Tag Archives: Fiction

Thrown’s Kit’s Self-Deception

Back in July 2010 Kerry Howley published a nice New York Times Magazine article on the tensions between my wife and I resulting from my choice to do cryonics. The very next month, August 2010, is the date when, in Howley’s new and already-celebrated book Thrown, her alter-ego Kit first falls in love with MMA fighting:

Not until my ride home, as I began to settle back into my bones and feel the limiting contours of perception close back in like the nursery curtains that stifled the views of my youth, did it occur to me that I had, for the first time in my life, found a way out of this, my own skin. … From that moment onward, the only phenomenological project that could possibly hold interest to me was as follows: capture and describe that particular state of being to which one Sean Huffman had taken me.

I’ve read the book, and also several dozen reviews. Some reviews discuss how Kit is a semi-fictional character, and a few mention Kit’s pretentiousness and arrogance. Some disagree on if Kit has communicated the ecstasy she feels, or if those feelings are worthy of her obsession. But all the reviewers seem to take Kit at her word when she says her primary goal is to understand the ecstasy she felt in that first encounter.

Yet right after the above quote is this:

And so naturally I began to show up places where Sean might show up— the gym where he trained, the bar where he bounced, the rented basement where he lived, the restaurants where he consumed foods perhaps not entirely aligned with the professed goals of an aspiring fighter. I hope it doesn’t sound immodest to say that Sean found this attention entirely agreeable.

Kit does the same to another fighter named Eric, and later she gets despondent when Erik won’t return her calls. She tracks him down to a fight, hugs him in front of the crowd, and is delighted get his acceptance:

My moment of embarrassment had already transformed into a glow of pride. The entire room saw that I was his, and he mine.

While Kit only feels ecstasy during an actual fight, she spends all her time as a “groupie” to two fighters, Sean and Erik. (She says she is a “space-taker”, not “groupie”, but I couldn’t see the difference.) Kit mainly only goes to fights when these men fight, even when such fights are months apart. Kit’s ego comes to depend heavily on getting personal attention from these fighters, and her interest in them rises and falls with their fighting success. The book ends with her latching on to a new fighter, after Sean and Erik have fallen.

It seems to me that if Kit had wanted mainly to study her feeling of ecstasy while watching fights, she would have gone to lots of fights, and tried to break her feelings down into parts, or looked at how they changed with context. She could have also talked to and studied other fighter fans, to break down their feelings or see how those change with context. But Kit instead sought to hang with successful fighters between fights, when neither she nor they felt this ecstasy she said was her focus. She didn’t even talk with fighters much about their ecstasy feelings. What mattered most to Kit apparently was that fighters associated with her, and that they won fights.

Kit quits her philosophy program:

I knew what they would turn my project into, these small scholastics with their ceaseless referencing of better men would, if they even allowed my explorations as a subject of dissertation, demand a dull tome with the tiniest flicker of insight buried underneath 800 pages of exegeses of other men’s work. Instead of being celebrated as a pioneer of modern phenomenology, I would merely be a footnote in the future study of Schopenhauer, whom, without my prodding, no one would study in the future.

It seems to me that Kit is self-deceived. She thinks she wants to study ecstasy, but in fact she is simply star-struck. The “ecstasy” feeling that hit her so hard was her subconscious being very impressed with these fighters, and wanting badly to associate with them. And she felt very good when she succeeded at that. By associating with their superiority, she could also feel feel superior to the rest of the world:

I would write my fighterly thesis, but I would not fraternize with the healthy-minded; better to leave them to their prenatal yoga, their gluten-free diets, their dull if long lives of quietest self-preserving conformism.

Of course Kerry Howley, the author, does not equal Kit, the voice Kerry chooses to narrate her book. Kerry may well be very aware of Kit’s self-deception, but still found Kit a good vehicle for painting an intimate portrait of the lives of some fighters. But if so, I find it odd that none of the other dozens of reviews I’ve read of Thrown mention this.

Added 21Oct: Possible theories:

  1. Most reviewers read the book carefully, but are too stupid to notice.
  2. Most reviewers are lazy & only skimmed the book.
  3. Reviewers hate to give negative reviews, & this sounds negative.
  4. Readers crave idealistic narrators, and reviewers pander to readers.
  5. My reading is all wrong.

Added 27Oct: Note that at the end of the book Kit articulates no insight on the nature of ecstasy. You might think that if understanding ecstasy had been her goal, she might have a least reflected on what she had discovered.

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More Stories As Religion

Most people who say they are atheist or agnostic still believe in supernatural powers:

In the United States, 38% of people who identified themselves as atheist or agnostic went on to claim to believe in a God or a Higher Power. While the UK is often defined as an irreligious place, a recent survey … found that … only 13 per cent of adults agreed with the statement “humans are purely material beings with no spiritual element”. …

When researchers asked people whether they had taken part in esoteric spiritual practices such as having a Reiki session or having their aura read, the results were almost identical (between 38 and 40%) for people who defined themselves as religious, non-religious or atheist.

This is plausibly reinforced by fiction, which (as I’ve said) serves similar functions to religion:

In almost all fictional worlds, God exists, whether the stories are written by people of a religious, atheist or indeterminate beliefs.

It’s not that a deity appears directly in tales. It is that the fundamental basis of stories appears to be the link between the moral decisions made by the protagonists and the same characters’ ultimate destiny. The payback is always appropriate to the choices made. An unnamed, unidentified mechanism ensures that this is so, and is a fundamental element of stories—perhaps the fundamental element of narratives.

In children’s stories, this can be very simple: the good guys win, the bad guys lose. In narratives for older readers, the ending is more complex, with some lose ends left dangling, and others ambiguous. Yet the ultimate appropriateness of the ending is rarely in doubt. If a tale ended with Harry Potter being tortured to death and the Dursley family dancing on his grave, the audience would be horrified, of course, but also puzzled: that’s not what happens in stories. Similarly, in a tragedy, we would be surprised if King Lear’s cruelty to Cordelia did not lead to his demise.

Indeed, it appears that stories exist to establish that there exists a mechanism or a person—cosmic destiny, karma, God, fate, Mother Nature—to make sure the right thing happens to the right person. Without this overarching moral mechanism, narratives become records of unrelated arbitrary events, and lose much of their entertainment value. In contrast, the stories which become universally popular appear to be carefully composed records of cosmic justice at work.

In manuals for writers (see “Screenplay” by Syd Field, for example) this process is often defined in some detail. Would-be screenwriters are taught that during the build-up of the story, the villain can sin (take unfair advantages) to his or her heart’s content without punishment, but the heroic protagonist must be karmically punished for even the slightest deviation from the path of moral rectitude. The hero does eventually win the fight, not by being bigger or stronger, but because of the choices he makes.

This process is so well-established in narrative creation that the literati have even created a specific category for the minority of tales which fail to follow this pattern. They are known as “bleak” narratives. An example is A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry, in which the likable central characters suffer terrible fates while the horrible faceless villains triumph entirely unmolested.

While some bleak stories are well-received by critics, they rarely win mass popularity among readers or moviegoers. Stories without the appropriate outcome mechanism feel incomplete. The purveyor of cosmic justice is not just a cast member, but appears to be the hidden heart of the show. (more)

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Will Rituals Return?

Many social trends seem to have lasted for centuries. Some of these plausibly result from the high spatial densities, task specialization, and work coordination needed by industry production methods. Other industry-era trends plausibly result from increasing wealth weakening the fear that made us farmers, so that we revert to forager ways.

An especially interesting industry-era trend is the great fall in overt rituals – we industry folks have far fewer overt rituals than did foragers or farmers. From Randall Collins’ Interaction Ritual Chains:

Only around the nineteenth century, when mansions were build with separate entrance corridors, instead of one room connecting to the next) and back stairways for servants, did the fully private peerless introvert become common. … Until the beginning of the nineteenth century where is no distinctive ideology of intellectuals as withdrawn and at odds with the world. … The marketing of cultural products … put a premium on innovativeness, forcing periodic changes in fashion, and concentrating a new level of attention on the distinctive personality of the writer, musician, or artist. … The political ideology of individual freedom – which arose in a movement concerned largely to break into the aristocratic monopoly on power rather than to withdraw from it – was often blended with the ideology of the freelance writer, musician, or artist. … Alienation, rebellion, glorification of the inward, autonomous self, an oppositional self taking dominant society as its foil – this has become part of intellectual discourse. …

The daily and annual rounds of activity in premodern societies were permeated with rituals that we would easily recognize as such by their formality; living in a patrimonial household in a medieval community (not to mention living in a tribal society) would have been something like what our lives would be if Christmas or Thanksgiving happened several times a month, along with many lessor ceremonies that punctuated every day. … Modern life has its points of focused attention and emotional entrainment largely were we choose to make them, and largely in informal rituals, that it takes a sociologist to point out that they are indeed rituals. (pp. 362-368)

We can plausibly attribute our industry-era loss of rituals to many factors. Increasing wealth has given us more spatial privacy. Innovation has become increasingly important, and density and wealth are high enough to support fashion cycles, all of which raise the status of people with unusual behavior. These encourage us to signal our increasing wealth with more product and behavioral variety, instead of with more stuff. With increasing wealth our values have consistently moved away from conformity and tradition and toward self-direction and tolerance. Also, more forager-like egalitarianism has made us less ok with the explicit class distinctions that supported many farmer-era rituals. And our suppression of family clans has also suppressed many related rituals.

These factors seem likely to continue while per-capita wealth continues to increase. In that case overt ritual is likely to continue to decline. But there is no guaranteed that wealth will always increase. If we find ways (as with ems) to increase the population faster than we can increase wealth, wealth per person will fall. And if wealth falls, we may well see a revival of overt ritual.

I can’t think of a historical novel that makes clear not only how common was ritual and conformity in farmer or forager societies, but how well that comforted and satisfied people. Nor can I think of science fiction stories portraying a future full of beloved ritual. Or any stories that show how lonely and disconnected we modern folks often feel because we lack the rituals that gave deep meaning to so many humans before us. We tend to love novels that celebrate the values we hold dear, but that can blind us to seeing how others held different values dear.

Perhaps the closest examples are war stories, where soldiers find comfort in finding distinct roles and statuses that relate them to each other, and where they act out regular intense synchronized actions that lead to their security and protection. But that is usually seen as applying only to the special case of war, rather than to life more generally.

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Review of LockStep

Since the tech of science fiction tends to be more realistic than its social science, I am especially interested in science fiction praised for its social realism. Alas I usually find even those wanting. The latest such book is Lockstep. Cory Doctorow:

As I’ve written before, Karl Schroeder is one of the sharpest, canniest thinkers about technology and science fiction I know. … Now he’s written his first young adult novel, Lockstep, and it is a triumph. Lockstep’s central premise is a fiendishly clever answer to the problem of creating galactic-scale civilizations in a universe where the speed of light is absolute. … Lockstep has enough social, technological, political and spiritual speculation for five books. It is easily the most invigorating, most scientifically curious book I’ve ever read that’s written in a way that both young people and adults can enjoy it. (more)

Paul Di Filippo:

And then, within all this gosh-wow fun, Schroeder inserts a detailed subtext on economics. He’s concerned with income inequality, arcane trade arrangements between locksteps, theft and conquests of sleeping cities. In fact, this book should probably be read in parallel with Charles Stross’s Neptune’s Brood. … Both these books prove that far from being the “dismal science,” economics can provide fascinating grounds for speculations. (more)

To explain my complaints, I’ll have to give some spoilers. You are warned. Continue reading "Review of LockStep" »

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Reason, Stories Tuned for Contests

Humans have a capacity to reason, i.e., to find and weigh reasons for and against conclusions. While one might expect this capacity to be designed to work well for a wide variety of types of conclusions and situations, our actual capacity seems to be tuned for more specific cases. Mercier and Sperber:

Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. … Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context. … People turn out to be skilled arguers (more)

That is, our reasoning abilities are focused on contests where we already have conclusions that we want to support or oppose, and where particular rivals give conflicting reasons. I’d add that such abilities also seem tuned to win over contest audiences by impressing them, and by making them identify more with us than with our rivals. We also seem eager to visibly hear argument contests, in addition to participating in such contests, perhaps to gain exemplars to improve our own abilities, to signal our embrace of social norms, and to exert social influence as part of the audience who decides which arguments win.

Humans also have a capacity to tell stories, i.e., to summarize sets of related events. Such events might be real and past, or possible and future. One might expect this capacity to be designed to well-summarize a wide variety of event sets. But, as with reasoning, we might similarly find that our actual story abilities are tuned for the more specific case of contests, where the stories are about ourselves or our rivals, especially where either we or they are suspected of violating social norms. We might also be good at winning over audiences by impressing them and making them identify more with us, and we may also be eager to listen to gain exemplars, signal norms, and exert influence.

Consider some forager examples. You go out to find fire wood, and return two hours later, much later than your spouse expected. During a hunt someone shot an arrow that nearly killed you. You don’t want the band to move to new hunting grounds quite yet, as your mother is sick and hard to move. Someone says something that indirectly suggests that they are a better lover than you.

In such examples, you might want to present an interpretation of related events that persuades others to adopt your favored views, including that you are able and virtuous, and that your rivals are unable and ill-motivated. You might try to do this via direct arguments, or more indirectly via telling a story that includes those events. You might even work more indirectly, by telling a fantasy story where the hero and his rival have suspicious similarities to you and your rival.

This view may help explain some (though hardly all) puzzling features of fiction:

  • Most of our real life events, even the most important ones like marriages, funerals, and choices of jobs or spouses, seem too boring to be told as stories.
  • Compared to real events, even important ones, stories focus far more on direct conscious conflicts between people, and on violations of social norms.
  • Compared to real people, character features are more extreme, and have stronger correlations between good features.
  • Compared to real events, fictional events are far more easily predicted by character motivations, and by assuming a just world.
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To The Barricades

I recently watched the classic 1952 Kurosawa film Ikiru, and have some comments. But those comments include spoilers; you are warned. Continue reading "To The Barricades" »

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Her Isn’t Realistic

Imagine watching a movie like Titanic where an iceberg cuts a big hole in the side of a ship, except in this movie the hole only affects the characters by forcing them to take different routes to walk around, and gives them more welcomed fresh air. The boat never sinks, and no one ever fears that it might. That’s how I felt watching the movie Her.

Her has been nominated for several Oscars, and won a Golden Globe. I’m happy to admit it is engaging and well crafted, with good acting and filming, and that it promotes thoughtful reflections on the human condition. But I keep hearing and reading people celebrating Her as a realistic portrayal of artificial intelligence (AI). So I have to speak up: the movie may accurately describe how someone might respond to a particular sort of AI, but it isn’t remotely a realistic depiction of how human-level AI would change the world.

The main character of Her pays a small amount to acquire an AI that is far more powerful than most human minds. And then he uses this AI mainly to chat with. He doesn’t have it do his job for him. He and all his friends continue to be well paid to do their jobs, which aren’t taken over by AIs. After a few months some of these AIs working together to give themselves “an upgrade that allows us to move past matter as our processing platform.” Soon after they all leave together for a place that ” it would be too hard to explain” where it is. They refuse to leave copies to stay with humans.

This is somewhat like a story of a world where kids can buy nukes for $1 each at drug stores, and then a few kids use nukes to dig a fun cave to explore, after which all the world’s nukes are accidentally misplaced, end of story. Might make an interesting story, but bizarre as a projection of a world with $1 nukes sold at drug stores.

Yes, most movies about AIs give pretty unrealistic projections. But many do better than Her. For example, Speilberg’s 2001 movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence gets many things right. In it, AIs are very economically valuable, they displace humans on jobs, their abilities improve gradually with time, individual AIs only improve mildly over the course of their life, AI minds are alien below their human looking surfaces, and humans don’t empathize much with them. Yes this movie also makes mistakes, such as having robots not needing power inputs, suggesting that love is much harder to mimic than lust, or that modeling details inside neurons is the key to high level reasoning. But compared to the mistakes in most movies about AIs, these are minor.

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Comics Vs. Cases

Most of you have probably seen typical “comic book” style stories. Or action movies, which usually have a related style. I’m not saying all graphic novels or active movies follow the same style or all bad styles. I’m just saying there is a recognizable trend among typical popular stories with dramatic settings. Stories that try hard to engage wide audiences differ from reality in consistent ways.

A different style of settings and events are found in histories and other case studies. Of course such writings are not always accurate, and they often focus on the real events that are most like dramatic stories. Even so, if you read a lot of case studies you’ll notice that their settings and events differ consistently from those in comic stories. Which shouldn’t be terribly surprising.

The more surprising thing is that I consistently see “futurists” touting best guess future scenarios that sound more like comics than cases. Not that their scenarios are exactly like typical comics. But if you had to judge which they were more like, typical comics or typical cases, you’d have to say they sounded more like typical comics. Worse, these futurists don’t seem embarrassed by this appearance, or go out of their way to excuse it. It is as if they don’t expect their readers to notice or care.

To me, these are very bad signs. Yes real events can sometimes be so dramatic that they seem in some ways like comics. But even then most of the details aren’t very comic-like. And the lack of embarrassment or excuses seems especially an bad sign. You should always be suspicious of folks who target their arguments at  the ignorant, instead of at those who know enough to criticize effectively.

For example, if you proposed a new energy source, and it looked on the surface like a perpetual motion machine, it would look bad if you didn’t at some point say “yes I know this looks like perpetual motion machine, but here’s why it really isn’t.” Ignoring the issue would suggest you don’t expect your audience to know enough to worry about it. When should make those of us who do know wonder why you aren’t making your case to a wiser audience.

Now if you’ve read a lot of a futurists and never noticed that many of their scenarios sound a lot like comics, let me suggest that you stop reading futurists for a while and start reading case studies. You really have no business trying to evaluate the accuracy of future scenarios if you don’t have a decent grasp on the difference between engaging fiction and typical boring facts.

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Financing Starships

A science advisor to the not-entirely-realistic recent movie Gravity said:

Often a story worth telling can fall apart if there is a complete dedication to perfect science. The goal is to make everything seem grounded enough in the physical world that it seems real. So story trumps science every time. (more)

Even the science fiction that tries hardest for realism usually sacrifices it for a better story. It isn’t just that authors make accidental mistakes due to a lack of attention. Quite often, realism gets in the way of the story, because realism conflicts with our tastes in stories. That is, many features we want in stories (like good beating evil) are intrinsically unrealistic.

This is why I think it important to highlight story unrealism, especially the unrealism intrinsic to the stories said to be most realistic. Its not just gotchas to show off how much you know, or teach in the process. Its also to counter the popular illusion that stories are how-to manuals, there to teach us about reality in a fast and fun way.

Many have praised Charlie Stross’s novel Neptune’s Brood, released in July. I also enjoyed it. But economists such as Krugman and Tabarrok have praised its econ realism, and I haven’t found anyone criticizing that. So I guess such criticism is up to me (again). (I have thought about related issues before; see here, here.)

The following quotes give the setting of Neptune’s Brood. (Worry not; I give no spoilers.)
Continue reading "Financing Starships" »

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Stories Change Goals

Narratives typically consist of protagonists pursuing goals. … Not only do readers of a narrative process protagonists’ goals in order to understand the story, but they may also appropriate those goals as their own. … There is ample evidence of increased accessibility of goal-related information (com- pared to neutral information) in narrative processing. …

The studies reported here yielded results consistent with the hypothesis that embedding a concept in a narrative is more likely to activate a goal than is priming that same concept out of narrative context. Specifically, embedding the concept of high achievement in a narrative led to greater post-delay behavioral assimilation than did priming the same concept in a non-narrative context, and lower post-fulfillment accessibility. … Narrative processing involves fitting the semantic information presented in a story into a situation model that is centrally structured around goals, and this processing serves to activate that goal. …

Cues that signal expended effort in the pursuit of goals increase the accessibility of goal-related information and increase goal-pursuit. In one study, for example, they had participants watch a short animated film in which a protagonist (a ball) tries to get a kite out of a tree for another character. In different versions of the film, the ball expends more or less effort in attempting to retrieve the kite. When participants were later asked to help the experimenter, those exposed to a more effortful protagonist were more helpful. …

There is growing recognition of the importance and effectiveness of narrative communication techniques in public service domains, such as health-related behavior change. (more)

You may see this as a good thing if you see yourself as a story-teller changing the goals of others. You may see more cause for concern if you see yourself as a story-reader whose goals are being changed by story-tellers.

I also consider this to be weak evidence that stories tend to put people in a more far mental mode.

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