Sunday, April 3, 2011

Fragments and Links 9: Zombies, Sex, Science, and the Creative Process (but not at the same time)

So, this is my 100th post…so I thought I’d do a Fragments and Links post to celebrate. Every once in a while I like to collect ideas, quotes and links that did not warrant their own post. This is one of those times. I like to start sentences with the phrase “speaking of…” to give the illusion of connection and coherence. But mainly it is just a bunch of things I think are interesting. Skimming is recommended:

Topic 1: Sex and Zombies (but not at the same time[1])

The OK Cupid blog[2] is worth checking out. The author has access to the data from a major dating site and essentially mines it for statistically interesting observations.[3] And some of them are VERY interesting.[4]

But this one was particularly interesting. He chose several questions that you might want to ask on a first date to get at information that is inappropriate to ask, looking for highly correlated information that it is socially acceptable to ask about.

For example, do you want to know if your date would consider sex with you on the first date but don’t have the bad manners to ask? Ask “do you like the taste of beer?” Answers to these questions are amazingly highly correlated.

The analysis gets more bizarre from there. But one question was particularly interesting: “Are you religious?”

Try to guess the correlated question. it?

Here it is: “Do spelling and grammar mistakes annoy you?” I was crestfallen. Seriously? People of faith (and presumably, Christians, as it is an American data set) are marked by their legalism and attention to behaviors that don’t matter? So lame. But wait, the question COUNTER-correlates. People of faith are significantly LESS likely to care about spelling and grammar mistakes. This was refreshing to me and should not be surprising to the frequent readers of this blog.

Speaking of having sex on the first date…my brother has documented some of his thoughts on the economics of modern sexuality and how it has been characterized by the “de-unionization of women.” It is a sober analysis (particularly for the father of two girls), but I have two favorite quotes:

“The functional value of male sex is zero.”
“this meant that the R&D cost of switching partners was high”

Speaking of my brother, he has a talk in which he asks the listeners to vote on the following question: Are we are mostly composed of “nature” or “personality”? (i.e. are we more like other humans or more uniquely ourselves)[5]: I think that this needs to be considered in that discussion.

Now I am an unapologetic facebook apologist, but while we are recognizing its flaws, it seems like this needs to be cited.

So as a Buffy fanboy, the current vampire craze leaves me with a “been there done that an order of magnitude better” feeling. But I have recently made a surprising entre into the zombie world. John Green’s opening chapter (which he reads in the below vid) of his zombie apocalypse novella is nothing short of gorgeous:

He released the complete novella “Zombicorns” online with the disclaimer that it is horrible. I disagree.[6] I really liked it. And you can bang it out in an hour.

This work probably resonated with me more than it might have because I have spent a good deal of time thinking about Zombie epidemiology. Two Canadian professors did an epidemiological study of how a zombie epidemic would spread. We learned about epidemiological modeling in one of my ecology classes and, while the prof never mentioned zombies, it was all I could think about.

For future reference, if you ever find yourself giving a dull lecture on epidemiological modeling and how that could interface with Lottka-Voltera predator-prey dynamics and you do not use zombies as your model organism, you can just consider it a breach of pedagogical responsibility.

A couple more things about the vlogbrothers (who are John Green of the zombie novella above and his brother Hank) I just realized why the intro to the old vlogbrother videos is familiar:

This is one of the things I like about these guys. They celebrate non-romantic love and deconstruct the centrality and ubiquity of the romantic connotations of this embattled word. Consider this line from a recent vlog by John.

“Valentine’s day is one of the most potent symbols of our weird obsession with romantic love…if you spend your life singularly obsessed with romantic love you are going to miss out on a lot of what’s fun about being a person.”

****Technical Language Alert**** (This is like a spoiler alert – it allows you to skip to the “end” of the section if it seems unnecessarily obtuse)

One more John Green quote that I really like. "for me fiction is the only way I can even begin to twist my lying memories into something true." - John Green

I really resonate with his epistemology even though I’m not entirely on board ontologically. John and I see the epistemological problem the same way (and we have a good deal of psychological research to back us up). We do not know most of what we know because we do not actually remember most of what we remember. The brain is a reconstitution software telling stories from relatively few fixed points of actual stored data. But I don't agree that fiction is the only way to deal with this. I think that spiritual disciplines have surprising utility in circumventing this problem. You could make an evolutionary case that this is why they exist…but I prefer the teleological version of this argument: That we were designed to require a regular calibration from a fixed external reality.

****End Technical Language alert****

Speaking of fun Youtube subculture…this is just about the greatest short film I have ever seen.

Topic 2: Weird Science

Speaking of[7] science that is part fun part serious and it is hard to tell how to partition it: I recently encountered the famous Pleistocene Rewilding paper. This is a paper that appeared in Nature (2005) and argued that our ecosystems are degraded because palo-native-Americans hunted the Pleistocene mega-fauna (mastodons and the “American cheetah”) to extinction. Mega-fauna (lions, elephants and cheetah) are also endangered in Africa. So the paper (which was co-authored by over a dozen professors from good programs) argues that we could ‘kill two birds’ with one stone by introducing the megafauna of Africa to the American plains. This is seemingly too bizarre to be true, but there it is in the pages of nature.[8]

Speaking of bizarre science and ‘killing two birds with one stone’…or rather unkilling birds (which also puts me in line with the zombie theme) I have also learned of active attempts to reconstitute lost species(like the passenger pigeon and the auroch[9]) by isolating them genetically from their closes living relatives.

As absurd as these ideas are, one quote at the end of the Rewilding paper really struck me. The authors pose the question: “We ask of those who find the objections compelling, are you content with the negative slant of current conservation philosophy?” I guess this articulates some of my frustration with my initial foray into conservation biology. There is a lot of gloom and a conspicuous lack of innovation. In many ways, it is a ‘conservative’ science. (I mean, there is a guiding principle called "the precautionary principle"). I know that this smacks of engineering arrogance. But I guess that is what makes me an engineer. I got into science to bring it to bear on social and environmental problems. These ideas may be absurd, but my inclination is to evaluate them with a hopeful rather than antagonistic posture…because the current trajectory is entirely hopeless. Which leads me to climate change… …the climate change story is as bad or worse than the biodiversity crisis. I have very little hope that human behavior will change in time to avoid an eventual total collapse of marine ecosystems.[10] Sociology is not going to fix this. In light of this, too little emphasis and too little research funding is going to technology. There is an excellent and accessible paper in Nature that lays out the relative potential of the options currently on the table. I am not a Steven Levitt fan, but he is getting unnecessarily criticized for essentially making the economic argument that we need to start thinking seriously about technological solutions.

Topic 3: Creativity and Music

Several months ago I wrote about the creative process and how most creatives I know or have read about live in constant fear of loosing the ability to tap into whatever it is that makes them creative. Elizabeth Gilbert did a whole TED talk on this that had two really interesting ideas:

1. This is why creatives go mad or turn to addiction or end their lives at a disproportionally high rate. The seemingly fleeting and capricious nature of creativity leaves them powerless.

2. She posits instead a personal version of this force that you can and should talk to…giving responsibility back. This generates a psychological distance between you and the art you participate in and protects you from it. If you work was good or bad, it didn’t reflect on you. “This is how creativity was viewed in the western world for a really long time.” There was a change from having a Genius[11] to being a Genius. “That was a huge error”

Speaking of TED talks I liked, there is also this one.
I feel like the movie Hurt Locker is an artistic expansion of one of the most compelling lines in Audience of One” by Rise Against: “Maybe we've outgrown all the things that we once loved.”

I wrote a bit about Sufjan’s new album and concert a couple months ago. My friend Justin has registered a pretty accurate critique of the new stuff: “It’s like Sufjan got drunk and made an album with Animal Collective, and then they never bothered to edit the raw tracks”

I have watche a little bit of Bones and a little bit of Castle recently and have decided that they are essentially the same show. Take a tall, attractive, professionally exemplary woman who lives by logic and algorithm and put them opposite an intuitive, gregarious Joss Wheddon leading man…boom…you have a show that is not great, but watchable. I think this pretty much sums up why this formula works.

I have been listening to a ton of Brand New lately. Love them. Their track “Jesus Christ” (off The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me) is amazing.

“We’ve all got wood and nails, we’re tongue tied to a hating factory”

Stuff I am working on:

-The Surprising Similarity of Two Uneven Finales: The Final Episodes of Lost and Battlestar Galactica

-“My Name is My Name”: Thoughts on The Wire

-The Two Great Manipulations: Fear and Guilt from the Right and the Left

-Photobox Stratigraphy

-Cities: New Orleans

-A Monte Carlo Statistical Analysis of Hi-Ho Cherry Oh!

-Backloading the Backstory to Maximize Narrative Utility: How Lost Episode 118 is like Revelation Chapter 12

-Theo-Coleoptaphelia: Upon further review, “An inordinate fondness for beetles” is precisely what I would expect

-The Secret World of River Gravel: A Photographic Expose of Riverine Benthic Communities (in 40X Magnification)

-We’ve Been Here Before, and It Wasn’t Good: Climate Change Precedent in the PETM[12]

This post was written while listening to God and the Devil are Raging Inside of Me by Brand New


[1] Because that would just be weird.

[2] I owe this to my friend Noam.

[4] Including the standard confusion between correlation and causation.

[5] This is a really interesting exersize, because if we are mostly like other humans, a universal worldview is more likely to be useful because we mostly have the same hopes, fears, and weaknesses. However, if we are all unique snowflakes, then it is absurd to think that one prescription of ‘disease’ and ‘remedy’ could hold universally. Of course, modern psychology has demonstrated that much of our drama stems from our failure to recognize that “we are not as special as we think we are.”

[6] Actually, I picked up a couple of his “real books”, and while I like An Abundance of Katherines and Will Grayson they were not nearly was not as good as Zobiecorns.

[7] You have to go back to the Zombie paper to pick up this train of thought.

[8] I have since learned that most of the authors saw it as a ‘thought experiment’ and not a real study.

[9] The ancestor of the cow. I told my friend Mark this story and he replied “that seems like a species no one has missed.”

[10] The tragic thing about these effects is that they will be locked in in the next 150 years and then will play out for the following two thousand. I am pretty skeptical that standard economic and sociological forces are efficacious against a lagged process.

[11] Which was a spirit that essentially chose to posses the artist.

[12] The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum is the only event anything like a historical precedent for the carbon loadings we are putting into the atmosphere. It provides a template for what the long term effects of our impact will be…and it’s not good news.


JMBower said...

Congrats on 100. As much as I;'m an avid reader of all your posts, the fragments and links are my all time faves. Partly, I think, because there are a thousand times a day I think of something , think "I should blog about this", then completely forget about it, while you retain yours and spin them in to an awesomeness sweater.

stanford said...

I actually really enjoy the sweater analogy for these posts...because that is essentially the process. I have a word document where I throw all the 'left over/unused' yarn of ideas from various projects until there is enough material for an absurd, multi-color sweater that scarcely coheres as a garment, but has a sort of home spun charm to it.

At least that is the effect I am hoping for.

Joel said...

I like the sweater analogy, too, because it shows how deliberate you are about your writing. My process is more like, "I feel like writing now", and 99 times out of 100 is spurred by something I saw or somewhere I went. Your blog is focused and planned, and mine is entirely reactionary, but I like that posts like this still let me see and think about your process.