Trouble Thinking

March 31, 2010

A Little Post About a Vast Memory

Filed under: Science — Tags: , , , , — Durandal @ 5:00 pm

You want a perfect memory. That isn’t a question, I can see into your tiny little head and know your imaginings. For one of my stature it is basically child’s play.

Now you’re thinking about the movies with that little killer doll man in them, don’t bother thanking me for reminding you of their proper name. No, do thank me.

You dream of schoolwork being simpler, never forgetting that important phone number, remembering every detail of every book you’ve ever read. Your life would be so easy if only you could remember things when you wanted to, instead of when your fickle mind decides to retain vital information. Too bad that’s totally impossible, though.

No it is not. It’s just impossible for you. For a man called Solomon Veniaminovich Shereshevskii, it was just life.

Solomon’s life was for the most part uneventful. Born in the late 1800’s in a small town in Russia, Solomon grew up expecting to use his musical talent to make his way in the world. He would have likely continued studying music, had an ear infection not robbed him of some of his ability to hear and making it difficult to improve his playing. While looking for work, he discovered that journalism suited him well. The only thing remarkable about him was that he didn’t learn how to forget information until his late 30’s.


March 29, 2010

Album Review – Plastic Beach by Gorillaz

Filed under: Music — Tags: , , , , , — Chris @ 6:16 pm

It’s a little strange to realize that the Gorillaz have been around for ten years now. Created by Blur frontman Damon Albarn, and “Tank Girl” artist Jamie Hewlett, the Gorillaz, as a band, are represented by four Hewlett drawn cartoon characters; a device which allows Albarn to keep the illusion of an actual band, while in reality, collaborating on each album with whoever the hell he wants. It’s an experiment that probably should never have worked as well as it does, and it is a testament to the quality of the Gorillaz’s output that the premise has become so well accepted by the general listening public. Just the other day I was listening to the radio on my drive home from work, and “Stylo,” the first single off the band’s new album Plastic Beach, had just finished playing, when the DJ mentioned that there was a countdown on the Gorillaz’s website, one which she was hoping was leading to an announcement of a new tour schedule. Instead, however, it ended up simply being a countdown to the bassist Murdoc’s birthday. She did not mention, or imply, however, that that’s all just a tad bit silly, seeing as Murdoc is not a real person.  It’s an amazing, grand scale success of suspension of disbelief that Albarn and Hewlett have been able to get us all past the novelty of a cartoon rock band, and simply accept the mystery.

Though to still call Gorillaz a “rock band” at this point probably does Albarn, Hewlett, and company a disservice. While the group’s self-titled debut album was certainly a sort of alt-rock effort, infused with the occasional bit of hip hop, each subsequent work has moved them further and further away from such a label.  Their second release, Demon Days, featured rap much more heavily, but also included excursions into electronic dance music (on the tracks “White Light” and “DARE”), as well as the equal parts surprising and splendid Dennis Hopper spoken word track “Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head,” among other hard-to-define-genre-wise songs.

Now, with Plastic Beach, the Gorillaz find themselves moving further towards the electronic. I suppose it’s only appropriate that an artificial band would develop a more synthetic sound, I only wish it were more exciting. While not necessarily “bad,” Plastic Beach is easily the weakest Gorillaz album to date. The first half of the album is promising, with stand out tracks including “White Flag,” a hip-hop piece by rappers Bashy and Kano, book-ended by marvelous instrumentals from the National Orchestra for Arabic Music, and “Superfast Jellyfish,” a funny and catchy take-down of junk food advertising featuring De La Soul. About halfway through the album, however, Albarn and Co. seem to lose momentum, and it all just becomes…dull.

I have no qualms with mellow music, and Blur’s more chill songs were some of their best (I’m looking at you “No Distance Left to Run”) , but these tracks run straight past “mellow” and venture right into “boring” territory. While the back-half Plastic Beach occasionally comes up for air and regains interest on the surprising and welcome Lou Reed contribution “Some Kind of Nature,” or the second Little Dragon collaboration “To Binge,” much of it fails to hold your attention. “Sweepstakes,” featuring Mos Def, and “Glitter Freeze,” featuring Mark E. Smith, are the worst offenders in this category, songs which seem to go on forever, yet serve no purpose whatsoever.

All in all, Plastic Beach isn’t a bad album by any means; while half the album is indeed quite tepid, the other half is certainly worth listening to. I suppose that’s the risk when you have with a band that’s actually more a series of collaborations than an actual band. Still, it’s good to see that Albarn is still working to expand his sound, and while Plastic Beach is a little bit of a dud, there are still two other excellent Gorillaz records floating around out there (not including all the b-sides and remixes), and I look forward to whatever it is Albarn and Hewlett decide to produce next from their cartoon quartet.

Addendum: You should definitely check out the band’s video for “Stylo;” it is delightfully insane. I can best describe it as “Bruce Willis tries to kill the Gorillaz.” Just watch.

March 26, 2010

Scott Pilgrim is pretty good, eh?

Filed under: Comics, Movies — Tags: , , , , , — Durandal @ 1:14 pm

Scott Pilgrim is a movie about a boy and a girl and the boy fighting the girl’s evil ex-boyfriends and they live in Toronto in Canada. I was initially wary about Michael Cera, because he’s pretty one-note. But he seems to do a pretty good job, I hope he’s happier in this movie. Also the fighting is awesome as far as I can tell.

Scott Pilgrim is also a comic book! I know, crazy, but it’s pretty fun. It’s tiny and paperback sized for convenient reading and is a fun time full of action and adventure and Mario references and romance and a surprisingly reasonable accounting of early-to-mid-20’s life as a useless person.

Here is a sample of the book:
Bionic arm punches highlights out of a girls hair
This is when a girl with a bionic arm punches the highlights out of another girl’s hair.

March 24, 2010

I Ever Tell You the One About the One Armed Superhero?

Filed under: Comics — Tags: , , , — Chris @ 10:53 pm

So, as a man of radically maladjusted priorities considering my age and economic situation, I have recently found myself, as I oftentimes do, thinking about comic books. Most specifically, I’ve been thinking of a little ditty just recently released by DC Comics, and penned by former “Starman” scribe James Robinson, entitled Justice League: Cry for Justice. Now, I should probably point out that I haven’t actually read Cry for Justice. There are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, even if I were interested in it, I only read my comics in trade paperback, which for those who don’t know, is sort of like only seeing a movie when it comes out on DVD: while the last issue of the series was released earlier this month, the collected edition won’t be out until the beginning of June. Secondly, I haven’t read Cry for Justice simply because I have no interest in reading Cry for Justice, mostly owing to the fact that the comic has been met by those who have read it with all the enthusiasm usually reserved someone taking a dump on your lap, and then charging you $3.99 for the pleasure.

One of the developments that has readers all in an uproar is that Robinson took the now grown up, former Green Arrow sidekick Roy Harper (also known as Red Arrow, formerly known as Arsenal, formerly-formerly known as Speedy) and had a supervillain tear one of his arms off, and blow up his five year old daughter—which is, admittedly, kind of a dick move.  Up until this point, poor Roy has been most well known for being a heroin addict for about ten minutes back in the 70s, and since that worked oh so well to develop interest in his character, DC decided that if they really wanted to jumpstart the inevitable Red Arrow revolution, all they had to do was up the tragedy level a bit. And, as I’m sure we all know, the next notch up on the sliding scale of tragedy from “heroin addict” is, of course, “one arm and a dead baby.” Hey, it worked great when they did it with Aquaman.

Well, now DC is ready to capitalize on this newfound storytelling goldmine they’ve created for themselves, with an upcoming Roy-centric miniseries titled “The Rise of Arsenal.” Ignoring that I’m not sure how it can be the “rise” of Arsenal, when he was just calling himself Arsenal three years ago, the solicitations seem to indicate that DC is taking the most devastating part of Roy’s recent travails, and crafting the story of his terrible emotional fall (or I guess, “Rise?” Are they being ironic?) around it. I am, of course, talking about the missing arm. Obviously.

And you know what? If this were a story about a guy named Roy Harper, who lived in the regular world, was an Olympic archer, and then lost his arm in some kind of accident, that could actually make a damn good story. I mean, shit, if you knew a dude who was super into archery, and then something happened where his arm got torn off? You would tell everyone about that. You’d have to. You couldn’t not. That is a good, horrible story. A good, horrible story, however, that just doesn’t work in the DC Universe. It doesn’t work, because if you are a superhero, losing an arm is the coolest fucking thing that could ever happen to you.

Seriously, superheroes lose limbs all the time. Nobody cares. These are worlds where futuristic technology runs rampant. You know what happens if you lose an arm? Sure it hurts for a minute, but then you get a sweet new robot arm that’s a billion times better than your stupid old fleshy one! Now you can punch through walls, shoot lasers out of your finger tips, and maybe even get one of those awesome Bionic Commando style grappling hook hands. I mean, look at Bucky. No one gave a damn about Bucky, but one missing arm later, and now he’s Captain America. How about Cable? Cable dominated comics in the 90s, and has pretty much constantly starred in a series ever since. You know why? Robot arm! It’s not sad, it’s great, and moping about it only makes you look like a dick.

Certain story ideas that would work in other genres just don’t fly in superhero comics, and I think this is something that comic writers need to take into consideration. Suspension of disbelief works both ways, and while we can use it to believe that a guy can successfully save the world using only a bow and arrow, it is also going to interfere with feeling bad for that guy crying about his missing arm, when he’s friends with a dude named Cyborg, who is basically just a torso and half a face, and lives a perfectly amazing life. What DC should try to do, if they’re determined to be all down and dour about this, is maybe focus on a more universal tragedy that everyone could identify with. I don’t know, maybe a story about the death of a loved one or something. It’s too bad they didn’t leave themselves that sort of option to pursue instead.

March 22, 2010

The Milgram Experiments 3: Milgram Hardest

Filed under: Science — Tags: , , — Durandal @ 7:18 am

So. What does all of this mean? Are we just evil bastards at heart? Leaping at the chance to kill when we get one? Milgram didn’t believe that to be the case. In interviews conducted immediately after and six months after each experiment, most of the subjects reported being deeply concerned or embarrassed with their behavior, as well as being extremely apologetic to the “learner” (who, remember, wasn’t actually experiencing pain). People, it seemed, had a lot of trouble going through with this barbarism, even if they eventually did. And their distress makes it clear that they weren’t going along with this experiment with the knowledge that the learner wasn’t being hurt, or the idea that it was fun to hurt people. So what would cause a normal person to kill another human being in the name of getting them to learn word pairs more accurately?

Milgram had several ideas as to why we’re so willing to obey even when it runs counter to our moral codes.

First and foremost: we are an obedient society. In fact, most human societies are. This isn’t necessarily sinister in and of itself, it is after all how we manage to get children to stop doing various horribly stupid and dangerous things. Our society is hierarchical from the ground up. A hierarchy is a useful shortcut that allows us to easily manage a complicated society, allowing you to know that ignoring your co-worker is acceptable but you need to pay attention to your boss. However, living in this structure means we have a massive amount of experience obeying orders from higher-ups. It is reinforced daily that to disobey means to lose your job and potentially your life. So yes, you do feel terrible about torturing someone, but your every experience from birth says that disobedience to an authority figure carries huge consequences.

Another possibility is that the very act of feeling bad is what allows people to continue the torture. This seems counter-intuitive until you realize what feeling bad actually does to you. When you feel awful about something happening, it allows you to think “wow, I’m pretty nice aren’t I?” because well you feel bad that the team made the fat kid do the Truffle Shuffle, and you certainly wouldn’t have made him do it if it were up to you. Note that this doesn’t really change the overall situation for the fat kid.

The experience of doing something you feel is morally wrong can cause a tension between who you feel you are (nice) and who you appear to be right now (heart patient murderer). Now, an obvious way to resolve this is to not murder but remember that that’s actually not the path of least resistance. That would mean going against decades of training and a sense of duty to the “experiment”. No, the easiest way to resolve this is to simply tell yourself you’re not a bad person. You feel a bit better, because you’ve made it clear that were it up to you you’d have no part in this and frankly you find it abhorrent… and then you force the nice man’s hand onto the electro-shock plate, confident that this reflects poorly only on that asshole scientist.

So what exactly should you do to avoid becoming a murderous automaton? Well, step one is to not make it sound as awesome as I just did. But the most important thing is to simply avoid putting yourself in a situation where you will be contributing to something terrible. Ask questions about the full scope of what you’re being asked to do and don’t sign up if it seems iffy. Always do your best to remain skeptical and examine your own actions and their effects reasonably often, because they won’t go from “expense accounts” to “genocide reports” all in one day. Remember how good you are at justifying your own bad actions.

Hell, read Milgram’s book: “Obedience to Authority”, and you’ll never be able to follow an order from a man in a lab coat again.

March 19, 2010

The Milgram Experiments (Part 2)

Filed under: Science — Tags: , , , , — Durandal @ 1:56 pm

Okay, the Milgram Experiment does seem to indicate a seething horror at the heart of humanity, you say. Wow. Well, it was understandable though. I mean, there was no real personal interaction, they may not have even believed they were doing anything. And the experimenters were at Yale in a lab, so it would seem pretty official and you can see why people would go along since obviously they’d never actually tell you to kill someone. This experiment is interesting, but obviously it’s not showing us much about real life. If your boss told you to shoot a dude you’d totally say no hahaha am I right?

Do you think Milgram is some kind of idiot? Is that what you think?

Milgram proceeded to modify the experiment in a variety of ways and conduct further testing 17 more times over the next few years. Apologize to him.

First, Milgram did the obvious thing. He thought: christ on a goddamn crutch, people can’t actually be this awful. They much just not really get the impact of their actions. If we get them to see that, they’ll cut it out way faster.

So the next 3 times he ran the experiment, he changed on variable: proximity. In experiment 2, the teachers could actually hear the learners speak. Now that people could actually hear the torment they were inflicting, they nutted up a bit and stopped, right? I mean, a man was begging them to stop torturing him now. It turns out, pleading for his life got the poor learner absolutely no sympathy. 60% still killed the poor bastard.

I’ll cut to the chase. By the 4th experiment, when subjects were required to press the learner’s hand to an electrocuting plate… 30% still goddamn killed him. I mean, is it an improvement? Yes. Still a bit disturbing to know that about one in 3 of you would kill me with your bare hands if someone in a lab coat asked, though. For that matter, absolutely no one in any of these cases stopped before the learner begged them outright to stop, or tried to pull away himself. But the long and short of it was that actually experiencing some direct exposure to the people you’re hurting makes it easier to disobey a direct order to hurt them.

There are, in total, about 7 out of 18 permutations that produce a radical reduction in obedience. Those 7 break down into 2 types: lack of authority or camaraderie. Six of the permutations that reduced obedience significantly depended on the subject feeling less under the yoke of authority. When the experimenter is out of the room, when an ordinary man gives them orders, or when there are two conflicting orders, people generally break off their shocking early, and less than 20% obey. When there are two other “teacher” plants who rebel against the experimenter, obedience drops to 10%. Of course, when another “teacher” plant takes over the actual administration of shocks, obedience shoots up to 95%.

As nice as it is to find out that there are certain permutations with almost no obedience, there are disturbingly many that produce little to no difference in responding. The learner pretending to have a heart attack and die, the learner being replaced with another “doctor” who is an equal authority, the respectable lab setting being replaced by a seedy strip mall office, all reduced obedience by not more than 10%. At this point, Milgram had spent about 2 years staring in mute horror at humanity, so he figured it was time to pack it in and have a long think.

Part 3

March 17, 2010

The Milgram Experiments (Part 1)

Filed under: Science — Tags: , , , — Durandal @ 6:09 pm

I realized this would go incredibly long if I just laid it all down at once. So this is part one of my telling you, the ignorant, what The Milgram Experiments in Obedience are and what they (probably) mean.

Okay so let us say you’re a sociologist and you saw World War 2 happen and also you are Jewish. This is getting specific but mostly I just mean imagine if you really wanted to know what in the name of all that is holy would convince people to commit genocide and man is there a good way of making sure that is never ever going to happen again because damn. You have just been tricked into imagining you are Stanley Milgram, circa 1955.

I apologize for that deception. I want you to calm down and take note that all of your ideas about understanding and dealing with the root causes of genocide suck. Stoic acceptance? Don’t be silly. Asking nicely for people to stop committing genocide all the time? Wrong. The answer was to do some intense, then borderline-illegal and now definitely-illegal science. I can’t believe you were even considering those other things.

Milgram couldn’t justify thinking that literally every one of the millions of people involved with the Nazi regime was just mustache-twirling evil. I mean, was the person responsible for notarizing expense reports really doing it out of pure accounting-related hatred for the lesser races? It did not seem like a sensible answer. So he needed to figure out what it was that actually led to this nationwide craze for murder.

His basic hypothesis was simple. People were willing to do terrible things in the name of awful causes so long as it meant being obedient to authority. His assumption was that people would probably do something moderately bad if they had a little light pressure from an authority figure, and then in something like Nazi Germany, where the pressure was enormous, they’d do something really bad. He was wrong.

With a little light pressure from an authority figure, people will straight murder.


March 15, 2010

This is Sort of Interesting

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Durandal @ 3:29 pm

Okay, I lied. This is only interesting if you’ve been playing so much Mass Effect recently that you’ve begun to ask your girlfriend to wear an alien mask when you make out with her. It’s a presentation hosted on the incredibly annoyingly named site “prezi” about the reasoning behind significant design changes between Mass Effect and its sequel. I found it cool to see exactly what the process was for deciding on certain overhauls.

It’s also got some disturbingly sexual artwork of aliens in it, which is basically a prerequisite for me paying attention to any slide show.

Away you go!

March 12, 2010

Colma: A Modern Necropolis

Filed under: Interesting Things — Tags: , , — Durandal @ 11:54 am

Around 1900, San Francisco got a bit too expensive to die in. Rising property values meant that cemeteries weren’t worthwhile usage of land, and they were officially banned from being built on city limits. By 1912, the dead had been served an eviction notice. So they did what any sane group of people would do, and created a town for the exclusive purpose of housing a truly staggering amount of dead people. This town was eventually incorporated with a small town named Colma that was next-door, housing all of the living people nearby.

As of today, there are about 1,500 living residents and approximately a million permanent residents in the town of Colma, California. As of last count, there are 17 non-pet cemeteries and one pet cemetery. Being founded on the funerary business, the town is heavily into respecting the dead. Funeral processions get extra protections, very few graves are dug up by local frats to use in hilarious pranks, and I was informed by a person who lived nearby that my idea for a Colma-based zombie flick was more than a little disrespectful.

Panoramic view: here. See if you can spot the cemeteries! (Hint: look at picture)

March 10, 2010

Bertrand Russell and Logic

Filed under: Science — Tags: , , , — Durandal @ 2:40 pm

Bertrand Russell is one of the giants of modern logic. His work in attempting to clarify the underpinnings of mathematics was unprecedented and comprehensive. Russell was interested in mathematics and systems of logic from a young age. In his mind math was the one thing that produced absolutely certain answers in life, an antidote to the insanity that haunted his family line.

Unfortunately, it quickly became obvious that math was not a perfect system. Math relied in many cases on “Axioms”, things that were just true because they had to be true. Here’s one that bugged Russell as a child learning geometry: if I draw a line, and then I draw a point outside of that line, only one line can be drawn that is parallel to the original and also crosses through this point. It’s a useful principle for geometric thinking, but where is the proof? Russell’s tutor could give him no reason for the fact beyond “it is assumed”. Russell became obsessed with eliminating axioms and building mathematics on a solid foundation of absolute provable fact, and worked with this idea all through his education. In fact, this quest for truth dogged him most of his adult life.

Russell for a time thought he was the only person driven to recreate math, but he soon found like-minded contemporaries and even a few mentors. The three that are most important to understand are Georg Cantor, David Hilbert, and Gottlob Frege. Cantor created Set Theory, and then went mad. Russell hoped these were unrelated. Frege created the Begriffsschrift, a language for logical operations as daunting as its crazy German name that was designed to examine the underpinnings of mathematics and build them on a solid foundation. The Begriffsschrift was based on Cantor’s Set Theory. Hilbert set out the challenge to mathematicians at the International Congress of Mathematics that Arithmetic, as it underpins all other maths, must be built on total certainty in order for mathematics to become impregnable to doubt. Hilbert, like Russell, shared the dream of a mathematics where any problem stated rigorously could be absolutely and with complete clarity solved. Russell set out to achieve this dream by using the underpinning of Set Theory and a logical language not unlike that developed by Frege.

It was around this time that Russell accidentally undid the work of Cantor and Frege, and gave Hilbert a rather nasty shock. It all had to do with Set Theory. A Set is a collection of objects defined by a common property. For instance, “the Set of all Green Things” would include a blade of grass, a leaf, and the Incredible Hulk. Similarly, the number 3 could be defined as “the Set of all Sets with Three Elements”. Three hats, three cars, three dogs, all of these are included in the infinite set of things that can be defined by the number 3. Set theory was at the heart of logic, it was the method that Russell, Frege, and many others were hoping to use to create a truly unassailable underpinning for mathematics. Russell killed that dream with a stray thought: What about a “Set of all Sets that do not contain themselves”?


Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: