Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for April 2018

Crossing the Rhine

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Zener cards

Note: I’m out of town today for the Grappling with the Futures symposium at Harvard and Boston University, so I’m republishing a piece from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on March 1, 2017.

Two groups of very smart people are looking at the exact same data and coming to wildly different conclusions. Science hates that.

—Katie M. Palmer, Wired

In the early thirties, the parapsychologist J.B. Rhine conducted a series of experiments at Duke University to investigate the existence of extrasensory perception. His most famous test involved a deck of Zener cards, printed variously with the images of a star, a square, three waves, a circle, or a cross, in which subjects were invited to guess the symbol on a card drawn at random. The participants in the study, most of whom were college students, included the young John W. Campbell, who displayed no discernible psychic ability. At least two, however, Adam Linzmayer and Hubert Pearce, were believed by Rhine to have consistently named the correct cards at a higher rate than chance alone would predict. Rhine wrote up his findings in a book titled Extrasensory Perception, which was published in 1934. I’m not going to try to evaluate its merits here—but I do want to note that attempts to replicate his work were made almost at once, and they failed to reproduce his results. Within two years, W.S. Cox of Princeton University had conducted a similar run of experiments, of which he concluded: “There is no evidence of extrasensory perception either in the ‘average man’ or of the group investigated or in any particular individual of that group. The discrepancy between these results and those obtained by Rhine is due either to uncontrollable factors in experimental procedure or to the difference in the subjects.” By 1938, four other studies had taken place, to similar effect. Rhine’s results were variously attributed to methodological flaws, statistical misinterpretation, sensory leakage, or outright cheating, and in consequence, fairly or not, parapsychological research was all but banished from academic circles.

Decades later, another study was conducted, and its initial reception was very different. Its subject was ego depletion, or the notion that willpower draws on a finite reservoir of internal resources that can be reduced with overuse. In its most famous demonstration, the psychologists Roy Baumeister and Dianne Tice of Case Western University baked chocolate chip cookies, set them on a plate next to a bowl of radishes, and brought a series of participants into the room. They were all told to wait, but some were allowed to eat the cookies, while the others were instructed to snack only on the radishes. Then they were all given the same puzzle to complete, although they weren’t told that it was impossible to solve. According to the study, students who had been asked to stick to the radishes spent an average of just eight minutes on the puzzle, while those who had been allowed to eat the cookies spent nineteen minutes. The researchers concluded that our willpower is a limited quantity, and it can even be exhausted, like a muscle. Their work was enormously influential, and dozens of subsequent studies seemed to confirm it. In 2010, however, an analysis of published papers on the subject was unable to find any ego depletion effect, and last year, it got even worse—an attempt to replicate the core findings, led by the psychologist Martin Hagger, found zero evidence to support its existence. And this is just the most notable instance of what has been called a replication crisis in the sciences, particularly in psychology. One ambitious attempt to duplicate the results of such studies, the Reproducibility Project, has found that only about a third can be reproduced at all.

J.B. Rhine

But let’s consider the timelines involved. With Rhine, it took only two years before an attempt was made to duplicate his work, and two more years for the consensus in the field to turn against it decisively. In the case of ego depletion, twelve years passed before any questions were raised, and close to two decades before the first comprehensive effort to replicate it. And you don’t need to be a psychologist to understand why. Rhine’s results cut so radically against what was known about the brain—and the physical universe—that accepting them would have required a drastic overhaul of multiple disciplines. Not surprisingly, they inspired immediate skepticism, and they were subjected to intense scrutiny right away. Ego depletion, by contrast, was an elegant theory that seemed to confirm ordinary common sense. It came across as an experimental verification of something that we all know instinctively, and it was widely accepted almost at once. Many successful studies also followed in its wake, in large part because experiments that seemed to confirm it were more likely to be submitted for publication, while those that failed to produce interesting results simply disappeared. (When it came to Rhine, a negative result wouldn’t be discarded, but embraced as a sign that the system was working as intended.) Left to itself, the lag time between a study and any serious attempt to reproduce it seems to be much longer when the answer is intuitively acceptable. As the Reproducibility Project has shown, however, when we dispassionately pull studies from psychological journals and try to replicate them without regard to their inherent interest or plausibility, the results are often no better than they were with Rhine. It can leave psychologists sounding a lot like parapsychologists who have suffered a crisis of faith. As the psychologist Michael Inzlicht wrote: “Have I been chasing puffs of smoke for all these years?”

I’m not saying that Rhine’s work didn’t deserve to be scrutinized closely, because it did. And I’m also not trying to argue that social psychology is a kind of pseudoscience. But I think it’s worth considering whether psychology and parapsychology might have more in common than we’d like to believe. This isn’t meant to be a knock against either one, but an attempt to nudge them a little closer together. As Alex Holcombe of the University of Sydney put it: “The more optimistic interpretation of failures to replicate is that many of the results are true, but human behavior is so variable that the original researchers had to get lucky to find the result.” Even Martin Hagger says much the same thing: “I think ego-depletion effect is probably real, but current methods and measures are problematic and make it difficult to find.” The italics, as usual, are mine. Replace “human behavior” and “ego depletion” with “extrasensory perception,” and you end up with a concise version of the most widely cited explanation for why psychic abilities resist scientific verification, which is that these phenomena are real, but difficult to reproduce. You could call this wishful thinking, and in most cases, it probably is. But it also raises the question of whether meaningful phenomenon exist that can’t be reproduced in a laboratory setting. Regardless of where you come down on the issue, the answer shouldn’t be obvious. Intuition, for instance, is often described as a real phenomenon that can’t be quantified or replicated, and whether or not you buy into it, it’s worth taking seriously. A kind of collective intuition—or a hunch—is often what determines what results the scientific community is likely to accept. And the fact that this intuition is so frequently wrong means that we need to come to terms with it, even if it isn’t in a lab.

Quote of the Day

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I often think how much easier life would have been for me and how much time I should have saved if I had known the alphabet. I can never tell where I and J stand without saying G, H to myself first. I don’t know whether P comes before R or after, and where T comes in has to this day remained something that I have never been able to get into my head.

W. Somerset Maugham, The Partial View

Written by nevalalee

April 30, 2018 at 7:30 am

The map game

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There is a game of puzzles…which is played upon a map. One party playing requires another to find a given word—the name of town, river, state, or empire—any word, in short, upon the motley and perplexed surface of the chart. A novice in the game generally seeks to embarrass his opponents by giving them the most minutely lettered names; but the adept selects such words as stretch, in large characters, from one end of the chart to the other. These, like the over-largely lettered signs and placards of the street, escape observation by dint of being excessively obvious; and here the physical oversight is precisely analogous with the moral inapprehension by which the intellect suffers to pass unnoticed those considerations which are too obtrusively and too palpably self-evident.

Edgar Allan Poe, “The Purloined Letter”

Written by nevalalee

April 29, 2018 at 7:30 am

The curate’s turnips

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Interest is a peculiar thing. There are hundreds of things in which you feel you ought to be interested—but for which (to be honest for once) you do not give a hang. There are hundreds of other things—odd remarks, pointless little stories, tricks with matches, stray pieces of information—which seem to have no use in life, but which stay in your memory for years. At school we read a history book by Warner and Marten. No one remembered the history (this was no fault of the authors). But there were certain footnotes in it: one about a curate who grew crops in the churchyard and said it would be turnips next year; a lady who blacked out a picture and said, “She is blacker within”; a verse about someone longing to be at ’em and waiting for the Earl of Chatham—everyone knew these years after they left school. These were the things that really interested us.

If you want to remember a subject and enjoy it, you must somehow find a way of linking it up with something in which you are really interested. It is very unlikely that you will find much entertainment in textbooks. If you read only the textbooks, you will find the subject dull. Textbooks are written for people who already possess a strong desire to study mathematics: they are not written to create such a desire. Do not begin by reading the subject: begin by reading round the subject—books about real life, which somehow bring in the subject, which show how the subject came to be needed.

W.W. Sawyer, Mathematician’s Delight

Written by nevalalee

April 28, 2018 at 7:30 am

The crowded circle

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Earlier this week, Thrillist posted a massive oral history devoted entirely to the climactic battle scene in The Avengers. It’s well over twelve thousand words, or fifty percent longer than Ronan Farrow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of Harvey Weinstein, and you can occasionally feel it straining to justify its length. In its introduction, it doesn’t shy away from the hard sell:

Scholars swore that comic-book moviemaking peaked with Christopher Nolan’s lauded vision for The Dark Knight, yet here was an alternative, propulsive, prismatic, and thoughtful…The Battle of New York wasn’t just a third-act magic trick; it was a terraforming of the blockbuster business Hollywood believed it understood.

To put it mildly, this slightly overstates the case. Yet the article is still worth reading, both for its emphasis on the contributions of such artists as storyboard artist Jane Wu and for the presence of director Joss Whedon, who casually throws shade in all directions, including at himself. For instance, at one point, Ryan Meinerding, the visual effects department supervisor, recalls of the design of the alien guns: “We tried to find something that, if Black Widow got ahold of one of their weapons, she could use it in an interesting way. Which is how we ended up with that sort of long Civil War weapons.” Whedon’s perspective is somewhat different: “I look back, and I’m like, So my idea for making the weapons look different was to give them muskets? Did I really do that? Was that the sexiest choice? Muskets? Okay. But you know, hit or miss.”

These days, I can’t listen to Whedon’s studiously candid, self-deprecating voice in quite the way that I once did, but he’s been consistently interesting—if not always convincing—on points of craft, and his insights here are as memorable as usual. My favorite moment comes when he discusses the structure of the sequence itself, which grew from an idea for what he hoped would be an iconic image:

We’re going to want to see the group together. We’re going to want to do a shot of everyone back to back. Now we are a team. This is “The Avengers.” We’d get them in a circle and all facing up. Ryan Meinerding painted the team back to back, and that’s basically what I shot. They’re so kinetic and gorgeous, and he has a way of taking comic books and really bringing them to life, even beyond Alex Ross in a way that I’ve never seen…But then it was like, okay, why are they in a circle? That’s where they’re standing, but why? Let’s assume that there are aliens all over the walls, they’re surrounding them, they’re going to shoot at them, but they haven’t started yet. Why haven’t they started yet? And I was like Oh, let’s give the aliens a war cry… Then one of the aliens takes off his mask because we need to see their faces and hear that cry. The Avengers are surrounded by guys going, “We are going to fuck you up.” But not by guys who are shooting yet.

He concludes: “So there is a very specific reason that sort of evolved more and more right before we shot it. And then it’s like, okay, we got them here, and then once they’re there, you’re like, okay, how do we get them to the next thing?”

On some level, this is the kind of thing I should love. As I’ve discussed here before, the big beats of a story can emerge from figuring out what comes before and after a single moment, and I always enjoy watching a writer work through such problems in the most pragmatic way possible. In this case, though, I’m not sure about the result. The third act of The Avengers has always suffered a little, at least for me, from its geographic constraints. A handful of heroes have to credibly fend off an attack from an alien army, which naturally limits how big or dispersed the threat can be, and it seems strange that an invasion of the entire planet could be contained within a few blocks, even if they happen to include the photogenic Park Avenue Viaduct. The entire conception is undermined by the need to keep most of the characters in one place. You could imagine other possible climaxes—a chase, an assault on the enemy stronghold, a battle raging simultaneously at different locations around the world—that would have involved all the major players while still preserving a sense of plausibility and scale. But then you wouldn’t have gotten that circle shot. (Elsewhere in the article, Whedon offers a weirdly condescending aside about Zak Penn’s original draft of the script: “I read it one time, and I’ve never seen it since. I was like, ‘Nope. There’s nothing here.’ There was no character connection. There was a line in the stage directions that said, apropos of nothing, ‘And then they all walk towards the camera in slow motion because you have to have that.’ Yeah, well, no: You have to earn that.” Which sounds more to me like Whedon defensively dismissing the kind of joke that he might have made himself. And you could make much the same criticism of the circle shot that he had in mind.)

And the whole anecdote sums up my mixed feelings toward the Marvel Universe in general and The Avengers in particular. On its initial release, I wrote that “a lot of the film, probably too much, is spent slotting all the components into place.” That certainly seems to have been true of the climax, which also set a dangerous precedent in which otherwise good movies, like The Winter Soldier, felt obliged to end in a blur of computer effects. And it’s even more clear now that Whedon’s tastes and personality were only occasionally allowed to shine through, often in the face of active opposition from the studio. (Of the one of the few moments from the entire movie that I still recall fondly, Whedon remembers: “There were objections to Hulk tossing Loki. I mean, strong objections. But they were not from Kevin [Feige] and Jeremy [Latcham], so I didn’t have to worry.”) Marvel has since moved on to movies like Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther, much of which are authentically idiosyncratic, fun, and powerful in a way that the studio’s defining effort managed to only intermittently pull off. But it’s revealing that the last two films were mostly allowed to stand on their own, which is starting to seem like a luxury. Marvel is always trying to get to that circle shot, and now the numbers have been multiplied by five. It reflects what I’ve described as the poster problem, which turns graphic design—or storytelling—into an exercise in crowd control. I’m looking forward to Avengers: Infinity War, but my expectations have been tempered in ways for which The Avengers itself, and specifically its climactic battle, was largely responsible. As Whedon concedes: “Sometimes you have to do the shorthand version, and again, that’s sort of against how I like to view people, but it’s necessary when you already have twenty major characters.”

Quote of the Day

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Poetic intuition, as concerns its operative exercise, perfects itself in the course of the artistic process…It is with the steady labor of intelligence intent on the elaboration of the form that [the] virtuality contained in poetic intuition actualizes and unfolds itself all along the process of production. And then the very exercise of artistic science and intellectual perspicacity, choosing, judging, cutting out all the nonsignificant, the fat, the superfluous, causes—precisely because it is always listening to creative emotion and appealing to it—new partial flashes of poetic intuition to be released at each step of the work. Without this steady labor poetic intuition would not, as a rule, disclose its entire virtue.

Jacques Maritain, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry

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April 27, 2018 at 7:30 am

From Montgomery to Bilbao

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On August 16, 2016, the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal rights organization, unveiled its plans for the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which would be constructed in Montgomery, Alabama. Today, less than two years later, it opens to the public, and the timing could hardly seem more appropriate, in ways that even those who conceived of it might never have imagined. As Campbell Robertson writes for the New York Times:

At the center is a grim cloister, a walkway with eight hundred weathered steel columns, all hanging from a roof. Etched on each column is the name of an American county and the people who were lynched there, most listed by name, many simply as “unknown.” The columns meet you first at eye level, like the headstones that lynching victims were rarely given. But as you walk, the floor steadily descends; by the end, the columns are all dangling above, leaving you in the position of the callous spectators in old photographs of public lynchings.

And the design represents a breakthrough in more ways than one. As the critic Philip Kennicott points out in the Washington Post: “Even more remarkable, this memorial…was built on a budget of only $15 million, in an age when major national memorials tend to cost $100 million and up.”

Of course, if the memorial had been more costly, it might not exist at all, and certainly not with the level of independence and the clear point of view that it expresses. Yet if there’s one striking thing about the coverage of the project, it’s the absence of the name of any one architect or designer. Neither of these two words even appears in the Times article, and in the Post, we only read that the memorial was “designed by [Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan] Stevenson and his colleagues at EJI in collaboration with the Boston-based MASS Design Group.” When you go to the latter’s official website, twelve people are credited as members of the project design team. This is markedly different from the way in which we tend to talk about monuments, museums, and other architectural works that are meant to invite our attention. In many cases, the architect’s identity is a selling point in itself, as it invariably is with Frank Gehry, whose involvement in a project like the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is consciously intended to rejuvenate an entire city. In Montgomery, by contrast, the designer is essentially anonymous, or part of a collaboration, which seems like an aesthetic choice as conscious as the design of the space itself. The individual personality of the architect departs, leaving the names and events to testify on their own behalf. Which is exactly as it should be.

And it’s hard not to compare this to the response to the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1981. The otherwise excellent documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick alludes to the firestorm that it caused, but it declines to explore how much of the opposition was personal in nature. As James Reston, Jr. writes in the definitive study A Rift in the Earth:

After Maya Lin’s design was chosen and announced, the public reaction was intense. Letters from outraged veterans poured into the Memorial Fund office. One claimed that Lin’s design had “the warmth and charm of an Abyssinian dagger.” “Nihilistic aesthetes” had chosen it…Predictably, the names of incendiary antiwar icons, Jane Fonda and Abbie Hoffman, were invoked as cheering for a design that made a mockery of the Vietnam dead…As for the winner with Chinese ancestry, [donor H. Ross] Perot began referring to her as “egg roll.”

If anything, the subject matter of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice is even more fraught, and the decision to place the designers in the background seems partially intended to focus the conversation on the museum itself, and not on those who made it.

Yet there’s a deeper lesson here about architecture and its creators. At first, you might think that a building with a singular message would need to arise from—or be identified with—an equally strong personality, but if anything, the trend in recent years has gone the other way. As Reinier de Graaf notes in Four Walls and a Roof, one of the more curious developments over the last few decades is the way in which celebrity architects, like Frank Gehry, have given up much of their own autonomy for the sake of unusual forms that no human hand or brain could properly design:

In partially delegating the production of form to the computer, the antibox has seemingly boosted the production of extravagant shapes beyond any apparent limits. What started as a deliberate meditation on the notion of form in the early antibodies has turned into a game of chance. Authorship has become relative: with creation now delegated to algorithms, the antibox’s main delight is the surprise it causes to the designers.

Its opposite number is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which was built with simple materials and techniques that rely for their impact entirely on the insight, empathy, and ingenuity of the designer, who then quietly fades away. The architect can afford to disappear, because the work speaks for those who are unable to speak for themselves. And that might be the most powerful message of all.

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