image is one of the tomb. It’s pretty depressing, like a Chris Ware comic, but that’s clearly the last picture. How could it be anything else?

This may not seem like much of an insight, but it stuck in my head, and it took me a while to figure out why. The account presented in the canonical gospels hinges on taking the natural sequence of events and then forcibly rearranging them. You might say that Christians, by one definition, are those people who are given these five pictures as a kind of psychological test—but instead of placing them in the “correct” order, they put them in a totally illogical sequence and insist that this is how it was. (It probably isn’t a coincidence that this occurred to me after I saw the passion narrative depicted in what was essentially a comic strip, or what Will Eisner liked to call “sequential art.” When the panels are out of order, you notice it at once.) It’s a narrative inversion, as much as a religious or philosophical one, and you could push it even further and say that this reversal of expectations is analogous to what little we know about what Jesus actually taught. He told us to love our enemies; that the poor are blessed because of their poverty, not in spite of it; that the first will be last and the last will be first; and that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, or the leaven that a woman hid in fifty pounds of flour. Many of the miracle stories play on similar violations of an expected sequence. People who are on the verge of death generally don’t just get better, and the dead don’t come back to life. And if experience is any indication, many of us evidently find it easier to believe in the raising of Lazarus than in the idea that we’re supposed to sell all of our possessions and give the money to the poor.

But I’m also haunted by the sequence that simply ends with the tomb. Many scholars of the historical Jesus have struggled with it, as well as with the possibility that even this version amounts to wishful thinking. In Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, John Dominic Crossan arrives at an unforgiving conclusion:

What we often forget about crucifixion is the carrion crow and scavenger dog who respectively croak above and growl below the dead or dying body…What actually and historically happened to the body of Jesus can best be judged from watching how later Christian accounts slowly but steadily increased the reverential dignity of their burial accounts…In either case, his body left on the cross or in a shallow grave barely covered with dirt and stones, the dogs were waiting. And his followers, who had fled, would know that, too. Watch, then, how the horror of that brutal truth is sublimated through hope and imagination into its opposite.

Crossan is speaking here of the story of Joseph of Arimathea, who conveniently appears at just the right time to provide a proper burial. But you could easily extend the process of revision to the resurrection itself, which denies the most difficult truth imaginable—that the life of Jesus concluded in unbelievable pain, despair, and death, and that this was the only ending to his ministry that he ever knew.

This is unbearably painful to contemplate, and it might actually be psychologically easier just to rearrange the pieces, in defiance of everything that we think we know about how the world works. But part of me also wants to come to terms with the other version. In the book The Acts of Jesus, the Jesus Seminar is very clear on this point: “The resurrection was not an event that happened on the first Easter Sunday; it was not an event that could have been recorded by a video camera.” But it adds: “Since the earlier strata of the New Testament contain no appearance stories, it does not seem necessary for Christian faith to believe the literal veracity of any of the later narratives.” Many Christians would be unlikely to agree with this. But it’s still worth asking what it would mean to have faith in that message even if the gospels ended there. As Crossan says: “It is a terrible trivialization to imagine that all of Jesus’ followers lost their faith on Good Friday and had it restored by apparitions on Easter Sunday. It is another trivialization to presume that even those who lost their nerve, fled, and hid also lost their faith, love, and hope.” It seems clear that there were early Christians who thought that this story ended with the tomb, and they still believed—which might be the most remarkable fact of all. And I agree with Crossan when he writes:

What happened historically is that those who believed in Jesus before his execution continued to do so afterward. Easter is not about the start of a new faith but about the continuation of an old one. That is the only miracle and the only mystery, and it is more than enough of both.

Written by nevalalee

March 30, 2018 at 9:22 am

Quote of the Day

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If you walk along the street you will encounter a number of scientific problems. Of these, about eighty percent are insoluble, while nineteen and a half percent are trivial. There is then perhaps half a percent where skill, persistence, courage, creativity and originality can make a difference. It is always the task of the academic to swim in that half a percent, asking the questions through which some progress can be made.

Hermann Bondi, “The Making of a Scientist”

Written by nevalalee

March 30, 2018 at 7:30 am

The dreamlife of engineers

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In 1985, the physicist Freeman J. Dyson delivered a lecture at the semiconductor company Analog Devices in Norwood, Massachusetts, which later became a chapter in his book Infinite in All Directions. He opened the talk, which he called “Engineers’ Dreams,” with these words:

There are two ways to predict the progress of technology. One way is economic forecasting, the other way is science fiction. Economic forecasting makes predictions by extrapolating curves of growth from the past into the future. Science fiction makes a wild guess and leaves the judgment of its plausibility to the reader…For the future beyond ten years ahead, science fiction is a more useful guide than forecasting. But science fiction does not pretend to predict. It tells us only what might happen, not what will happen. It deals in possibilities, not in probabilities. And the most important developments of the future are usually missed both by the forecasters and by the fiction writers. Economic forecasting misses the real future because it has too short a range; fiction misses the future because it has too little imagination.

Dyson took the title of the talk from a book by the science writer and rocket scientist Willy Ley, of which he said wistfully: “The dreams which are recorded in his book are mostly projects of civil engineering, enormous dams, tunnels, bridges, artificial lakes and artificial islands. The interesting thing about them is that they are today totally dead. Nobody would want to build them today even if we could afford it. They are too grandiose, too inflexible, too slow…History passed these dreams by. We do not any longer find it reasonable to think of flooding half of the forests of Zaire in order to provide water for irrigating the deserts of Chad.”

Engineers’ Dreams was one of Dyson’s favorite books, and it pops up elsewhere in his writings. (Notably, it figures prominently in his essay “The Search for Extraterrestrial Technology,” in which he lays out the logic behind the ultimate engineering project—the Dyson Sphere.) As an example of how even a genius can fail to foresee how the history of technology will unfold, he told a story about the mathematician John von Neumann, whom he fondly described as perhaps “the cleverest man in the world.” Speaking of a talk that von Neumman delivered in the early fifties, Dyson said:

Meteorology was the big thing on his horizon…He said, as soon as we have some large computers working, the problems of meteorology will be solved. All processes that are stable we shall predict. All processes that are unstable we shall control. He imagined that we needed only to identify the points in space and time at which unstable processes originated, and then a few airplanes carrying smoke generators could fly to those points and introduce the appropriate small disturbances to make the unstable processes flip into the desired directions. A central committee of computer experts and meteorologists would tell the airplanes where to go in order to make sure that no rain would fall on the Fourth of July picnic. This was John von Neumann’s dream.

“Why was Von Neumann’s dream such a total failure?” Dyson asked. “The dream was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of fluid motions…A chaotic motion is generally neither predictable nor controllable…Von Neumann’s mistake was to imagine that every unstable motion could be nudged into a stable motion by small pushes and pulls applied at the right places. The same mistake is still frequently made by economists and social planners, not to mention Marxist historians.”

Von Neumann’s other mistake, Dyson added, was to think of computers in the future as expensive and rare, rather than cheap and widely available, and to underestimate how technology tends to move away from “big and sluggish” applications. Thirty years later, however, we seem to be talking more urgently about such grandiose projects than ever, at least when it comes to the problem of climate change. Whatever their real merits, such measures as fertilizing the oceans with iron, releasing sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, converting carbon dioxide on a large scale into limestone, or building a solar farm the size of Nigeria would undoubtedly be massive acts of engineering. As Elizabeth Kolbert recently wrote in The New Yorker:

Everyone I spoke with, including the most fervent advocates for carbon removal, stressed the huge challenges of the work, some of them technological, others political and economic. Done on a scale significant enough to make a difference, direct air capture of the sort pursued by Carbon Engineering, in British Columbia, would require an enormous infrastructure, as well as huge supplies of power.

Kolbert quotes the physicist Klaus Lackner, the founder of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions, who wondered why “nobody’s doing these really crazy, big things anymore.” But we’re certainly discussing them today. And one of the most prominent advocates of such measures is Dyson himself, who wrote in the late seventies—before it was fashionable—that atmospheric carbon levels could be controlled by planting a trillion trees. (He later proposed the genetic engineering of special “carbon-eating trees,” of which he conceded: “I suppose it sounds like science fiction.”)

On some level, it’s ridiculous that we’re even contemplating such projects, as David Keith, the founder of the firm Carbon Engineering, observed to Kolbert: “You might say it’s against my self-interest to say it, but I think that, in the near term, talking about carbon removal is silly. Because it almost certainly is cheaper to cut emissions now than to do large-scale carbon removal.” But when it comes to “chaotic motions” of the kind that frustrated von Neumann, politics is worse than the weather, and we’re rapidly reaching a point—if we aren’t there already—when planting billions of carbon-eating trees seems more feasible than changing the minds of a few million voters, or even one hundred elected officials. As Kolbert writes:

One of the peculiarities of climate discussions is that the strongest argument for any given strategy is usually based on the hopelessness of the alternatives: this approach must work, because clearly the others aren’t going to…As a technology of last resort, carbon removal is, almost by its nature, paradoxical. It has become vital without necessarily being viable. It may be impossible to manage and it may also be impossible to manage without.

In his talk, Dyson noted that the “qualitative changes” that emerge from the actions of individuals are what make the future so hard to predict: “Qualitative changes are produced by human cleverness, the invention of pocket calculators destroying the market for slide rules, or by human stupidity, the mistakes of a few people at Three Mile Island destroying the market for nuclear power stations.” From an engineer’s point of view, any solution that depends on the rational persuasion of politicians or entire societies is necessarily vulnerable to failure, so it might be better to avoid the problem entirely. I don’t want to believe this, but we may not have a choice. As Dyson concluded three decades ago: “Neither cleverness nor stupidity is predictable.”

Quote of the Day

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I’ll use dirty tricks [in coding] for two reasons. One is if it’s really going to give me a performance improvement and my application is one that the performance improvement is going to be appreciated. Or sometimes I’ll say, “This is tricky; I couldn’t resist being tricky today because it’s so cute.” So just for pure pleasure. In any case, I document it; I don’t just put it in there.

Donald Knuth, to Peter Seibel in Coders at Work

Written by nevalalee

March 29, 2018 at 7:30 am

The axioms of behavior

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Earlier this week, Keith Raniere, the founder of an organization known as Nxivm, was arrested in Mexico, to which he had fled last year in the wake of a devastating investigation published in the New York Times. The article described a shady operation that combined aspects of a business seminar, a pyramid scheme, and a sex cult, with public workshops shading into a “secret sisterhood” that required its members to provide nude photographs or other compromising materials and be branded with Raniere’s initials. (In an email obtained by the Times, Raniere reassured one of his followers: “[It was] not originally intended as my initials but they rearranged it slightly for tribute.”) According to the report, about sixteen thousand people have taken the group’s courses, which are marketed as leading to “greater self-fulfillment by eliminating psychological and emotional barriers,” and some went even further. As the journalist Barry Meier wrote:

Most participants take some workshops, like the group’s “Executive Success Programs,” and resume their lives. But other people have become drawn more deeply into Nxivm, giving up careers, friends and families to become followers of its leader, Keith Raniere, who is known within the group as “Vanguard”…Former members have depicted [Raniere] as a man who manipulated his adherents, had sex with them and urged women to follow near-starvation diets to achieve the type of physique he found appealing.

And it gets even stranger. In 2003, Raniere sued the Cult Education Institute for posting passages from his training materials online. In his deposition for the suit, which was dismissed just last year, Raniere stated:

I discovered I had an exceptional aptitude for mathematics and computers when I was twelve. It was at the age of twelve I read The Second Foundation [sic] by Isaac Asimov and was inspired by the concepts on optimal human communication to start to develop the theory and practice of Rational Inquiry. This practice involves analyzing and optimizing how the mind handles data. It involves mathematical set theory applied in a computer programmatic fashion to processes such as memory and emotion. It also involves a projective methodology that can be used for optimal communication and decision making.

Raniere didn’t mention any specific quotations from Asimov, but they were presumably along the lines of the following, which actually appears in Foundation and Empire, spoken by none other than the Mule:

Intuition or insight or hunch-tendency, whatever you wish to call it, can be treated as an emotion. At least, I can treat it so…The human mind works at low efficiency. Twenty percent is the figure usually given. When, momentarily, there is a flash of greater power it is termed a hunch, or insight, or intuition. I found early that I could induce a continual use of high brain-efficiency. It is a killing process for the person affected, but it is useful.

At this point, one might be tempted to draw parallels to other cults, such as Aum Shinrikyo, that are also said to have taken inspiration from Asimov’s work. In this case, however, the connection to the Foundation series seems tangential at best. A lot of us read science fiction at the golden age of twelve, and while we might be intrigued by psychohistory or mental engineering, few of us take it in the direction that Raniere evidently did. (As one character observes in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum: “People don’t get the idea of going back to burn Troy just because they read Homer.”) In fact, Raniere comes off a lot more like L. Ron Hubbard, at least in the version of himself that he presents in public. In the deposition, he provided an exaggerated account of his accomplishments that will strike those who know Hubbard as familiar:

In 1988, I was accepted into the Mega Society. The requirements to be accepted into the Mega Society were to have a demonstrated IQ of 176…In 1989, I was accepted into the Guinness Book of World Records under the category “Highest IQ.” I also left my position as a Computer Programmer/Analyst and resumed business consulting with the intention to raise money to start the “Life Learning Institute.” At this point in time I became fascinated with how human motivation affected behavior. I started to refine my projective mathematical theory of the human mind to include a motivational behavior equation.

And when Raniere speaks of developing “a set of consistent axioms of how human behavior interfaced with the world,” it’s just a variation on an idea that has been recycled within the genre for decades.

Yet it’s also worth asking why the notion of a “mathematical psychology” appeals to these manipulative personalities, and why many of them have repackaged these ideas so successfully for their followers. You could argue that Raniere—or even Charles Manson—represents the psychotic fringe of an impulse toward transformation that has long been central to science fiction, culminating in the figure of the superman. (It’s probably just a coincidence, but I can’t help noting that two individuals who have been prominently linked with the group, the actresses Kristin Kreuk and Allison Mack, both appeared on Smallville.) And many cults hold out a promise of change for which the genre provides a convenient vocabulary. As Raniere said in his deposition:

In mathematics, all things are proven based on axioms and a step by step systematic construction. Computers work the same way. To program a computer one must first understand the axioms of the computer language, and then the step by step systematic construction of the problem-solution methodology. Finally, one must construct the problem-solution methodology in a step by step fashion using the axioms of the language. I discovered the human mind works the same way and I formalized the process.

This sounds a lot like Hubbard, particularly in the early days of dianetics, in which the influence of cybernetics was particularly strong. But it also represents a limited understanding of what the human mind can be, and it isn’t surprising that it attracts people who see others as objects to be altered, programmed, and controlled. The question of whether such figures as Hubbard or Raniere really buy into their own teachings resists any definitive answer, but one point seems clear enough. Even if they don’t believe it, they obviously wish that it were true.

Quote of the Day

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[Preschool teacher] Maureen Ingram…said her students often tell different stories about a given piece of art depending on the day, perhaps because they weren’t sure what they intended to draw when they started the picture. “We as adults will often say, ‘I’m going to draw a horse,’ and we set out…and get frustrated when we can’t do it,” Ingram said. “They seem to take a much more sane approach, where they just draw, and then they realize, ‘It is a horse.’”

Isabel Fattal, in The Atlantic

Written by nevalalee

March 28, 2018 at 7:30 am

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