The Aresan Clan is published four times a week (Tue, Wed, Fri, Sun). You can see what's been written so far collected here. All posts will be posted under the Aresan Clan label. For summaries of the events so far, visit here. See my previous serial Vampire Wares collected here.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Having Children and Happiness

Bryan Caplan just recently released his book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, and the Wall Street Journal is discussing the research about how having children tends to reduce self-reported happiness among couples. Tough debate.

I remember when I first told my parents about the research showing that having children made parents less happy and their response was not, "Well, god dammit boy, then you better appreciate what me and your mother have done for you!" My dad actually said that he was skeptical of the research and said it might not really capture the full benefits and satisfaction of children. One way to think about it might be to compare it to a big project you're doing or have done, like say writing a book, building a company, doing a huge research project, working on a dissertation (what I'm doing right now). The process itself might not be terribly satisfying in itself, since it can involve stress, long hours, lost sleep, and so on, but the finished product is very satisfying. Whether the satisfaction received from the finished product really makes up for all the unpleasantness of the hard work (if one wanted to approach it in a Utilitarian way) is an unanswerable question, but certainly many people think that it does. So, I guess the question that isn't being asked is, "which couples are happier, those in middle-age and above with adult-age kids or those in middle-age and above that never had kids?"

"After Leaving Here" Poem

For Day 30 of the April Pad Challenge, the "After Leaving Here" poem.

After leaving home, I always go back
To pick up a thing I forgot,
But how many memories can’t I go back
To see what has been lost.

Dorian Gray Uncensored

New edition of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray was recently released illuminating the many changes that were made to make Dorian Gray cleaner for late 19th century audiences. The book went through some editing at the hands of the editor of the magazine where it was first published and further at the hands of the editors of the publishers that published it in book form. Much of the change was intended to tamp down the sexual innuendo, heterosexual and homosexual, as well as to hide the homosexual elements.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Emotions and Expression of Emotions

There's believed to be a close link between emotions and expressions of emotions. I remember first reading about this idea in Paul Ekman's book Emotion's Revealed. Ekman, early in his research career had gone through a long process of documenting every facial expression the facial muscles are capable of making, by contracting individually and in every conceivable combination all the facial muscles of the face. The purpose was to make sure they had a complete and accurate list of all meaningful facial expressions. Most facial expressions that you can make are just silly, weird expressions that mean nothing. The few that are actually meaningful are only a small subset, like expressions of sadness, joy, anger and so on. What Ekman discovered in this process is that whenever he made the proper expression of an emotion it would lead to the feeling of that emotion. For example, the expression of sadness involves contracting a muscle in the center of the forehead called the pyramidal muscle (it's called that because it causes a furrowed pattern on the brow in the shape of an inverted triangle). When you contract the pyramidal muscle, you can feel a sort of a tinge of sadness inside, like some sad event is tugging your heart. And similarly when you make a genuine smile, sometimes called a Duchenne Smile, which involves both raising the edge of your lips as well as contracting the orbicularis oculi muscles at the edge of your eyes to form the crow's feet wrinkles (I think Ekman said that smile also involves contracting the muscle between your eyebrows at the top of your nose), it makes you feel good.

New research has confirmed that there is a close correlation between emotions and expressions of emotions. One avenue of research is noting that people whose forehead is numbed by Botox lose the ability to empathize with others. The idea is that the Botox deadens your ability to express emotions because so many of the muscles critical to expressing emotions can't be moved. You can't contract your pyramidal muscle, or your orbicularis oculi muscles, and thus your ability to feel sadness and happiness is dampened. By dampening your ability to feel these emotions, your ability to empathize is also dampened. Perhaps, it's because part of our empathy process involves unconsciously mirroring other people's facial expressions so that we feel along with them.

It makes we wonder how this all fits in with theories of emotion. For example, according to various two-factor theories of emotion, such as Schachter-Singer, emotions are caused by different state of arousal combined with interpretation of that arousal. For example, if you're aroused, your heart beating fast, you might just as easily interpret it as fear or lust. If expression of emotions play a part, this could help flesh out the interpretation part of the two-factor theory.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

World without something poem

For Day 28 of the April Pad Challenge, the "the world without something else" poem.

An Ocean without Waves

The sea is calm, like a reflecting pond,
It's frozen cold when winters descends.
I'll skate across, before it thaws,
Before spring dissolves this endless expanse.

Origami Swan

Origami Swan5 by allistair
Origami Swan5 a photo by allistair on Flickr.

Modular origami, as it's sometimes called, is much more popular in Japan than here in the US. You can actually buy kits, which are filled with pre-cut little squares of paper. You then individually fold these hundreds of pieces of paper and then fit them together, like a 3d puzzle to form shapes. I had to cut my own small squares of paper, about 500 hundred of them to make this piece. I found the instructions for putting them together online (there are many slightly different variations on the swan, and many other designs as well).

It's not very difficult to make something like this, just time-consuming. It takes several hours of cutting paper into smaller squares, then folding all the individual squares, and then piecing them together. Because it's very repetitive work, it can be very calming and relaxing.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

In the (blank) of the (blank) Poem

"In the (blank) of (blank)" Poem for Day 27 of the April Pad Challenge.

In the beginning of the beginning
When love was new:
Hesitant kisses, much ado,
Excited kisses,
Promises accrue,
Thumping palpitations
Piercing through.

Birthers and belief

With the release of President Obama's long form birth certificate today you'd think this would be the end of the so called birther movement. Sadly, this may not be the case. I'm going to make a prediction and say that, though this movement will become further marginalized, I don't think it'll disappear. The reason I think this is not because there is anything like significant evidence that Obama was born outside the US, but because of the nature of human belief. I think this can be illustrated two ways.

We might first illustrate this with a story. In fact, we'll illustrate it with two stories. First, we have the case of Shabbethai Zebi (aka Sabbatai Zevi), a 17th century Jew living in the Levant under Ottoman rule who became convinced that he was the messiah. He was apparently a charismatic figure, who gained quite a following, on the conviction that he was the long-awaited messiah who was going to lead the Jews to independence and victory over their current ruler, the Ottoman empire, under Sultan Mehmet IV. He was a powerful figure in the Jewish community, garnered a huge following, and ultimately went to Istanbul convinced that, perhaps through some miracle, he would replace the sultan as leader of the Ottomans and would wear the sultans crown on his head. It didn't work out that way, and he was quickly imprisoned. He made a good enough impression on the Ottoman leadership that they permitted him to join the court, if he converted to Islam. And that's what he did. He converted to Islam. Understandably, this was devastating to the great movement that followed him, since it profoundly disconfirmed everything they'd been led to believe, but it didn't entirely kill it. Those who weren't disenchanted by his conversion started the Sabbatean movement, which is still alive today in Turkey. The movement is characterized by Jews who openly practice Muslim ways, but secretly subscribe to Jewish beliefs and await the return Shabbethai as a messiah.

Another similar case is the Paul is Dead conspiracy theory. This one began in 1969 as just a rumor in the US that Paul McCartney of the Beatles was dead. The rumor quickly gained speed, spreading across college campuses and into mainstream news. It was able to build up so much momentum because at the time Paul McCartney was out of touch; he was way out in his Scottish retreat with his wife, trying to deliberately cut himself off from the world for a little while to get a break. The rumor became popular because the Beatles had apparently hidden all types of clues in their songs and album art. For example, people claimed that the shrubbery on the cover of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band is a grave, that the cover of Abbey Road is a funeral procession with Paul as the deceased, or that the "Number 9" voice on "Revolution 9" played backwards sounded like "Turn me on dead man." The shear number of ostensible clues that have been found is astounding, mind-blowing, and you could see and hear them all for yourself if you owned the albums. The whole rumor was quickly killed within a couple weeks when a reporter from Life tracked down Paul at his Scottish retreat and got some pictures and an interview. Most people were reassured and chuckled to themselves at how such a rumor got so out of control. But not everyone was convinced, and there are people to this day who believe that Paul died and was replaced by a lookalike.

What are we to make of these stories? We can also think of it in terms of W. V. O. Quine's concept of the web of belief. The idea is that we have many beliefs which are interconnected and which confirm one another. When new evidence is presented which perhaps shakes up or disconfirms these beliefs, we have to adjust these beliefs to accommodate it. Usually, we adjust the beliefs that are at the edge of our web of belief, the one's that are the least foundational. At the center are the beliefs that are pretty much unchanging and are the foundation for all other beliefs. Quine identified things like logic and beliefs about experience (for example, that sensory experience is largely accurate) and perhaps basic tenets about science as most foundational. But then again these foundation beliefs could vary from person to person. For some people a core belief might be a belief in God or a belief in the superiority of scientific method. These beliefs are the things that most identify us, so we are going to always try to change our other beliefs to preserve these central beliefs, no matter what the new evidence is. This core of our web of belief could be any ideology, say Marxism or Catholicism or Keynesianism or Platonism or whatever. And in fact, it could be some sort more marginal ideology like being a Holocaust denier, or a Moon Landing Denier, or a believer in Shape-shifting Lizard Aliens, or a birther. If you look hard enough and are creative enough, you can find evidence for anything and figure out ways to deny any contrary evidence. If it's important enough to you to preserve those beliefs, you can find a way.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Leader Poem

Leader poem for Day 26 of Robert Lee Brewer's April Pad Challenge.

When arms collide
we'll turn the enemy aside
Grind them back into the night
We'll leap the walls
And surge in squalls
And drive them to withdraw.

Repugnance and Rationalization

Matt Zwolinski at Bleeding Heart Libertarians has a nice piece on the place of repugnance in many of our moral calculations. The basic idea is that when we try to defend certain positions with rational arguments, the arguments themselves end up being post hoc window dressing to rationalize basic assumptions or moral feelings. He gives the example of immigration. For example, it's argued that we don't want open immigration because immigrants will use up social services. But this doesn't make sense. First of all it's dubious empirically. But even if it's true, we could just allow immigrants to enter the country and opt out of expensive social services like health & education. And it proves too much, since it could be used to justify preventing poor people from having babies or preventing immigration across state borders. This isn't the only rationality one could use to prove that immigration is undesirable, but any justification one could propose falls into the same trap of not taking into account different ways immigration could be managed and justifying things not meant to be justified.

But the reason that people think that immigration is a bad idea is not because they've been convinced by rational arguments. It's just a feeling, that we try to dress up afterwards with some sort of rationality. People dislike immigrants due to racism or nationalism (they sully the purity of one's homeland) or simply a fear that they constitute some sort of vague threat (such as stealing jobs or promoting terrorism), and then they conclude that therefore immigration is bad. In other words they're against immigration due to some sort of feeling of repugnance, not any rational argument.

Admittedly, one is never going to be able to completely reduce any sort of moral preference or value decision down pure logic. At the base there has to be sort of judgment that just can't be justified. I think that open immigration is good because it brings greater freedom and opportunity to improve the immigrants wealth and well-being and I think it in no way undermines and perhaps even improves wealth in the country receiving the immigrants. Part of this argument is empirically testable (does open immigration make countries poorer or wealthier?), but part of this is an unjustifiable assumption: people deserve more freedom and opportunity to improve their conditions no matter where they're from; being born in one place shouldn't confer any exclusive privilege.

I think that people who argue against should be forthright in their basic assumptions. If they think immigration should be restricted because foreigners are repugnant, let them be open about it because then people can judge that basic assumption for what it is. If they think immigrants take our jobs, they need to admit that they're assuming that such jobs belong to those who, by pure luck, where born in the country where the jobs are, and they need to admit that they're argument is open to empirical refutation. Of course, they're not going to do that because it severely weakens their argument and exposes judgments that most people have a much harder time agreeing with.

Much of philosophy as well as political discourse is involved in this process of dressing up unquestioned assumptions in sophisticated rationalizations. Smart people are very good at it. But if we want to get at the arguments, we need to get down to these basic assumptions and judge them on their merits.

Vengeful God

In the book of Numbers there's a story about the rebellion of Korah, which particularly shows the vengeful side of God. It begins when Korah and a number of his followers question the authority of Moses, asking why it is that he gets to be raised up above all the people. Now Moses says it's because he speaks directly with God, and to prove that he really speaks on behalf of God, Moses asks Korah and 250 of his followers to take censers filled with incense and stand with them in front of the tabernacle. Then God sent down fire and engulfed in flames all those 250 followers of Korah. For the rest of Korah's followers and all those associated with him, the earth opened up and swallowed them whole and they directly descended into Sheol, the land of the dead. The lesson: if you disobey God, He'll take vengeance, and it won't be nice.

This may not be your view of God. You might think of God as forgiving. Dawkins even says that this type of frightening portrait of divine vengeance is a form of emotional abuse foisted on children. On the other hand, at least according to some preliminary research, it might make you more honest. At least that's what psychologist Azim F. Shariff says, according to one study he's conducted. He says that if you believe in a vengeful God instead of a forgiving God, it will make you less likely to cheat. That doesn't mean that believing in a forgiving God (or no God at all) makes you prone to unrestrained turpitude and immorality, but it might make you a bit more moral in cases of minor moral temptation.

This might lend at least some credence to that whole Ring of Gyges story from Plato's Republic (Book II, sections 359a-360d). The story goes that Gyges found a ring, that when he turned it, made him completely invisible. He used this power to then seduce the queen and murder the king. Glaucon used the story, for one, to argue that people are moral because they fear the reproof of others. H. G. Wells picked up this story and turned it into his Invisible Man. Wells concluded the same thing that Glaucon did, that a person unrestrained by the gaze of others would degenerate into a corrupt person without any moral mooring. But, if a person believes that they are always under the gaze of a god, and particularly a god that seriously disapproves and might not forgive a moral misdeed, then it might keep one more in line.

The parallel is inexact, since the Ring of Gyges and The Invisible Man are also about the corrupting influence of the power conferred by invisibility. And I don't think most of us are even tempted to commit majorly horrible things like murder, rape or major theft, even if we could guarantee no one would know about it because we don't want to hurt others. In the end, being a good person is about developing good habits, but it can be the case that the fear of the reproof of others, perhaps even divine vengeance, can help us along, especially with relatively minor moral lapses like lying or cheating that we might be prone to sometimes let slip.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Metaphorical Thinking

Julia Galef has a nice post on the perils of metaphorical thinking. This is something that's been a big issue in philosophy at least as far back as Nietzsche who wrote "On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense" that language is pure metaphor, in which he said "What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms . . . truths are illusion of which we have forgotten they are illusions, metaphors which have become worn by frequent use and have lost all sensuous vigour." And later, in the Genealogy of Morality he mentioned the "seduction of language"(I:13) as a threat even in the sciences.

But even this idea predates Nietzsche, since, for example we hear Hegel many times complaining of the dangers of "picture thinking," in his Phenomenology of Spirit, by which he means thinking in terms of imagery and not in terms of ideas. And there are probably earlier examples, which simply don't come to mind at the moment.

New research has confirmed the suspicions of these earlier philosophers. We don't just use the word "cold" impassively to describe someone who is emotionally cold, we in fact think of it in terms of its primary meaning, as a colder temperature. For example, in the study Galef mentioned said people having warmer emotions towards people when they were holding something warm, or another said people perceived the temperature as colder when someone was being cold to them.

This can sometimes have major implications, such as the disgust factors with things that we metaphorically perceive as impure. Galef only mentions the perceptions of conservative religious beliefs, but it also affects environmentalism and preference for organic foods and bottled water.

Research like this may even only scratch the surface. We like to think we might be able to avoid it, but if Nietzsche is right about the pervasiveness of metaphor in our language and language is the primary way we think, then it might be inevitable, at least for all thinking in terms of language (such arguments don't apply to math).

Falling Poem

This is for Day 25 of the April Pad Challenge, a falling poem

Falling asleep

The night is calm, the air is cool
And wind blows in from outside.
Though I've many things left still to do
They must be for now put aside.
Darkness folds over, voices speak up
Coming from somewhere inside.
Now lights all around, while images jump,
As everywhere shadows come alive.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

What is zero to the zeroth power

Another post on numbers for today. I was reading a post on the question of what 00 is. If you remember your math you'll know that any number a raised to the zeroth power power is 1, namely A0=1. There are a couple ways of explaining the logic of this.

One is to say that An = 1 x A x A x A ... An. In other words, if you want to find the exponent of 25n then you take 1 and multiply it times 25, n times. So, if n is 0, then it's just 1 by itself, so 250=1.

A second way to look at it, since A-n = 1 / An, that would mean A0 equals An-n, which is another way of saying An / An. Since a number divided by itself is always 1, then this would equal 1.

Another way is to think of it like a limit using fractions of exponents. A1/2 is another way of saying the square root of A, and A1/3 the cube root and A1/4 the fourth root. Now as you take bigger and bigger roots of a number, the value gets smaller and smaller. But the value doesn't approach zero, it approaches one. For example, you'll notice if you calculate, say 51/100,000,000 you'll get a number very close to 1 (my calculator gave 1.0000000160943792), and it only gets closer as you increase the value. This makes sense, since the root is just an exponent in reverse, and if you think of multiplying any number times itself that's less than 1, it'll just get smaller and smaller, approaching 0. So, the root of any number greater than 1 will always have to be greater than one, so that when it multiplies by itself it gets bigger. So, the n root of a number greater than 1, as n gets bigger and bigger will get closer to 1. Meanwhile that value of 1 / 100,000,000 is only getting closer to 0. In other words, if you have a formula An = x, as n gets smaller and smaller (approaches 0), the value approaches of x approaches 1.

All of this makes perfect sense, until you ask what happens when A = 0, then it all just breaks down. If we think of it the first way, then we'd say that 0n = 1 x 0 x 0 x 0 ... 0n; thus 00 = 1. If we look at it the second way, we'd say that 0n-n = 0n / 0n; but that would mean we'd be dividing by 0, which is undefined. For example, since, 02-2 would equal 02 / 02, this would equal 0 / 0, which doesn't mean anything. Thus, by the second way, 00 is undefined. But then if we look at it the third way, then we would say, since 01/2 = 0 and 01/3 = 0 and 01/4 = 0, and so on, then it would seem 00 = 0.

Wikipedia has an extensive entry on this question. It's a debated question, apparently with three different positions: either it must equal 1, it is undefined, or it varies based on the circumstance. One fellow named Benson, who falls into the third camp, says, "The choice whether to define 0^0 is based on convenience, not on correctness."

Over at the Measure of Doubt blog, Julia Galef, took this idea and concluded that math is something that is invented for the purpose of being useful. This doesn't mean it's untrue, it might just mean that math is more like a language or a pattern of relations. Any particularly mathematical theorem is true because it's just describing relations between various mathematical elements. But a mathematic formula that describes a phenomenon out in the world would be different; it would be a description, using mathematical symbols instead of words, and would be true to the degree to which it is an accurate description. To me, the idea that a mathematical definition would vary based on convenience seems wrong, since the virtue of math is its precision and internal consistency, and it also seems like the decision to make 0^0 equal 1 is also based on arguments from convenience. So, I'd have to go with the undefined camp.

The 23 million dollar book

So what happens when two book sellers put a book for sale on Amazon marketplace with automatic pricing algorithms, one of which is set to price the book a percentage higher than the lowest price of the other books sold and the other a smaller percentage lower than the lowest price? Well, in such circumstances, the algorithms can actually get into a price war which actually causes the price to go up ad infinitum. In the case noted here by Michael Eisen, the price of a book on the developmental biology of flies was ratcheted up to 23 million dollars before someone noticed. It goes without saying that no one bought the book at that price.

Eisen gives a plausible explanation of how this worked. One of the sellers, he's guessing, probably didn't have the book, so they set up an automatic algorithm that would make sure their price was 1.270589 times the price of the cheapest alternative so that, if someone actually bought the book from them, they could turn around and buy the cheapest alternative and then resell it at a profit. The other seller, used an automatic algorithm that would make sure their price was 0.9983 times the price of the cheapest alternative, to make sure their copy was always the cheapest, but only slightly cheaper than the next cheapest alternative. Since 1.270589 is much greater than 1 than 0.9983 is less than 1, the two will constantly be pushing the other books price up. For example, if you imagine the second company originally listing the book at $100, as soon as the first company, that uses the 1.270589 calculation, lists their book, it will be automatically priced at $127.06. This would then lead the other company to reprice their book at $126.84, which would lead the first to reprice at $161.06, which would lead to the other repricing at $160.89 ... and so on.

I think I've seen this before, though I never pieced together the why like Eisen did. I remember seeing the elegant graphic novel Milk Teeth being priced way into the stratosphere for a while. Right now its list price is $16.95, but there was a time when it had gone out of print after the first printing sold out. People started selling used copies, but then the used copies started dwindling and getting more expensive. Then used copies started appearing at prices in hundreds of dollars. I assumed it was the sellers deciding to offer absurdly high prices because of high demand, but it may just as likely been the pricing algorithms getting out of control, since these algorithms don't appear to work very well when there are very few copies being offered.

Postscript: You can actually check out Amazon's selection of super expensive books, ranging in the 100s of millions of dollars, with a search. All cases I observed were of one seller selling the only copy of a book for a ridiculous price, and many were from the same sellers, such as GINAA or thebrothersbooks. Some sellers must have some seriously messed up pricing algorithms.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Teaching great books to kids

Interesting commentary at The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates on the value of teaching sophisticated great books to young kids "How to Teach Books to Kids." The basic idea is that when you read great books at too young of an age, they don't really stick and you don't understand them. In other words, it might not be a good idea to try and force youngsters to read these books.

I can't say I disagree. Though I'd love it if more people were familiar with the great books and think great books educations are great, it's an education that simply isn't appropriate for most people, and very few young kids are ready for it. I am presuming that people do mostly forget about the great books they read when young, which I can't say for certain is the case, but it seems likely. As a person involved in teaching Philosophy, I can say I've many times talked to people who, when I mention that I'm getting my PhD in philosophy, mention that they'd studied some philosophy in undergrad or high school. But they invariably can remember almost nothing of what they'd studied. It's not because they have poor memory, it's just because the things they learned weren't too useful to them and it's been too long. Education has costs. It takes time and it takes money. So, if you learn about something and pretty much entirely forget it within a few years, it seems like you've wasted that time and money. It's primary value is that you can honestly say, "Oh yeah, I read that. It's really good."

I think it's more realistic to expect kids to read books at their age level. Don't try to foist books that don't really grab them (they'll remember books that engross them much better than those that don't) and make them and make them think that reading is boring. Just get them to read and write at their own level. I think because there're are a lot of smart people that are really intrigued by great books, that they expect everyone else will be equally as fascinated, but it's simply not true. More freedom in what students get to read. Let them discover the important stuff on their own.

Wine Tasting Contest

A recent study has shown that people can't really tell the difference between good wine and cheap wine. This shouldn't come as particularly shocking. There has been correlative research that has shown that people's expectation can really influence their perception. For example, if you give someone a cheap wine and tell them it's expensive they'll enjoy it more, and vice versa if you give them expensive wine in cheap bottles. Penn & Teller had an amusing example of this in their TV show Bullshit, where they took two gourmands and presented them with some cheaply made food craftily dressed up. The food was served at a fine restaurant, included elegant presentation and was prefaced with a sumptuous description by the waiter. The effect was that this cheap food tasted amazing. We, as humans, are hugely influenced by expectation.

This experiment, though, wasn't testing expectation, but just simply whether people like expensive or cheap wine better. They were just doing completely blind taste tests. People weren't told which wines were cheap or expensive. They were just tasting wines and evaluating them. It turns out there isn't really a significant difference between people's preference of one over the other. On average, cheap wines taste as good as expensive wines. In short, the appeal of expensive wines, at least for most people, really is entirely in expectation.

I can relate a personal experience of wine-tasting, which perhaps illustrates this point. When my parents were living in Houston, my mother was working for a small oil company. One of the holidays when I visited, my parents brought me along to a company party. The party included a wine-tasting contest. The contest comprised drinking six wines and ranking them. The closer your ranking came to the rankings given by Wine Spectator, the higher your score. The person who ranked the closest to Wine Spectator would win $100 dollars, for which reason I decided to give it a try. At the time I was 22 years old and hadn't been drinking for very long. I'd be lying if I said I didn't drink until I was 21, but I definitely was not a heavy drinker, and had rather limited experience. I certainly had limited experience with wine.

In the end, I won. I couldn't help feeling a vindication of my superior palette, thinking that, despite my relative inexperience, I'd bested these more experienced adults, despite their year of experience. But the more probable reason is that it was just pure luck. There's no doubt that the wines tasted differently and some slightly better, but there was an undoubted level of just random guessing in my ranking.

My experience perhaps raises the possibility of another avenue of study. Instead of comparing expensive wines to cheap wines, compare highly ranked wines to lower ranked wines. I'm sure you could find a number of different rankings for a selection of, say, 30 or so wines, and aggregate those rankings and then compare them to the blind rankings of average drinkers. Do average drinkers agree with the wine experts? How much do wine experts agree? Are the wine experts influenced by price in their rankings? If you tell people that a wine is ranked highly by wine experts, do they tend to enjoy it more? Maybe I can write a grant and get some money to do an experiment looking at some of these questions.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Like Poem

My poem for Day 18 of the April Pad Challenge, a "Like" poem.

Like for Like
Carat for carat and eye for eye;
My hours of sweat bring flights 'cross the sky.
Quid pro quo, new things obtained.
The gods bring us rain, in exchange for oblations of grain
Money for something, this for that.
These tables of trade bring me wealth unsurpassed.

Creating good characters

A few years ago a Wisconsin-based film production company named RedLetterMedia started a series of hour plus long reviews on the Star Wars prequels. The purpose of these reviews was to carefully dissect what went wrong with these three films and the filmmakers went to a lot of effort to create a detailed analysis. It's not only an interesting exercise for someone in filmmaking, but it also touches on a number of issues relating to storytelling in general. For one, in the Phantom Menace Review the narrator, Mr. Plinkett, analyzes what it is about the characters from that movie that make them so dull. He asks people to try to describe the characters "without saying what they look like, what kind of costume they wore or what their profession or role in the movie was," as if you're describing them to someone who hasn't seen the movie. In short describe everything about the characters that makes them unique as a character. When you engage in this exercise, you find that people have trouble describing characters that aren't well drawn, whereas they have lots to say about characters that are well drawn.

This makes for a good writing exercise. Try and describe characters from stories you've written. Better yet have others read the stories and have them describe them. This latter can be helpful for identifying when it is that a particular characteristic that you were trying to convey wasn't memorable or highly noticeable. You can see this for example with the Phantom Menace, where Lucas clearly makes some effort to make Qui-Gon Jinn appear to be a rebel who doesn't bow to authority, but it doesn't really stick with audiences because the character development mostly consists of other characters describing him as a rebel, and doesn't actually involve him doing particularly rebellious things. We can starkly contrast this to the character of Han Solo from the original series. Even from his first introduction his character is clearly portrayed this way. They meet him in a bar described as a "wretched hive of scum and villainy," where he's willing to smuggle passengers, where he shoots Greedo, making a clever quip as he leaves. And this is just in the first few minutes of meeting his character. In fact, we should never underestimate the importance of a character's initial introduction to the reader in solidifying the unique characteristics of your character in the minds of the reader.

Now, what particular details make a character compelling? The Writer's Digest has a nice little article on How to Craft Compelling Characters, which opens by describing four main elements of a good character: ambition, secret, contradiction, vulnerability. It's a good list. I personally would quibble and say that it's really ambition (give your character driving goal or a dream or need) and vulnerability that are the most important and that a secret (an important something hidden) and a contradiction (having multiple characteristics that contradict on another) are potent but inessential. Additionally, we might also expand this list, such as the importance of giving characters small flaws people can relate to, giving them memorable idiosyncrasies, making them dynamic (they are changed by events) and so on, but I think this gets to the core of important elements of good characterization.

Such a list is a useful lens to help us further evaluate and improve characters from our own stories. For example, none of the characters in Phantom Menace have any defining ambition and they're not portrayed as fairly vulnerable. Sure, they're trying to achieve certain ends throughout the film, but they aren't portrayed as being really driven by a defining goal. Their goals are really just a function of the situation. It can also help us understand that classic saw of literary criticism, why the character of Satan in Paradise Lost is vastly more interesting than the character of Adam. The most important reasons are that Satan has an ambitious goal (he wants to mar God's new creation) and he is vulnerable (he's distinctly weaker than God, has been defeated by Him once, and is going up against Him again).

It goes without saying that the more originality you can put into developing these characteristics, the more memorable they'll be. Nonetheless, these are good starting points to helping you evaluate and improve your characters, and it's good to try to employ these exercises to improve a story.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

False confessions

Slate had an article a few days about about false confessions, a surprisingly common problem. Of 250 cases of later DNA exoneration, 16% included false confessions, and that's just among cases definitely disproven by DNA evidence. False confessions are in fact a major problem in criminal investigation, which investigators have to be constantly wary of. Not only do police have to worry about people who confess for attention in high profile cases, but they also have to worry about the possibility of extracting false confessions through persistent pressure, which can escalate even to outright torture. The only check police usually have is to corroborate confessions with available evidence, but in some cases police will find ways to circumvent it or bend the rules.

It always reminds me of one of the most famous cases of false confession, the case of William Hierens, who is currently perhaps the longest serving prisoner in America, after he confessed to three murders in 1946 that he probably didn't commit. I should say at the outset that his case is controversial, and not everyone is convinced Hierens is innocent, but I think the evidence is compelling.

The three murders in question occurred in 1945-46 in Chicago. The first two, which occurred within a few blocks of each other were both middle aged women who lived alone, who had been stabbed repeatedly in their home. In the second case, a note had been scrawled in lipstick on the wall, reading: "For heavens sake catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself," from which the killer was dubbed the "Lipstick Kiler." The only evidence the police had was a bloody fingerprint left behind at the second scene, and one witness who saw a suspicious looking man about 35-40 years old leaving the second scene at about the time of the murder. The police tried to match the fingerprint to those they had on file, but came up empty.

The third murder, which occurred a few weeks after the second at a location several miles to the north of the first two, had a very different modus operandi and seems quite unlikely to be related. This time it was a six-year-old girl, Suzanne Degnan, who was kidnapped from her bedroom, taken into a basement, drained of her blood and dismembered, with body parts being left throughout various sewers. The only evidence was a ransom note that had been left behind in her bedroom and a handful of witnesses who described suspicious persons in the area, usually of an adult male alone, but in a couple of cases of a man and woman with a car. The ransom note was in a significantly different hand than the lipstick scrawl, and famous handwriting expert Herbert J. Walter, told the press that they appeared to be by different persons.

At this time, William Hierens was a 17 year old studying at the University of Chicago, who had already built up considerable history as a petty thief. He had broke into many houses and stole numerous small things, and had already been arrested twice for robbery and served two stints of juvenile detention. When he was caught in the act the third time, after fleeing from police, brandishing a gun to try and get away and being knocked out with a flower pot, he became an immediate suspect for the three murders.

Just before the arrest of Hierens, the police had found a very plausible suspect for the Degnan killing, a man serving a jail sentence in Arizona named Richard Russell Thomas, who was in jail for molesting his daughter. He had committed a previous crime which included a ransom note; his handwriting seemed to match the Degnan ransom note; he had medical training as a nurse, making him more competent to perform the rather difficult job of dismembering a body; and he'd confessed to it. Unfortunately, it was a case of bad timing, as the police dropped this suspect when they got a hold of Hierens.

The police questioned Hierens for days unrelentingly, administering severe beatings and exerting constant pressure. They were initially unable to connect him to the crimes: his handwriting, for one, didn't match the lipstick handwriting or the ransom note; their witnesses had all described an adult male not a scrawny teenager; they had been unable to get a fingerprint off the ransom note; and his fingerprint was already on file from his burglaries, so if it was to match the fingerprint at the second scene, it should've already been discovered immediately after the second killing. The police even told the press, at first, that Hierens fingerprints didn't match the print at the second scene. But the police were nonetheless convinced they had their man.

The police administered Sodium Pentathol, the so-called "Truth Serum," to Hierens and he gave a number of bizarre confessions about an alternate personality named George that compelled him to kill and steal. Sodium Pentathol is no longer used nowadays as a truth serum because its effectiveness as a truth serum is rather spotty. Sodium Pentathol sort of works like alcohol or hypnosis: it's a relaxant that reduces inhibition. It is used, in combination with other drugs, as an an anesthetic, creating a quick-acting, though short-living term of unconsciousness. In smaller amounts it creates a psychological state somewhat like being drunk or hypnotized, with a person both more unrestrained as well as, because of the relaxant quality, less resolved. Since the lack of inhibition can make a person more candid and since the lack of resolve can make a person more compliant under questioning, it was thought to be a good truth serum. The reality is, though, that the results are very unpredictable. If a questioner is trying to get an answer out of a subject, the lack of resolve makes that subject more likely to simply say whatever is desired. It increases suggestibility, making a person more likely to accept whatever is told to them. And the lack of inhibition can also make a person much more imaginative and unrestrained in creating made up stories. In short, sodium pentathol makes a person under interrogation much more likely to say what you want them to say, which is not really helpful if you've got a person who doesn't know anything.

On the other hand, the police were gathering hard evidence and the press was completely on their side, credulously reporting the guilt of Hierens. The police now found now that the bloody fingerprint did in fact match Hierens' fingerprint; they found that their witness who'd seen a 35-40 year old man at second scene was now willing to testify that he'd in fact seen the 17 year old Hierens; and the handwriting expert, Herbert J. Walter, who'd earlier said the ransom note and lipstick scrawl were by different hands, now changed his mind and said they were by the same author and that author was Hierens (the handwriting only appeared different since Hierens had made effort to disguise his handwriting).

With this evidence, the police pressured Hierens into confessing and pleading guilty, telling him that he would get the chair if he pleaded not guilty. This led to an odd flip-flopping, where Hierens first said he'd confess, and then he changed his mind and then the police pressed him again and he finally pled guilty and provided a full confession. He subsequently flip-flopped again, now saying he was innocent, but by then it was too late and he was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences. Within days, Hierens despaired and tried to kill himself, but was discovered before he died. Some 65 years later, he's still in jail, still proclaiming his innocence and coming close to the end of his life.

As I said at the beginning, the case is a controversial one, with its share of defenders and detractors. But it's difficult to imagine that he would've been convicted in a fair trial. Any competent defense attorney would be able to poke holes in the fingerprint match, the eye-witness testimony and the handwriting analysis. About all the prosecution has to go on is a confession, which, admittedly, would be enough to convict, but considering the circumstances that led to the conviction and what we know about how common false confessions are, this is also questionable.

Based on what we know about the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, the eyewitness appears to be a case of a man who, after reading the constant press coverage proclaiming Hierens' guilt, became convinced that it was in fact Hierens he had seen. Similarly with the handwriting analysis. Handwriting is not an exact science and the degree to which two sets of handwriting are similar enough to be by the same person is not well-defined. Not to mention that the consensus among analysist that the two sources of writing were different from one another and from Hierens' handwriting and that it was only Walter that convinced himself that the superficial differences in writing were enough evidence to demonstration attempts to disguise his handwriting. Handwriting is inexact at the best of times, but to be able to link disguised writing to someone is going out on a limb.

The case for the Degnan murder is extremely weak. For one the murder is radically different from the other two. For example, William T Rasmussen tries to make the case that Suzanne Degnan was killed by a person also responsible for two other contemporaneous unsolved murders involving dismemberment (namely the Cleveland Torso Murders and the Black Dahlia murder). Now Rasmussen's evidence linking these three is rather superficial, but it certainly is the case that they have far more in common with each other than does the Degnan murder have with the other two. There are simply way too many differences. Serial killers are by no means slavishly faithful to a single MO, but a serial killer performing two completely different styles of murder on two very different types of victims within a matter of weeks is unprecedented. Not to mention that Hierens simply lacked the tools or the expertise really to perform a dismemberment as well as it was performed. It's simply not something that a person easily picks up on the first try. In fact, we have a very good suspect with none of these problems who confessed.

With the other two cases we can say that we have a better case against Hierens. Dismissing the handwriting and eyewitness testimony, we still do have a suspect with a history of home invasion and a bloody fingerprint that matches. Those who defend Hierens claim that the fingerprint was planted by the police. The suspicious change from Hierens not being a match to being a match lends credence to this argument. Nonetheless, though we can't say with as much certainty that Hierens didn't do it as with the Degnan murder, the case is weak and the level of doubt too high for a reasonable conviction.

What can we conclude? In high profile cases, the pressure for police to get a conviction at any costs can sometime completely interfere with normal standards of evidence. In this case, the pressure was intense. And combine that with the low probability of catching the culprit in such random killings like this, you have a recipe for police abuse and serious judicial error. The presence of a confession is simply not strong enough for a reasonable conviction and it's very likely William Hierens falsely confessed.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Snapshot Poem

Here is a snapshot poem for Day 16 of the April PAD challenge.

The night is dawning in the east,
And I am drawing inside to rest.
The night is quiet and the sight
Of the lights that dapple the sky
Is shaping before my eyes.
I've already started to plan my dreams,
Out of my clothes and into my sheets,
Off with the lights, off of my feet,
Soon all things no longer in reach.

Britain's AV voting Referendum

Apparently, Britain is considering using an alternate voting (AV) system. Here's something from the Daily Mail not too favorable, and at The Independent, that says polls indicate people are in favor of AV voting. The system they're considering is usually called "Instant Run-Off" voting. Here's a video that explains it. This is the voting system that the Academy reverted to for Best Picture Oscars two years ago when they decided to expand the number of nominees from five to ten. I think the AV system is a great idea for Britain, and I think it'd be great for the US too.

The current system of voting in the US and Britain is a First Past the Post System, which basically means that everyone casts one vote for their preferred candidate and the candidate with the most votes wins. How the AV system differs is that instead of voting for one person, you rank the various candidates in order of preference. So, if there are five candidates, you rank them 1st through 5th. If a multiple candidates tie for your least favorite, then you don't have to rank those. In order to tally the votes, the vote counters first simply count votes according to everyone's first preference. If one candidate has the majority, it ends and a winner is declared. If not, then whichever candidate has the least first preference votes is eliminated, and all the ballots for the eliminated candidate are distributed according to those ballots' second preference. If there is then a majority winner, then it's over, but if no majority winner, then the next last place candidate is eliminated and votes redistributed according to second preference (or if second preference eliminated third preference) and so on. So, it's sort of like a series of run off elections with one fewer candidates each new election until someone gets the majority.

Some people have criticized the AV system at the Academy awards on the grounds that it led to less worthy films winning (Hurt Locker and The King's Speech, to date), but the truth is that the measure of any voting system is how well it gauges voter preference. These are the movies the Academy preferred, and if the Academy has bad taste, then the voting system can hardly be faulted.

The truth is that the AV system is better at gauging voter preference. First of all, by asking for orders of preference rather than just the first preference, it gathers more information about what voters really think. Second of all, it eliminates (or at least reduces the prevalence of) strategic voting. Strategic voting is a common problem in first past the post system. It's when voters vote for someone they don't prefer, but rather someone who's the least worst option among likely candidates. For example, in US presidential elections, many voters that would prefer to vote for a third party candidate, vote instead for the Democratic or Republican candidate closest to their political preference as a next best option, in order to avoid an even worse option. For example, if you're left leaning and there's a left leaning third party candidate you prefer, you might still vote Democrat in order to prevent the Republican candidate from winning. Voters want to avoid situations like the 1992 and 2000 presidential elections where third party candidates siphoned votes away from a candidate that may have likely won in their absence. In other words, with first past the post voting, it often happens that voters will vote to avoid a worse case scenario instead of actually expressing their preference.

Third of all, the AV system can handle larger pools of candidates. With a first past the post system, anything greater than two candidates, means that someone can win without a majority, and the greater the number of candidates, the smaller the plurality needed to win. Thus, you either get a system where winning candidates only represent a minority of voters, or you get a system where there are only really two parties. Thus, AV voting makes third parties more viable and would allow the broad spectrum of American political opinion to be better represented, rather than the simplistic A Party vs B Party divide. In fact, it's likely that the reason for the pervasive two party system in the US is the continuous use of first past the post voting.

The AV system also, for better or worse, disadvantages divisive figures. In any election with three or more candidates, the winning candidate will win by gathering not just first preferences but also second and perhaps even third preferences. Thus, the winning candidate is going to be more people's preferred or at least next best option. A candidate that on the other hand is either loved or hated, is unlikely to get many second or third preferences and thus will be beat out by candidates that have more broad support.

Many dubious arguments are offered against AV voting, but they usually fall into a basic nirvana fallacy. For example, it is pointed at that a candidate might win without a majority (especially if people don't rank all their preferences) or that in certain exotic circumstances the preferred candidate might be edged out by a slightly less preferred candidate (for example if have three candidates A,B,C and 45% of voters rank them C>B>A, 35% A>B>C, and 20& B>A>C; A would win despite that C is the clear favorite and 65% prefer B over A). Both arguments fail to acknowledge that both of these problems are real and far more probable and significant in a first past the post voting system. There have been many spoiler candidates in American elections throughout the years, and the common practice among voters of strategic voting makes the Republican/Democratic candidates seem more popular than they really are. Alas, no system is perfect, but the AV system reduces the distortions of such imperfections.

The real disadvantage of the AV system is that it's confusing. Academy members found it confusing, and even if the average Briton is smarter than the average Academy member (I'm not going to say anything), some will still struggle getting used to it. But this system has been successfully implemented in numerous jurisdictions. A number of cities use it (such as Oakland, San Francisco, Minneapolis, St Paul) and a couple countries (such as Ireland and Australia). There's no doubt it's a system that takes some getting used to, and definitely asks for more thought from voters. But it's not that complex. If people can figure out how to rank something on a 1 to 10 scale or decide on their top ten favorite movies of all time, they can do this.

Admittedly, I can't say whether it's the best system of voting ever created. There are in fact many preferential voting systems out there which have their advantages and disadvantages. But it is a more accurate and more democratic system than first past the post.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The horror, the whore

When I was a Freshman in college, I took a class, as part of my English major, on literary theory. It was one of my favorite classes, taught by a short Eastern European woman named Michelle Tokarczyk, who spoke with a light accent and scurried around the room like a little hamster. The class covered the gambit of literary theory, from New Criticism to Reader-response criticism, from Post-Colonialism to Post-Structuralism and Deconstructism. It can rather overwhelm a young mind with the problem of how one can come to any sort of interpretation of a difficult text and was quite interesting.

In our class, we had a rather outspoken student, a woman probably in her junior year, with brown, tightly-curled hair and a certain sarcastic and sardonic way of speaking. At the time, we were reading the Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, a classic story that if you haven't read it, you should. If you're familiar with it, you probably know that it's the basis for Apocalypse Now, which, though only loosely based on the book, is entirely worth seeing on its own right.

The main plot is that the narrator, Charles Marlow, is on assignment to steam up the Congo into the interior of Africa to fetch a rogue ivory trader named Kurtz. In the end, hate to spoil it for you, Marlow finds Kurtz, but Kurtz dies on the way back, as he is dying, he says his famous final words, "The Horror! The Horror!" This is meant to be a reflection of the horror of life or the horror of the situation or something mysterious related to the darkness of the title of the book.

Sometime much later, Marlow goes and visits Kurtz's fiancee. She is unsurprisingly interested in knowing whatever Marlow knows about Kurtz, but Marlow is reluctant to tell her the whole truth, since it's rather unpleasant. Kurtz had really gone deeply into the dark and unpleasant side of life. She then asks Marlow, what Kurtz's last words were, and Marlow says he last words were her name. This being a literary theory class, our tiny professor asked us in her Eastern European accent why it was that Marlow told the fiancee that Kurtz's last words were about her. At this point, the brown-haired student pipes up and says, "Maybe his last words, 'the horror, the horror' were about her." The class laughed and then settled down and got back to the serious business of class. Of course, despite the overwhelming variety of methods of literary criticism one can be safe in saying that there are certain interpretations that one can dismiss as unlikely.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Unexamined Veil of Tenure

That's the title of an article at The Chronicle of Higher Education. The author, Steve Conhen, argues that tenure is a harmful institution and needs to seriously reformed. His argument is that tenure protects bad teachers and that attempts to address this problem, through post-tenure evaluation are completely ineffective.

The article makes good points but I think what the article sort of misses is that this really is a question of trade offs. Tenure is valuable because it improves academic freedom, but it is harmful because decreases the chances that bad professors will be fired. The fact that there were only 10 tenured professors let go in two years out of 600,000 (that would be 1 for every 120,000) shows that tenured professors are let go at a much, much lower rate than other comparable professionals. Compare that to doctors, who lost their medical license at a rate closer to 1 in 500 (and that's not even looking at the number that simply lost their jobs without losing their license). Such a low rate of termination suggests relatively high numbers of bad professors on the roles (even if we're talking, say, less than 5%, that's still really high).

The question is whether these roles of bad teachers are somehow worth it for all the academic freedom that professors get. So, how does tenure contribute to academic freedom? There are some things to consider. First, academic freedom is going to be limited by other factors, such as the need to publish in journals that may not appreciate radical theses, the desire to avoid alienating students or colleagues or create controversy. Simply put, humans are social creatures, and few of us are really brave enough to stand far outside the norm. Second, most professors only get tenure after they've passed their most intellectually agile (mid 20s) and radical part of their life. By the time professors get tenure, their ideas are mostly settled, and since there is no protection for academic freedom before tenure, it's much less likely that radical ideas are going to start springing up afterwards. In fact, it's more likely that professors who express radical ideas (at a time when they are more likely to harbor such ideas) will not get tenure, since other professors may deny them tenure for ideological reasons. Third, even in the absence of tenure, most colleges would be reluctant to remove any established professors for ideological reasons, for fear of marring their reputation. In fact, before the institution of tenure, it was quite rare to dismiss professors for ideological reasons. Fourth, long term contracts would still serve the cause of academic freedom (though not quite nearly as well) as lifetime tenure. A professor with a ten year contract has little fear of being fired for ideological reasons, but still the incentive to continue to be productive, so that the contract might be renewed.

I wish there was a more systematic way to compare academic freedom with tenure vs no tenure, but in the absence of such evidence it seems that tenure only modestly improves academic freedom, and that the problem of bad professors is more significant. Thus, presuming I am right, tenure might be better replaced by a system of long-term contracts. Of course, I'm open to dissent.

"ain't none of my business" poem

This is for Day 12 of the April PAD challenge, an "ain't none of my business" poem.

I had a roommate who worked on secret things alone,
On mysteries, that neither him nor I was meant to know.
On murky evenings much went on behind his door:
The sounds that roared, the smoke that seeped through cracks,
The indecipherable intonations, lights that flashed.
What he'd seen or heard or looked upon with naked mind,
I couldn't conceive, and he wouldn't dare to leave behind.
He disappeared, and nothing more was heard,
Departing willingly or being taken away
I couldn't say and won't investigate.
There's things best kept undisturbed.

The apartment hunt continued

As I explained yesterday, when I was out looking for an apartment in Amsterdam, I was looking at one place along with two other people, a Dutch man and a French woman. I had assumed that the French woman was single and so decided to pursue her, but it didn't work out quite like I expected.

The French woman was a slender, professional-looking brunette with pale skin and dark eyes. After we finished looking at the apartment, the two of us were back out on the street heading towards the nearest tram stop, and, since she was moderately attractive, I struck up a conversation. She had moved to Amsterdam for a job, and she was currently living in a friend's place temporarily while she waded through the long apartment-hunting slog.

I invited her out for drinks and we ended up at a bar that she knew of, near central Amsterdam. We had a nice conversation, and at the end of the night exchanged phone numbers so we could do it again.

I called her a couple days later and invited her out for dinner, and she consented. A short while after that I talked to my friendTom, who invited me over to his place, since him and his friends were going out drinking that evening. I told him I was going out to dinner with a French woman and would be by afterwards, and asked if I could bring her along. His said this was fine and we hung up.

Then the French woman called me back, clearly concerned. She told me that she wanted to cancel the dinner because she had a boyfriend and she was worried I might have got wrong idea. This was a bit of surprise to me, as I had assumed she was interested in me. I told her that I was meeting up with some friends for drinks and she should come along. She consented. So, that night we met up and went to Tom's apartment together.

One of Tom's roommates was a young Frenchman named Flaurent, who worked for Sony, dealing with product design. Both Tom and Flaurent were young, charming and outgoing men in their twenties, well-dressed, good sense of humor and lots of fun. It was Tom, Flaurent and a friend of Flaurent, another Frenchman, that were going to be going out drinking that night. Tom had, of course, told them about the French woman I was bringing and about our previous date, so they assumed that I was dating this woman. After they arrived and we started talking, the two Frenchmen started teasing her, talking about how American men were stealing their French women and that French women are a national treasure and what are you doing with this guy. It was all in good fun, but it made her quite uncomfortable.

Eventually she had to quietly tell the two Frenchmen, that she already had a boyfriend and that her and I were just friends. Flaurent afterwards came over to me and told me: "Did you know she already has a boyfriend and isn't interested in you?" And I had to admit that she had told me the same thing just today. I added: "She agreed to go to dinner, and then she changed her mind, after she thought I might misinterpret it."

In the end, we had a fun night, and she got to like my friends. I met up with her on a few more occasions during my time in Amsterdam, and was really happy with the apartment I found.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Recording a life

Chris Higgins stumbles upon a man who took a polaroid of himself everyday for 18 years, from 1979 until 1997. His last photo is on the day he died, meaning he recorded every day of the latter part of his life (though some photos are missing), in some 6,697 photographs. Here's a link to the site where all of these photos are uploaded. It's an interesting way to record a life of this man, James Livington, especially considering they capture so many biographical details. You can reconstruct quite a bit of his life, just from the photos, his family and friends, his interests and hobbies, his regular habits, and his declining health from cancer and the lead up to his ultimate death.

The apartment hunt

Finding an apartment in Amsterdam is difficult. It's a concentrated city, where space is at a premium and there's little room for expansion and new building. I went several routes looking for apartments, finding listings in newspapers, finding agency that help you find apartments, looking for online listings. And these most of these listings would get snatched up very quickly. When it came to using the newspaper classifieds, I found it was essential to call early in the morning, since usually by the afternoon, most of the good listings were snatched up. The apartment that I eventually got into, I was actually the third person to call about the listing, even though I called fairly early in the morning.

At the time when I was looking I was temporarily subletting the apartment of a friend of a friend. In fact, when I'd first showed up in Amsterdam, I'd been staying on the couch in the living room of my friend Tom. He shared the apartment with three other people. I spent about a week or two there looking for an apartment before one of Tom's friends told him she wanted to sublet her apartment for a few weeks, while she was staying at another place. I stayed in her place, which was quite nice and well-situated, and continued to look around. After lots of phone calls and emails, I finally got a look at a room not too far from the city center for a reasonable price of 300 euros a month.

The room was part of a two story apartment owned by a Dutch woman, who lived there with her two kids. The apartment was a second-story walkup in a typically cramped Amsterdam building some twenty minutes away from the city center by tram. She had already rented out two rooms to two other foreigners in the twenties, a Greek man and an Austrian woman. Thus, it'd be six of us, sharing one small kitchen and small bathroom and no living space like a family room or living room. She'd decided that she would have all three of us look at the apartment, and if all of us were still interested, she'd choose the one she liked best.

She had two rooms that were reserved for her and her two kids, one of them a bedroom and the other a sort of sitting room, with a tv and stereo. She was thinking about renting out this room eventually, in a few months. I mentioned that I knew something who was planning on looking for a new place at that time and might be interested. This was in fact a co-worker of Tom's, named Joost, who had said that he was going to be needing a new place around July or August. It turned out that this fortunate piece of information was a major factor in her deciding me over the other two. Perhaps it was always my winning personality and flawless good looks (or my boundless modesty).

After showing us everything, she said she would call us and tell us her decision. She actually called up later that night and I sort of had to conceal my delight because I was at the time out on the town drinking with the French girl that I'd looked at the apartment with, but that's another story.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Hearst Castle Roman Pool

Hearst Castle Indoor Pool by allistair
Hearst Castle Indoor Pool a photo by allistair on Flickr.

This is the so-called Roman pool at Hearst Castle in California. This is part of the gigantic Hearst Mansion, built by the wealth media baron, William Randolph Hearst. The Roman pool was designed to look like roman baths and is decorated with eight statues of roman gods. This is the last stop on the rather pricey tour that my wife and I took of the Hearst Mansion when we passed by there a few years ago.

Lune Poem

Here is a Lune poem for Day 12 of the April PAD challenge.

The windows are open,
Air Blows in,
Leaves are blown inside.

Dream of the Hearse

I wonder if someone could make this into a good story. I once had a dream where there was this funeral procession. A line of cars were driving slowly down the road. The hearse car was a convertible, and the coffin was in the center. Sitting around the coffin was the close family.

Suddenly the coffin started to shake, and the top was kicked off. The deceased, in a dark suit emerged out of the coffin and leapt out of the car. At the side of the road just happened to be a woman in a white wedding dress. He grabbed her by the hand and the two of them ran into the nearest building which was a church. After only a few moments they ran out of the chapel, now fully wed, and jumped into the driver's seat of the hearse car and sped away.

Try to make that into an interesting story at the sound of the whistle. Go!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Milwaukee Snowstorm 2

Marquette Blizzard 2 by allistair
Fatma Nap a photo by allistair on Flickr.

Here's another picture of the heavy snowstorm at Marquette, taken on February 6, 2008. This picture is looking in the direction of the Marquette Library, which is not visible, though it's about a block away. It snowed constantly from about 4pm on February 5, to about 10pm on February 6, unleashing about 16 inches over that time. In this picture there are probably several billion snowflakes floating in the air, blocking the view to the library just a hundred or so feet away.

Creative Writing Exercises

One of my writing teachers gave us once a really great exercise for helping a writer to work on description. The basic idea is that you give yourself, or your students, a limited set of events, something that could be described in maybe a page or two, and have them write it out in fifteen pages. No dialogue, no internal monologue, just description.

The way he gave it to us, our story had to have these elements: 1) the protagonist wakes up on the second floor of a building 2) the protagonist goes down to the first floor 3) On the first floor is someone that the protagonist wants to avoid 4) That someone needs to be sensed without being seen (such as heard, smelled or felt) 5) The protagonist needs to exit the building and get into a vehicle of some sort; anything, as long as it produces some sort of noise 6) It needs to be 15 pages long (in other words, 4500 words) and 7) It can't have any dialogue or internal monologue.

The students in our class came up with all types of different stories, despite the limitations. One story was about a girl waking up in her boyfriend's house and hearing her boyfriend's mother downstairs, realizing she had to get out of the house without being seen by the mother. Another was about a guy waking up in a drunken stupor at the office and trying to get out without getting noticed. You could have a story of someone waking up a trying to steal. Mine was about aliens kidnapping a man for testing, and him waking up, severely weakened by the drugs and struggling to get out of the building.

The story that results will probably not be a good story. Since you'll be padding it out with so much extra description and expostulation, it'll plod along slowly, but it's good for forcing yourself to practice those techniques. And if you struggle writing 15 pages, then description might be something you need to work more on.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Philosophy & Theater Final

When I was in my second year at Goucher college in 1999, I took a class in Philosophy and Theater. It was an elective credit towards my philosophy minor, which I had decided to join in on because it just looked interesting. And it was. And the most interesting day of all was the day of our final.

The professor had set aside a large swath of time for the final, which each one of the eight or nine students doing their final presentation. This being a theater class, our final had to be some sort of theatrical-type performance, but this also being a philosophy class, it had to make some sort of relevant philosophical point, which would be explained at the end of the performance. I had chosen to do a reading from Israel Horovitz's oddly humorous play play Stage Directions. It's a one act play wherein all the dialogue consists of the actors' stage directions. In other words, the actors spend the whole time saying exactly what they're doing and feeling. So it starts out without the male character entering the room, and as he's doing this he's saying, "Richard enters, quietly. Looks about the room to see if he is alone. Leans back against door, exhales, sobs once," and so on. It's a clever play and fun to perform. So I performed the opining monologue from the play and had someone else perform the scene, and then spun out some sort of philosophical point that it was supposed to be about. I was a smart kid, who'd taken a couple philosophy classes, so the philosophical part was convincing enough.

Some other students did their performances, which usually involved the participation of everyone in the class and were interesting enough. But it was the finale that was the most interesting. You see, none of these performances were huge surprises, since we'd actually had to tell the class about our project in advance so that we could get feedback and they could make sure we were on the right track. But there had been this one girl named Ashley who had been really cagey about what she was doing and wouldn't explain it in front of the class. She had had to discuss her project in private with the two professors. So when we came to the last performance of the night, it was a big mystery what we were getting into.

We'd walked to a couple different places for the various students' performances, and now we returned to the black box theater where most of the school's theatrical performances were given. Ashley had set up a stage in the middle of the room with a set of chairs in front of it. The chairs were labeled with our individual names, and various props were set on each chair. I think my chair had a sombrero. Other students had equally random things, like a ball, a scarf, a box of tissue and so on. The stage itself had been filled with even more props. It looked like she had taken just about every prop from the prop room, and then some, and arranged them on the stage. There was furniture and burning candles and lamps and fake fruit and vines and ornaments and statuettes and books and on and on. Mixed in were pieces of costume and accessories laying around and draped over things. The stuff didn't look like it had been dumped on stage, but it was scattered around somewhat haphazardly. It looked like the room of a person obsessed with collecting random things.

At the center of this prop-crowded stage was Ashley. She was laying down on her back, motionless, eyes closed, with flowers in her hands on a raised platform like a funeral bier, as if this was some sort of wake. Over her she'd draped a shear white cloth and she'd pointed a fan at it, causing the fabric to rustle in the wind, and she'd put on some unobtrusive music playing in the background. As we sat down, we waited for something to happen, waiting for her to do something for us, but that actually wasn't the way this performance was supposed to work.

It was a student named Sheila that got the ball rolling. The prop Sheila had received was a bowl of potato chips and she passed it around. Soon other people started passing around their props, just to give us something to do while we waited. Eventually some of us started to stand up, then to move towards the stage. We then started to mess around with the props onstage. The stage was so filled with the props and they were so randomly placed that some of us decided that it might be just a bit better if we moved a prop to a different spot where it might look better. It was all at first a bit tentative, but it soon become more animated and energetic. Eventually everyone was on the stage playing with some of the props, arranging other props, trying on the bits of costume and accessories, dancing to the music, making jokes. Our two professors were the only two left, still sitting in the seats, watching while this whole spontaneous performance played out.

After we'd had our fun for a while, Ashley finally sat up. She was so happy that it had worked. It was exactly how it was supposed to turn out, with her laying there passively while we did whatever struck our fancy. None of us could have been told what we were supposed to do, since the point was, we were supposed to figure it out. Ashley, was a long time stage performer, and she had said that one of her acting friends had tried to do it for a her and a bunch of other actors. But their performance had been totally ruined because there was one actress in the group that had adamantly insisted that they needed to stay seated. Whenever anyone tried to get up or do anything she'd ordered them to stay seated. Nonetheless, she remembered it, and saw this Philosophy & Theater final as the perfect opportunity to try it out on us. And she was so excited that it worked.

Of course, once someone has explained it to you, you can't have it done to you, so you miss out on all that fun that we had. Alas. Ashley in fact insisted that we not tell anyone about it. If you're going to pass it on to someone, you're supposed to actually do the whole shebang. So, I guess you miss out. Though I imagine the probability that someone would do it for you is exceedingly small. But at least you can do it for someone else. I might do it for my philosophy students, one day when they're expecting a lecture. I'll just lay down in front of class, motionless, with a sheet covering me and see what they do. I imagine it wouldn't work too well in that context, but who knows, it might be surprising. A social experiment of sorts.

Barely Avoiding Death

There's a story in the life of the serial killer Edmund Kemper he detailed in an interview with Stephane Bourgoin about two college girls that came very close to being killed. If you're not familiar with Kemper he was a killer who was active in California in the early 70s. He was a giant man, rising to about 6'9" and weighing in at bout 300 pounds. This made him a very imposing and intimidating presence. He had started his killing career early, killing his grandparents when he was just a teenager. He was jailed, served about five years, and then was released, and started living with his mother in Santa Cruz.

He developed a modus operandi which consisted of killing young women that he picked up as hitchhikers. This was a time and area when hitchhiking was not at all uncommon, and Kemper had honed his skill at picking up hitchhikers by picking up a great many of them before he started killing. He explained that to be a good hitchhikee, there are techniques for disarming any reluctance or concern a hitchhiker might have, such as making them think that you're in a hurry and are unenthusiastic about picking them up. Using these skills, he started picking up young female hitchhikers, adroitly locking them into his car, then driving them to an isolated spot in the woods where he would shoot them.

At some point in 1973, after having killed six girls, he had decided that he was going to stop killing, to kick the habit. The temptation didn't go away, but he was at least able to restrain himself enough to stop for a while. During this time he picked up two young female hitchhikers. The girls needed a ride to Mills College and he complied, driving in that direction down the highway. The girls though, were mistaken on the route that needed to be taken to get back to the college, and they actually told him to take an exit off the highway in the wrong direction. The wrong turn they insisted upon was coincidentally the turn that was necessary to take them to an isolated wooded spot where Kemper had performed previous killings. We can almost imagine the pull of temptation as they told him which way to go.

He said he wouldn't go the direction they insisted upon, since he knew the way, and said he would take them there. The girls were adamant they were right but he continued. Now, at this point in the tale, when you hear it from Kemper's lips he mentions that the girls were terrified, as if it's the most casual thing in the world. From his perspective, as he is telling this story, it's just some curious anecdote with an ironic twist, but this is coming from a sociopath who doesn't really understand remorse and fear. If we look at it from the girls' perspective, we got to imagine them trapped in the car with a giant intimidating man, who is moody, with poor impulse control and is telling them with evident vexation and ever increasing rage that he's going to take them where he wants, not where they want. The mask had been pealed off and they saw this man as the scary individual that he was. And make no mistake about it, this man was very scary, though he comes across in casual settings as an affable individual.

But he did know how to navigate better than the girls did, and he drove them up to Mills College, to their dorm and let them out. And those girls zipped out of there in terror, probably the last time they ever hitchhiked again. And even then, they probably had no clue how close they came to being killed.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Owning an island

When I was living in Helsinki, trying to earn a living teaching English, I advertised around and first got work with some private clients, who I tutored individually for a modest sum. One of these clients was a thirty-something Finnish professional woman. She looked like a typical Finn, with blond hair, pale skin and round cheeks and we met on a few occasions in coffee shops, where she got the opportunity to practice her English and I could teach her some English vocab and grammar.

At one point, when we were talking she told me about how she owned her own island. This was rather surprising as she clearly wasn't an incredibly wealthy woman, just a middle-class working woman. But apparently this thing wasn't out of the reach of someone in her income class. She shared the island with a couple friends and the island itself was tiny. It was basically a huge rock sticking out of the water that they'd stuck a small cabin on top of. The Bay of Finland is pockmarked with little islands. This is not unusual for a coastline, especially when it's in relatively sheltered waters. For example, New York City is littered with dozens of little islands of various sizes, from the giant Roosevelt Island, to the tiny U Thant Island (her island was bigger than U Thant Island).

Her and her friends would visit the island in summer for weekends, boating out there with supplies. Then they would spend the days swimming around their rock and laying in the sun. It's far from the best island out there that one could own (you'd probably find one of those here), but I nice way to get away from the city and I unique piece of real estate to have all to yourself.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Milwaukee Snowstorm

Marquette Blizzard 1 by allistair
Fatma Nap a photo by allistair on Flickr.

This picture was taken on February 6, 2008. We got a huge storm in on the night of the 5th which continued into the 6th, dumping over a foot on the city. Unsurprisingly, classes at Marquette were canceled that day, and I took advantage of the free time by going out with my camera and taking some pictures of the heavy snow and white out conditions. Many students took advantage of the snow by having snowball fights, which is what these two were doing, hiding behind the snow drift and making some snowballs.

In search of the Villa-Diodata

When I was taking my Junior Year abroad at Exeter University in England, I spent a long spring break traveling through Europe, first to Prague, then to Venice, and finally to Paris. But I had to decided that I wanted to make a stop in between Paris and Venice. I hadn't been sure where to go, thinking maybe Barcelona would be nice, but a bit out of the way.

At the time I was trying to catch up on my reading for my 19th century literature class, reading through Dracula, Tennyson's In Memorium and Bronte's Villette. While in Venice, though, trying to decide on where to go next, I was finishing up Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

Among the Appendices to my edition were a short story called Vampyre by John Polidori and a fragment of a novel by Byron. As I read, I discovered the reason why these were included in the appendix. At the time of the composition of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley was 18 and her name was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. She was the daughter of notable political thinker William Godwin and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Her father had attracted a follower in poet Percy Shelley, and at the age of 16, Mary Godwin started a romantic relationship with this married man. In the interim, Mary's stepsister, the energetic and beautiful Claire Clairmont began a relationship with Lord Byron, and through her Percy and Byron became acquainted. Byron grew tired of Claire quickly, but she continued to pursue him, now pregnant with his child, and sought to visit him at his villa in Switzerland, the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva. In 1816, to persuade Byron, Claire brought along Mary and Percy so the three could meet. The four of them, along with Byron's physician John Polidori spent the summer there, initiating a rather productive period of writing for Byron, Percy and Mary. One night after reading some ghost stories, Byron suggested they write their own horror stories. Byron himself started a story, which he quickly abandoned, and it was picked up by Polidori who created Vampyre, the first vampire story in English, featuring a Lord-Byron-like vampire, which would influence later horror writers, like Bram Stoker. But even more notable was the story that Mary would start to write, a story that Percy would encourage her to continue and would eventually become Frankenstein. Later in 1816, Percy's first wife committed suicide and Percy and Mary were finally able to marry, and she changed her named to Mary Shelley from then on.

Reading about this while I was in Venice, I thought that it would be interesting to visit Geneva and make a pilgrimage to this literary site. I took the train to Geneva and stayed at a hostel in the city. I tried to visit the Villa Diodati, finding the neighborhood where it was located in the northeastern part of the city. I'm sure I saw the villa, but I wasn't able to determine which, among several villas in the vicinity was the Villa Diodati, and eventually gave up, walking down the Chemin Byron towards the edge of Lake Geneva.