Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Mexican Chocolate Gelato

by popular demand:

2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
4 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped fine
4 egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinammon
1/2 teaspoon orange zest
1/2 cup chopped almonds

Heat milk and cream together in a heavy saucepan over low heat, stirring to prevent skin. When bubbles start to form, whisk in the cocoa, followed by the chocolate. Whisk until mixture is smooth.

In a heat-proof bowl, whisk egg yolks until smooth, then gradually whisk in sugar. Very slowly whisk in the chocolate mixture to temper the eggs (ie, cooking them while not turning them into scrambled eggs). Return the misture to the saucepan at low heat, stirring until it thickens (do not boil).

Toast the almonds in a pan until well-browned, and cool in the freezer. Let the mixture cool to room temperature, then add the cinammon and orange zest. Freeze in a ice-cream maker until thick, about 20 minutes. Add the almonds towards the end. Serve right away (quite amazing like that) or freeze for later.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Performing Ourselves

Sherry Turkle was on the Colbert show a few nights back, plugging her new book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. I'll reserve judgement on the book -- you really can't summarize any sort of serious thesis in that context, and I have to say you have to be pretty brave to go up against Colbert. But I found one remark jarring: she complained that "people are performing on a Facebook profile...adolescents suffer from performance exhaustion". I immediately thought about Erving Goffman, who pointed out that performance is characteristic of all social interaction. And Colbert called her on it as well, presumably without the benefit of a deep knowledge of sociology.

I don't know if it's marketing or something else, but pop-tech books all seem to get slotted into the "tech is going to make us unto gods" or "tech is killing our souls" buckets. I'm pretty sure Turkle's work is more subtle than that, but she certainly seems to fall in the latter category here. Other recent entrants in this genre include Jaron Lanier (reviewed here), Andrew Keen, and Nicholas Carr. I find this irritating and simplistic. Why do the effects of technology have to be good or bad? Can't they simply be different?

So, what is it about the performance aspect of Facebook that might be objectionable? Well, for one thing, it's a much less subtle, less rich medium than face-to-face communication. F2F performances can be improvised, adjusted to situations, respond to the performances of others in an intricate dance. Performing on Facebook or Twitter is by contrast a rather crude affair (for instance, there's no analog for eye contact), which tends to degenerate into trivia and naked self-advertisement. You have far less control over context -- most of the problems with Facebook seem to revolve around how it collapses social contexts into a formless blob, resulting either in embarassment (if you allow stuff to escape from its proper context) or repression (if you limit yourself to interaction that is appropriate for every possible audience)*. This however is not a new problem:
Socrates: Writing, you know, Phaedrus, has this strange quality about it, which makes it really like painting: the painter's products stand before us quite as though they were alive; but if you question them, they maintain a solemn silence. So, too, with written words: you might think they spoke as though they made sense, but if you ask them anything about what they are saying, if you wish an explanation, they go on telling you the same thing, over and over forever. Once a thing is put in writing, it rolls about all over the place, falling into the hands of those who have no concern with it just as easily as under the notice of those who comprehend; it has no notion of whom to address or whom to avoid. And when it is ill-treated or abused as illegitimate, it always needs its father to help it, being quite unable to protect or help itself.
Facebook and Twitter identities are a strange mix of oral and written communication styles. Frankly, it's way too early in the evolution of digital social networks, or whatever you want to call them, to say what they are ultimately going to do to our souls.

I give Turkle a lot of credit for being one of first humanist-type people to take the sociology of digital technology seriously. Now of course that's a whole industry, but she has been at it for decades. Unfortunately, getting old in this world may mean you can't keep current with what the kids are up to these days (as a youngish greybeard myself I am acutely aware of this problem). I'm pretty sure that the critics are right and the displacement of traditional media by the digital world entails the loss of some valuable things. But obviously it also creates a great many new and wonderful things, most of which have yet to be invented. The human soul and persona will adapt to them as it always does.

*[update: this was written before Google+ Circles came along to "solve" this problem. Why that don't actually seem to help will have to be a topic for another post.]

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Desirability of Being Maladjusted

"The Desirability of Being Maladjusted" was the title of a talk Martin Luther King gave at Beth Emet Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois in 1958 (see here for my very slight personal connection to this). I couldn't find the text of the speech online (and how odd it is that I've come to expect almost-instant, almost-effortless access to any words anyone has ever written), but here's a clip from nine years later where he hits the same theme.

Someone pointed out to me that this may not be a good time to speak of the virtues of maladjustment, given current events. But there's a big difference between the creative maladjustment that King was speaking of and the other kind. Truthfully, any improvement at all in the human condition has to come from the maladjusted, since everyone else is willing to accept things as they are.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Columnists White People Like

There's a minor industry in the web and journalism in making fun of Times columnist Thomas Friedman, but to my mind David Brooks is far worse, despite being slightly more fluent in English. Brooks marries a breathtakingly banality to hackwork in the service of conservativism, and there's something about his absolute blandness that makes my skin crawl. Well, somebody let him loose in a bunch of pop psychology and sociology research and apparently he ha a book coming out with the stunning title "The Social Animal". Apparently people are social, derive much of their pleasure, cognition, values, etc from other people. Who knew? Anyway he's flogging parts of in the New Yorker, including this choice bit:
There's a debate in our culture about what really makes us happy, which is summarized by, on the one hand, the book "œOn the Road" and, on the other, the movie "It's a Wonderful Life." The former celebrates the life of freedom and adventure. The latter celebrates roots and connections. Research over the past thirty years makes it clear that what the inner mind really wants is connection. It's a Wonderful Life was right... According to research by Daniel Kahneman, Alan B. Krueger, and others, the daily activities most closely associated with happiness are social -- ”having sex, socializing after work, and having dinner with friends. Many of the professions that correlate most closely with happiness are also social--”a corporate manager, a hairdresser.
Apparently freedom and adventure are incompatible with social connection. Who knew? So we definitely shouldn't try to pursue them. And apparently Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassidy, and Allen Ginsberg were not into having sex and rarely had dinner with friends. Who knew?

But speaking of "It's a Wonderful Life", Brooks is the person who wrote this:
It'™s easy to see why politicians would be drawn to the populist pose. First, it makes everything so simple. The economic crisis was caused by a complex web of factors, including global imbalances caused by the rise of China. But with the populist narrative, you can just blame Goldman Sachs.
Brooks is trying to discredit populism using the inane argument that it is divisive -- just like racism! So apparently it's bad to criticize any group of people whatsoever. Now, if you've ever seen It's a Wonderful Life, and who hasn't, you'll know that it's an essentially populist tale, pitting a local, caring, socially-involved businessman (Jimmy Stewart) against the more heartless capitalism of Mr. Potter. Here in the 20th century, who do you think is the Mr. Potter laying waste to local communities? Well, it's the entire system of globalized capital, but Goldman Sachs is a good stand-in.

I simply do not see the point of David Brooks. I guess it's to have a conservative who is housebroken and can turn a phrase adequately enough that he'll be acceptable in the pages of the New York Times, but I can't imagine anybody who wants to read this incoherent pablum. Is it people who want to be reassured that they were right to put aside their youthful longings to be a beatnik? Hm, yes, maybe that's it. The New Yorker piece starts out with an exceedingly long and apparently pointless portrait of some very upper-crust elites (summer in Aspen, etc, attending Davos, grinding their own spices, that kind of thing) -- and I guess Brooks is also working to reassure his readers that they don't have to worry about not measuring up to that standared either. OK, now I think I get it -- he exists to bring comfort to boring middle-aged, middle-class, middle-management, middle-of-the-road white people that it's OK to be that way. Your life may be dull and static, you may envy the rich, the hip, and the activist, but David Brooks is there to tell you really have the better deal. In terms of politics, his purpose is to try to take the wind out of the sails of any possible political movement for change.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The War on Grammar

Jared Loughner is alleged to have been influenced by somebody named :David-Wynn: Miller who seems to be completely around the bend, but like many such people exhibits occasional bits of disturbing acuity.
The reason I use a full colon and a hyphen in my name, the first full colon, which is full colon David, it means for the David hyphen Wynn. That’s my given name, and it’s also a noun, because it uses a prepositional phrase. … Because I use prepositional phrases, through punctuation, which is classified as hieroglyphics, which makes me a life, l-i-f-e. Now, when you don’t punctuate your name … David is an adjective, Wynn is an adjective, Miller is a pronoun. Two adjectives are a condition of modification, opinion, presumption, which modifies the pronoun, pro means no on noun. So therefore, I’m not a fact. I’m a fiction.
Here's a clip from his own website, all punctuation and capitalization as in the original:

This is correct. If you want to be an authentic radical and attack the ultimate roots of oppression, to go after the most basic underlying errors of the mind, what better target than grammar? Why do we have to toil under the yoke of the stale and arbitrary divisions of reality into things, actions, properties, and relationships? Oh, your so-called academic radicals might be satisfied with letting colorless green ideas sleep furiously, but the true radical will chair very underground purple throw the! Death to syntax!

How you get from there to shooting up a crowd of citizens is not clear, to say the least.
I am afraid we are not yet rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.

-- Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols
(who went completely mad himself shortly after writing that)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Blame Game

The tragic shootings in Arizona are a good place to look at issues of how people think about causality and its agentive correlate, blame. Why do things happen? Physics says that ever damn thing in the trailing light-cone of a given event contributes to its happening. But that's completely useless to everyday cognition. Some things seem more causal than others, and some things seem blameworthy -- that is, they are both causal and according to our moral feelings, they should not have occurred, they only occurred because some agent did something wrong, whatever that means.

Usually someone who shoots and kills someone else is to blame, because we think they caused this regrettable action. But if the person is insane, whatever that means, we assume that they do not actually have the same kind of non-caused causation that a normal, free-willed person has. They are machines at the mercy of chemistry and brain anatomy -- unlike us. They are not to blame. Even Jon Stewart last night was talking about "the complex ecosystem of causality", which is pretty heady stuff coming from a fake news show.

If we can't blame the individual, can we blame the various factors that caused or enabled his action? These include:
- the ready availability of guns (and in particular automatic weapons with high-capacity magazines)
- the atmosphere of violence in current politics

Krugman makes the case as well as any, referencing the concept of "eliminationism" which I believe was originated or at least promoted by Dave Neiwart. The rightwing response is to dredge up some instances of violent rhetoric and imagery on the left, which of course exist. But is there anything really comparable to the gun-toting rallies of the right? Doesn't seem that way to me, or anybody else I respect, but maybe I'm biased.

The wingnutosphere is in full counterattack mode. Here is wingnut hack writer Andrew Klavan:
"To be sure, there is a lot of heated rhetoric in American politics, as ever. For instance, last spring, three Democratic congressmen cruelly slandered Tea Party members by accusing them of spitting on them and calling them racial slurs"
And here is shrieking harpy AtlasShrugs deciding that Palin and the tea parties can't be to blame because Loughner had "targeted" Gifford back in 2007. Of course the source she cites does not actually say what she says it does.

It is interesting to see these kind of moves being made -- it's an attempt to break a causal chain by showing that it has origins elsewhere, because if Loughner was "targeting" people in 2007 thent he tea parties aren't to blame because they didn't exist. Technically this is called "explaining away". In this case, it's a weak move because (a) the report doesn't say anythign about "targeting" in 2007, and while the tea parties and Sarah Palin may not have been factors in 2007, the eliminationist rhetoric of the right was certainly in the air, and had been for many years.

Glenn Beck trying to equate an armed militia with an elderly university professor.

Here's a pretty good roundup of wingnut spinning.

There is an interesting two-stage socio-cognitive process going on: first, telling causal stories to make sense of events, in which we try to build causal chains out of the seamless web of the physical world. Second, the moralizing and politicizing of these chains, in which we try to assign not just causation, but moral value and blame. Krugman was quick to blame the right, maybe too quick, and the right was quick to try to counterattack to break this linkage.

My point is that this is a somewhat fictional process. We're battling over what stories are most real, and concomitantly, who are the good guys and bad guys. Like religion, it is a form of ritual collective cognition. We even have institutions for official, ultimate, socially-sanctioned blaming -- courts of law. The quasi-religious atmosphere that still adheres to courtrooms reflects the sacramental aspects of this process, the hushed acknowledgement that they are places where we have the awful and mysterious power to make fictions and reality coincide.

Perhaps the ultimately real story is that we are all pretty much like an insane person, our actions not under the control of some mysterious acausal freedom but instead subject to the generalized causal workings of the universe, as much as a falling rock or the lion hunting the deer. But it's vital to pretend we aren't.

[[update: here's another nice instance from Rush Limbaugh:

"What Mr. Loughner knows is that he has the full support of a major political party in this country. He's sitting there in jail; he knows what's going on. He knows that ... the Democrat [sic] Party -- is attempting to find anybody but him to blame...He knows if he plays his cards right that he's just a 'victim.' He's the latest in a never ending parade of victims brought about by the 'unfairness of America.' The 'bigotry, racism, homophobia' of America. The 'mean-spiritedness of America.'

The poster at Washington Monthly seems to think that this is gibberish, but it makes perfect sense in the analytical framework I've sketched out. The Democrats want to blame the Republicans, and so the Republicans, as a defensive move, want to blame Loughner alone, and thus attack any connection between "mean-spiritedness" and his actions. And Limbaugh just takes the battle one step further and asserts that Democrats are "supporting" Loughner because they want to remove some of the blame from him and put it on the Republicans. This is of course nuts, but it's the product of Limbaugh's honed instincts as a propagandist and wholly political animal.]]

Sunday, January 09, 2011

On Political Violence

The shootings in Arizona were a terrible thing, no doubt about it. I'm tsking along with everybody else. But here's the thing.

Government is the institutionalization of violence, and democracy is the institutionalization of internal power struggles among interest groups. We are fed ideas about the splendor and glory of its rituals, buildings, and documents, but the underlying foundation remains what it is.

As something of an ex-anarchist, I recognize that institutionalization of violence is on the whole much better than free-floating, chaotic, unconstrained violence, which seems to be the alternative until the messiah comes and the lion lies down with the lamb. So by all means, let us have the best government we can manage, let us keep our political discourse polite, let us try and work out our conflicts with words and ballots rather than with fists and guns. But let us not be surprised when those efforts occasionally fail, because power, coercion, and violence underlie the whole elaborate machinery and sometimes the gears and wires poke through the surface.

The way things are shaking out in the US political system is that one side is willing and eager to deploy the rhetoric of violence while the other side mostly does not (despite that once in office they are just as willing to deploy actual violence). One side is rural and barbaric, the other is cosmopolitan and slick. One side celebrates raw power, while the other likes to pretend it doesn't exist. I'm culturally in the latter camp of course. I want to live in a peaceful, rational, and sane world. But in some twisted and perverse way I appreciate the existence of the former, because while the Democrats like to sweep power and madness under the rug, the Republicans gleefully turn the rug over and make all that stuff visible again.

[[update: Here's someone applying Bruno Latour to the analysis of agency in this situation. As is typical of my reaction to Latourianisms, I can't decide if it's deeply profound or blindingly obvious.]]

[[update: Political violence is as American as apple pie, says a history professor apparently actually named "LaFantasie"]]

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Not Everything is Free

I released a Lisp package into the open-source universe recently; this was developed as part of an an abandoned development project at my previous company, which graciously it to be released to the wild where it may be of use to someone.

But the only reason I'm mentioning it here is that it gives me an excuse to post this haunting song by Gillian Welch about the plight of "content creators" in this modern digital world we are creating. At least, that's the most obvious interpretation of it.

Here's an earlier post on a similar theme, or see here. I personally love giving my work away for free, and only wish that we lived in the kind of anarchist propertyless utopia mentioned in the blog tagline, so I didn't feel partly like a sucker doing it. The current world of open-source and peer content creation is great in many respects, except that one set of people does all the work, and a different small set of people gets to collect all the economic benefits.

It's like the hacker community set out to make itself into a property-free utopia regardless of whether the rest of the world went along, and deliberately undermined most of the ways in which software developers got paid. Contrast this to musicians, who like most artists are hard-nosed about money and had the same thing imposed on them (by digital copying and file sharing), but not by their own choice.

Don't get me wrong, I still think open source is a tremendous win, but it would be more of a win if the rest of society was organized along more socialist-communitarian lines. Technology has decreed that content creators get to be the vanguard of socialism, despite groceries and real estate still operating according to the old laws of scarcity.