30 November 2012

Carrying a Tune?

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:47 am

Yesterday while helping friends move out of their apartment I mentioned that, while going to school, I had worked the night shift at UPS loading parcels into cross-country semitrailers. UPS pushed its people hard: I typically lost five pounds a night. “Just like the opera,” the woman, a cellist, remarked. I’d never thought of loading trucks as operatic before, but I was too busy hauling stuff to ask her what she meant.


29 November 2012

Spring in Fialta by Nabokov, 1936

Filed under: Fiction — ktismatics @ 3:01 pm

…I will not mention the name (and what bits of it I happen to give here appear in decorous disguise) of that man, that Franco-Hungarian writer . . . I would rather not dwell upon him at all, but I cannot help it — he is surging up from under my pen. Today one does not hear much about him, and that is good, for it proves that I was right in resisting his evil spell, right in experiencing a creepy chill down my spine whenever this or that new book of his touched my hand. The fame of his likes circulates briskly but soon grows heavy and stale; and as for history it will limit his life story to the dash between two dates. Lean and arrogant, with some poisonous pun ever ready to fork out and quiver at you, and with a strange look of expectancy in his dull brown veiled eyes, this false wag had, I daresay, an irresistible effect on small rodents. Having mastered the art of verbal invention to perfection, he particularly prided himself on being a weaver of words, a title he valued higher than that of a writer; personally, I never could understand what was the good of thinking up books, of penning things that had not really happened in some way or other; and I remember once saying to him as I braved the mockery of his encouraging nods that, were I a writer, I should allow only my heart to have imagination, and for the rest rely upon memory, that long-drawn sunset shadow of one’s personal truth.

I had known his books before I knew him; a faint disgust was already replacing the aesthetic pleasure which I had suffered his first novel to give me. At the beginning of his career, it had been possible perhaps to distinguish some human landscape, some old garden, some dream-familiar disposition of trees through the stained glass of his prodigious prose . . . but with every new book the tints grew still more dense, the gules and purpure still more ominous; and today one can no longer see anything at all through that blazoned, ghastly rich glass, and it seems that were one to break it, nothing but a perfectly black void would face one’s shivering soul. But how dangerous he was in his prime, what venom he squirted, with what whips he lashed when provoked! The tornado of his passing satire left a barren waste where felled oaks lay in a row, and the dust still twisted, and the unfortunate author of some adverse review, howling with pain, spun like a top in the dust…

[Nabokov wrote this short story in Russian while living in Berlin; he and Peter Pertzov translated it into English.]

27 November 2012

Voigt-Kampff Fail

Filed under: Fiction, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:33 am

A few days ago I wrote a post illustrating how filmmakers capture the perceptual attention of viewers. Fiction-makers also draw readers and viewers’ emotional attention by triggering their empathic connections with fictional characters. It’s possible to experiment with the manipulation of viewers’ visual perception by, for example, hiding the important thing in plain sight and distracting the viewer’s attention onto more visually compelling cues — a phenomenon called inattentional blindness. It’s also possible to experiment with empathic manipulation. In one sort of experiment the writer seduces the reader into identifying with despicable characters: it’s curious that both Humbert Humbert and Tom Ripley were introduced to the reading public in the same year, 1955. Another sort of experiment is to eschew empathic connection altogether. Bounty hunter Rick Deckard: is he enigmatic and deep, or is he a shallow and hollow cipher no different from the replicants he kills without remorse in PK Dick’s novel?

People can recognize specific emotions based on facial expressions, even if those expressions are on the faces of professional actors who aren’t actually experiencing the emotions they’re depicting. Can people detect empathy in others? Can they distinguish between authentic and simulated empathy? That was the purpose of the Voigt-Kampff Test that Deckard administered to suspected replicants: to evaluate whether the suspect was really empathic, and thus really human, or just faking it. Human evaluators of empathy are too easily deceived: that’s how Humbert Humbert and Tom Ripley got away with it. The Voigt-Kampff Test relied on less easily controlled responses like pupil dilation and EKG patterns — machines measuring the machinery under the hood. By the end Deckard wasn’t sure whether he himself could pass the Voigt-Kampff he administered to others. I wondered the same thing in a post from last year when I was on an empathy kick.

I find it difficult to know what someone is thinking or feeling and why. I don’t score very high on empathy tests — kind of like an early-generation replicant, or like Rick Deckard. But I’m also skeptical of these empathy tests: do they test real emotions, or conformity to general agreement as to what emotions ought to look like? I can, on the other hand, imagine all sorts of things going on under the hood in other people’s inner lives. If I’m wrong, is it because I lack insight, or because people are deceptive? Or are people more often than not being shallow and hollow, undeserving of the imagined depths of character I ascribe to them?

Fictions are simulated worlds populated by disembodied replicants. I can make a variety of psychological attributions about fictional characters, treating them as if they were real people. But the characters aren’t real, and neither are the emotions and motivations I attribute to them. If I were to assign some of my wanton psychological imaginings to my own fictional characters, then I might be mistaken for someone with deep insight into human nature. I would also be contributing to the popular but possibly erroneous presumption that people are deep rather than shallow and hollow. Consequently I tend to write enigmatic characters opaquely drawn, whose physical features are not described and who reveal little about themselves in dialogue with each other. I also deny my narrators access to the characters’ inner lives. In brief, I don’t dangle many hooks in the water attempting to snag readers’ empathy — if there really is such a thing as empathy. If readers want to attribute psychological depth to my characters then it’s on their own heads.

23 November 2012

One Way of Connecting the Palestinian Dots

Filed under: Culture — ktismatics @ 2:27 pm

First, the dots:

Obama wins re-election.

All hell again breaks loose in Gaza; Obama asserts Israel’s right to defend itself.

Hamas launches medium-range missiles, built with Iranian support, that reach the outskirts of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; Israel’s anti-missile technology fails to stop them.

At the behest of the Emir of Qatar, Egypt’s President Morsi brokers Israeli-Palestinian cease fire. Obama and Clinton praise Morsi; the head of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood denounces Morsi’s peacemaking efforts.

In the Palestinian Territories, Hamas and the US-backed Fatah emerge from the latest fighting in closer solidarity with one another.

Morsi seizes autocratic powers, though he remains under ultimate control of the Egyptian military, which receives the bulk of its funding from the US government; protests ensue in Egypt.

Now some speculation about possible connections:

Maybe Obama endorsed Morsi’s move. The Egyptian military already constituted the final authority in Egyptian government, and the military is financed largely by the US. The US and the Egyptian military promised Morsi support in an internal power grab against competing political factions if he brokered the Gaza peace.

It’s likely that the Egyptian Brotherhood will soon be placated, in part because Morsi is one of their own, and in part because Hamas — a Brotherhood affiliate — has acceded to the truce. Another reason to expect renewed Egyptian Brotherhood support of Morsi is that the Emir of Qatar, who inserted Morsi into the peace-brokering role, has been a strong financial and military supporter of the Brotherhood’s ascent in Egypt, as well as in Palestine, Libya, and Syria.

The Saudis used to be the primary financial backers of Hamas. After Hamas gained political and military control of Gaza, the US put the squeeze on the Saudis to cut off support for Hamas. Hamas subsequently turned to both Iran and Qatar. Arguably the Palestinians have more in common with Qatar than with Iran — Qatar and Hamas are Sunni Arab; Iran is Shi’ite non-Arab.

Egypt too is predominantly Sunni Arab; so is Saudi Arabia. Maybe there is a move afoot to consolidate Sunni power in the region. Arguably the Sunnis, and even the Brotherhood, are increasingly more focused on secular control over their societies than on imposing religious fundamentalism. And they are prepared to cooperate with the West in solidifying their power base. Here’s an analysis from Beirut tracing the secular transition of Sunni Islam.

Syria’s President Assad is Shi’ite, allied with the predominantly Shi’ite Iran. But the majority of the Syrian population is Sunni. Shia-majority Iraq is already under US control. If Assad is toppled and the Brotherhood or some other Sunni-dominated faction takes political control in Syria, then Iran is isolated.

Maybe the US government encouraged Fatah to reach out to Hamas in an attempt to solidify the Sunni dominance in Palestine. This Palestinian alliance will shift influence away from Iran and toward Egypt and Qatar — and the US. Israel is persuaded to go along with this new pro-Western Sunni alliance as long as the mid-range missiles stop coming toward their cities. Since those missiles represent Iranian influence, there is a good chance that the Brotherhood will stop the launches. The short-range missiles are just a distraction: they never hit anything, and Israel’s defense system is capable of knocking them down if need be.

Of course I have no way of knowing whether this is an accurate way of connecting the dots. If it is, then a more stable, less one-sided Palestinian solution might be getting closer, with Israel, Palestine, and Egypt all allied with the US against Iran and Assad (if he’s still around). Can these states generate enough “elite rhetoric” to combat their mutual antagonisms in support a new pragmatic alliance in the Middle East?

21 November 2012

There Will Be Perception

Filed under: Movies, Psychology — ktismatics @ 11:03 am

Following up on my last post about JJ Gibson‘s ideas on how people perceive pictures, here’s a video produced by psychologist Tim Smith that tracks the eye movements of 11 people watching a segment of the film There Will Be Blood.

Contemporary film editing relies largely on cuts and close-ups, alternating perspectives and montage, to direct the viewer’s attention. In contrast, the film excerpt in the video consists of one extended continuous take and a second shorter one. Despite the freedom afforded the viewer to look around these extended shots at leisure and at will, the cinematographer remains in control. The first scene illustrates how visual attention is drawn by the objects in the environment, their interrelationships, and their movements. Human faces and hands are particularly compelling. The second scene shows how the observer’s movement through the environment also directs visual attention. The eye is drawn to what’s present in the scene, but the observer also anticipates change in the scene. The viewer follows the character’s gaze toward the object of his attention; a pause in the conversation leads the eye toward the character who is likely to speak next; a camera tracking to the right directs the viewer’s attention to the right of the screen in anticipation of what will slide into view next.

Discussing his eye movement video on David Bordwell’s blog, Smith writes:

The most striking feature of the gaze behaviour when it is animated in this way is the very fast pace at which we shift our eyes around the screen. On average, each fixation is about 300 milliseconds in duration. (A millisecond is a thousandth of a second.) Amazingly, that means that each fixation of the fovea lasts only about 1/3 of a second. These fixations are separated by even briefer saccadic eye movements, taking between 15 and 30 milliseconds!

Looking at these patterns, our gaze may appear unusually busy and erratic, but we’re moving our eyes like this every moment of our waking lives. We are not aware of the frenetic pace of our attention because we are effectively blind every time we saccade between locations. This process is known as saccadic suppression. Our visual system automatically stitches together the information encoded during each fixation to effortlessly create the perception of a constant, stable scene…

The second most striking observation you may have about the video is how coordinated the gaze of multiple viewers is. Most of the time, all viewers are looking in a similar place… Viewers’ gazes are attracted by the sudden appearance of objects, moving hands, heads, and bodies. The greater the motion contrast between the point of motion and the static background, the more likely viewers will look at it. If there is only one point of motion at a particular moment, then all viewers will look at the motion, creating attentional synchrony.

This is a powerful technique for guiding attention through a film. But it’s of course not unique to film. Noticing points of motion is a natural bias which we have evolved by living in the real world. If we were not sensitive to peripheral motion, then the tiger in the bushes might have killed our ancestors before they had chance to pass their genes down to us.

19 November 2012

The Invariant Cat

Filed under: Movies, Psychology — ktismatics @ 3:32 pm

[From The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception by James J. Gibson, 1979 — Chapter 15, “Pictures and Visual Awareness”]

To see the environment is to extract information from the ambient array of light. What is it, then, to see a picture of something? The information in ambient light consists not of forms and colors but of invariants. Is it implied that the information in a picture does not consist of forms and colors but of invariants likewise? That sounds very odd, for we suppose that a picture is entirely composed of forms and colors. The kind of vision we get from pictures is harder to understand than the kind we get from ambient light, not easier…

*  *  *

When the young child sees the family cat at play the front view , side view, rear view, top view, and so on are not seen, and what gets perceived is the invariant cat. The child does not notice the aspects of perspectives of the cat until he is much older; he just sees the cat rolling over. Hence, when the child first sees a picture of a cat he is prepared to pick up the invariants, and he pays no attention to the frozen perspective of the picture, drawing, photograph, or cartoon. It is not that he sees an abstract cat, or a conceptual cat, or the common features of the class of cats, as some philosophers would have us believe; what he gets is the information for the persistence of that peculiar, furry, mobile layout of surfaces.

When the young child sees the cat run away, he does not notice the small image but the far-off cat. Thus, when he sees two adjacent pictures of Felix in the comic book, a large Felix at the bottom of its picture and another small Felix higher up in its picture, he is prepared to perceive the latter as farther off. When he sees the cat half-hidden by the chair, he perceives a partly hidden cat, not a half-cat, and therefore he is prepared to see the same thing in a drawing.

The child never sees a man as a silhouette, or as a cutout like a paper doll, but probably sees a sort of head-body-arms-legs invariant. Consequently, any outline drawing of this invariant is recognized as a man, and the outlines tend to be seen as the occluding edges of a man with interchangeable near and far sides. Even when the outlines give way to line segments, as in so-called stick figures, the invariant may still be displayed and the man perceived…

To summarize, a picture is a surface so treated that it makes available an optic array of arrested structures with underlying invariants of structure. The cross-sections of the visual angles of the array are forms, but the invariants are formless. The array is delimited, not ambient. The array is arrested in time, except for the case of the motion picture… A picture is a surface that always displays something other than what it is…

*  *  *

By gradual stages human children begin to draw in the full meaning of the term — to draw a man or a woman, a house, a flower, or the sun in the sky. The child is still making lines on a surface that record the movements of the tool in his hand, but he is now also recording an awareness in terms of the invariants he has picked up. He delineates for himself and others something he has apprehended or experienced. The traces he leaves on the paper are not just lines, or the outlines of forms, but the distinguishing features of the environment. While drawing, he may be looking at something real, or thinking about something real, or thinking about something wholly imaginary; in any case, the invariants of his visual system are resonating. The same is true of the artist as of the child. The invariants are not abstractions or concepts. They are not knowledge; they are simply invariants…

Drawing is never copying. It is impossible to copy a piece of the environment. Only another drawing can be copied. We have been misled for too long by the fallacy that a picture is similar to what it depicts, a likeness, or an imitation of it. A picture supplies some of the information for what it depicts, but that does not imply that it is in projective correspondence with what it depicts.

*  *  *

If this new theory is correct, the term representation is misleading. There is no such thing as a literal re-presentation of an earlier optic array. The scene cannot be reestablished; the array cannot be reconstituted. Some of its invariants can be preserved, but that is all…

The efforts made by philosophers and psychologists to clarify what is meant by a representation have failed, it seems to me, because the concept is wrong. A picture is not an imitation of past seeing. It is not a substitute for going back and looking again. What it records, registers, or consolidates is information, not sense data.

*  *  *

A picture is not like perceiving. Nevertheless, a picture is somehow more like perceiving an object, place, or person than is a verbal description… The picture is both a scene and a surface, and the scene is paradoxically behind the surface. This duality of the information is the reason the observer is never quite sure how to answer the question, “What do you see?” For he can perfectly well answer that he sees a wall or a piece of paper. It is this duality in the optic array from a picture that makes the drawing a bad way to begin the study of perception…

A picture is both a surface in its own right and a display of information about something else. The viewer cannot help but see both, yet this is a paradox, for the two kinds of awareness are discrepant. We distinguish between the surface of the picture and the surfaces in the picture. In such paintings as those of the impressionists, we can see the difference between the illumination of the picture and the illumination in the picture. The two sets of surfaces are not comparable, and the two kinds of illumination are not commensurable…

*  *  *

Psychologists have long been showing inkblots to their subjects and asking what they saw. A set of such random blobs on cards devised by Hermann Rorschach has now been standardized and is in use by clinical psychologists. Faced with a card, a sensible patient might very well say simply that she saw a blot, but she seldom does. She attends to the nameless squiggles, contours, textures, and colors and says, “A bleeding heart” or “A pair of dancing bears,” allowing the psychologist to diagnose her fantasy life. I have argued that a Rorschach blot is a picture of sorts containing information not only for bleeding hearts and dancing bears but for dozens of other events. It is different from a regular picture in that the invariants are all mixed up together and are mutually discrepant instead of being mutually consistent or redundant. It is rather like a mass of scribbles for a child in this respect.

The old mentalistic explanation of perceiving objects in clouds and inkblots, incidentally, is projection, the projecting outward of fantasy images from the unconscious mind as if by a mental magic lantern. Hence, the Rorschach is called a “projective” test. This is mischievous nonsense. But the dogma of two different contributions to perception, one objective and one subjective, one coming from the world and the other coming from the mind, is so strong that the notion of a picture being thrown outward to mix with a picture being thrown inward is widely believed.

What are we to call the tree in the photograph, or the bleeding heart in the inkblot? Neither is an object in my terminology. I am tempted to call them virtual objects. They are not perceived, and yet they are perceived. The duality of the information in the array is what causes the dual experience… I conclude that a picture always requires two kinds of apprehension that go on at the same time, one direct and the other indirect. There is a direct perceiving of the picture surface, along with an indirect awareness of virtual surface — a perceiving, knowing, or imagining, as the case may be.

*  *  *

The invariants display a world with nobody in it, and the perspective displays where the observer is in that world… What is induced in these pictures is not an illusion of reality but an awareness of being in the world. This is no illusion. It is a legitimate goal of depiction, if not the only one…

Visual scientists with all their theorizing know little about the actual art of painting. A fine art should not be subject to rules and regulations. This is the attitude of many modern painters and most schools of art. The theory that artificial perspective is no more than a convention of Western art is a way of justifying this attitude. E. Panovsky (1924-1925) asserted that perspective is “symbolic.” G. Kepes (1944) has written about the “language” of vision. R. Arnheim (1954) believes that we will learn to see what is represented by abstract painters even if we now cannot. And N. Goodman (1968) in Languages of Art assumes that depiction is fundamentally description, that we learn to read a picture as we learn a language, and that linear perspective could just as well be reversed from the way we have become accustomed to interpret it.

Now it is one thing to argue that the use of perspective is not necessary for a painting, but it is quite another to say that perspective is a language. That says that both the perspective and the invariants of a picture must be analogous to words and that, just as we can learn a new vocabulary, so we can learn a new mode of perception. If a language of words can be invented such as Esperanto, why not a language of art? But the essence of a picture is just that its information is not explicit. The invariants cannot be put into words and symbols. The depiction captures an awareness without describing it. The record has not been forced into predications and propositions. There is no way of describing the awareness of being  in the environment at a certain place. Novelists attempt it, of course, but they cannot put you in the picture in anything like the way the painter can.

*  *  *

It has been generally believed that even adults can become conscious of their visual sensations if they try. You have to take an introspective attitude, or analyze your experience into its elements, or pay attention to the data of your perception, or stare at something persistently until the meaning fades away. I once believed it myself. I suggested that the “visual field” could be attended to, as distinguished from the “visual world,” and that it was almost a flat patchwork of colors, like a painting on a plane surface facing the eye. The awareness of depth in the scene could not be wholly eliminated, I thought, but it could be reduced. The similarity to a painting could be enhanced by not rotating the head and not displacing it, by closing one eye, and by avoiding any scene with motion. I recognized even then that the normal field of view of an ocular orbit is continually changing and that an arrested pattern is exceptional.

My comparison of the visual field to a perspective painting, although guarded, now seems to me a serious mistake. No one ever saw the world as a flat patchwork of colors — no infant, no cataract patient, and not even Bishop Berkeley or Baron von Helmholtz, who believed firmly that the cues for depth were learned. The notion of a patchwork of colors comes from the art of painting, not from any unbiased description of visual experience. What one becomes aware of by holding still, closing one eye, and observing a frozen scene are not visual sensations but only the surfaces of the world that are viewed now from here. They are not flat or depthless but simply unhidden. One’s attention is called to the fact of occlusion, not to the pseudofact of the third dimension. I notice the surfaces that face me, and what I face, and thus where I am. The attitude might be called introspective or subjective, but it is actually a reciprocal, two-way attitude, not a looking inward…

The young child learning to draw has long interested both psychologists and artists. When he first draws a man or a truck or a table, I suggest, he depicts the invariants that he has learned to notice. He does not draw a patchwork perspective, for he never had the experience of a patchwork. He may not yet draw in edge perspective because he has not noticed it. Hence, he may draw a table with a rectangular top and four legs at the corners because those are the invariant features of the table he has noticed. This is a better explanation than saying he draws what he knows about the table, his concept, instead of what he sees of the table, his sensation.

17 November 2012

Is US Public Support for Palestine Underestimated?

Filed under: Culture, Psychology — ktismatics @ 8:26 am

My cardboard GET OUT sign is still in the garage, where I left it after the last local protest against the Israeli blockade of Gaza fizzled out in the summer of 2009. Every February Gallup conducts a survey of American opinions regarding the conflict. In 2012 Israel beat Palestine by a score of 61% to 19%, a margin that’s held consistent over at least the last ten years. But there is evidence to suggest that US public support for Palestine might be under-reported in the surveys.

In my last post (and in my comments to myself on that post) I looked at US public opinions about the Vietnam war. According to surveys public support dropped in half over a 3½-year interval, from 61% in 3/66 to 32% in 10/69. After analyzing the survey data in greater detail, political scientist Adam Berinsky concluded that the early pro-war results were systematically overestimated:

“In the early years of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, individuals who on balance held considerations that conformed to pro-war rhetoric would be more likely to be heard in opinion polls. Conversely, respondents who possessed considerations that did not fit with the dominant pro-war message should have been under-represented in aggregate public opinion. To use the language introduced above, in the first portion of the war, public opinion should have suffered from a pro-war exclusion bias. That is, on balance, anti-war sentiment would have been excluded from aggregate opinion.1 Over the course of the war, as the balance of the volume and salience of elite rhetoric changed and both pro-war and anti-war views were represented in public discourse, the size of exclusion bias should have reduced and eventually disappeared.” (Berinsky, pp. 12-13)

Berinsky found that respondents who claimed to be more knowledgeable about the war were more likely to express an opinion. Much of their information was derived not from fact-checking but from “elite rhetoric” provided in the media by politicians and professional commentators. Before 1968 most of the elite rhetoric was pro-war. Those who opposed the war but who felt uninformed were reluctant to express an opinion that didn’t jibe with either the rhetoric they heard or the majority view, which until 1968 was supportive of the war. In consequence,  the “true sentiment towards American policy in Vietnam was, in fact, more anti-interventionist than opinion polls indicated” (p. 14).

1968 was a pivotal year. By the beginning of 1968 less than half of survey respondents supported the war. In February 1968 the Tet Offensive tilted elite rhetoric in a markedly antiwar direction. This rhetorical shift became stronger with the subsequent assassinations of Martin Luther King in April and Robert Kennedy in June. As a consequence the antiwar “exclusion bias” largely disappeared from survey results: even antiwar respondents who acknowledged not being particularly well-informed became more likely to state their opinion that the war was a mistake.

Is “exclusion bias” underestimating American pro-Palestinian sentiment? Probably. Is anything likely to neutralize the bias anytime soon? Probably not.

Surely there is an imbalance of elite rhetoric about the Palestine-Israel conflict, with Democrats and Republicans alike seeming to show no restraint in supporting Israel’s right to defend itself from Palestinian aggression. Those who express an opinion support Israel 3 to 1, so only people who regard themselves as well-informed are likely to express a contrary opinion, even in an anonymous survey. Over the past ten years the percentage of undecideds in the annual Gallup survey has declined from 29% to 19%, most of them shifting into the pro-Israeli column. Israel’s successful pounding of targets in Gaza isn’t likely to shift support toward the Palestinians. After all, US public support for the Vietnam War dropped not because so many Vietnamese were being killed but because it was becoming clear that America was losing the war. Israel is regarded, and with strong justification, as a firm ally of the US government, whereas Hamas, the governing party of Gaza, is officially condemned as a terrorist organization by the US government.

In short, it’s hard to see what could shift the strong pro-Israeli support among the American public. When Gallup trots out the annual survey in February 2013, the results are likely to stay the same as they have for the past ten years: 3 to 1 in favor of Israel.

14 November 2012

Talkin’ ’Bout My G-g-g-

Filed under: Culture — ktismatics @ 5:02 pm

A few days ago I wrote a post about generational differences in US presidential voting patterns. In both elections Obama got a big bump from the youngest voters, but it hasn’t always been the case that the youth vote has gone to the Democratic candidate. Recently I had occasion to look at US public opinion survey results about the Vietnam War. The antiwar sentiment was largely a youth movement, right? Wrong. As shown in the data on this website, respondents aged 20-29 were the strongest supporters of the war, whereas those aged 50 and above were most consistently against the war.

March 1968 survey results are representative of the trend. Two months after the Tet offensive supposedly dealt a death blow to whatever residual enthusiasm remained for the Vietnam adventure among the American populace, about 55% of the 20-somethings supported the war. In contrast, only about 30% of survey respondents aged 50 and up expressed support.

Public enthusiasm for the Vietnam War declined continually from beginning to end. And from beginning to end the generation gap persisted as well, with the strongest popular support for the war coming from the youngest adult Americans.

11 November 2012

Reducing the Intentionality Problem

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 5:26 pm

How can intentionality exist in an unintentional universe? And if intentionality exists, how can it be explained scientifically? Scientific investigation looks for causes, and causes precede effects. When I do something with intent, the cause of my behavior is in the possible future rather than in the actual past. Arguably intentionality evades what counts as an acceptable scientific explanation. It would seem either that intentionality is ineffable and transcendent, or it should be eliminated as a self-delusional false explanation of how brains work. The only way out, it would seem, is for science to expand beyond backward-looking causality into teleological explanations.

I think this is a bigger problem for philosophers than for scientists.

It’s possible to speculate on evolutionary causes for intentionality. Hard-wired instincts are of only limited value in a variable and changing environment, so being able to craft intentional schemes for finding food, for wooing sexual partners, for protecting oneself and one’s people, etc. offers survival value to the organism. Random mutations that incrementally increase intentional capabilities would thus be naturally selected.

But what about the individual intentional act? I go to the candy drawer in order to get a snack. Why is this a problem? There is a cause preceding my intent: hunger, or the desire for the taste of chocolate. I already know from experience where the chocolate is most likely to be found: that expectation too is caused by past events. I don’t see the paradox.

Humans don’t have direct perception of the present; rather, we use sensory input to construct neural representations of our environment. We don’t have direct perception of the past; rather, we retrieve neural representations of specific past events. We don’t have direct perception of the future; rather, we neurally represent possible future states and situations. Intentionality can operate by constructing a neural representation of a desired specific future state — eating one of those little Snickers bars left over from Halloween — and constructing a behavioral routine that is likely to transform this desired future into an actual present state.

Some fMRI studies intriguingly suggest that the brain unconsciously activates a neural cascade that precedes, and perhaps causes, conscious intent. Is it possible that conscious intent is merely a recognition after the fact of what the brain has already done? The experimental task — intending to push a button — is as simple and unitary as possible. But much intentional behavior is more complex: making airplane reservations to visit your family, deciding where to go to college, preparing a 3-course meal, writing a blog post. For decades psychologists have studied intentional behaviors without recourse to neural imaging or brain probes. The intentional tasks are broken down into components, the requisite skills for performing them are evaluated, the developmental pathway by which children acquire the necessary competencies are systematically studied. Even if it turns out that intentionality cannot be reduced to brain activity, the performance of intentional acts can be subjected to the usual sorts of  scientific cause-effect sequences. If intentionality is transcendent and immaterial, it’s not monistic; it can be analyzed.

What about free will? Sure, most of our intentions are caused by motivations, but what about unmotivated intent? Sometimes we wonder why we do things we didn’t consciously intend, but we have come to accept that we may be moved by motivations of which we are not consciously aware. But that’s not free will; it’s almost the opposite, where our intent is controlled by appetite or fear or societal expectation. In order for an intention to count as free, it would have to be unmotivated by either conscious or unconscious causes within ourselves or our environment. Unmotivated intent would be hard to prove. Even if I managed to do it, I would be motivated by a desire to demonstrate my own freedom of choice — a desire that preceded and caused my intention and my action.

The big problem, or maybe The Big Problem, is to account for the causal forces shaping both conscious and unconscious intentions. Even single-celled organisms act in ways that increase their likelihood of surviving and reproducing — what Terrence Deacon calls “ententionality.” Inorganic self-organizing systems are very efficient heat pumps: once the energy gradient between system and environment is equalized, the system spontaneously disorganizes. Why and how, in a universe that’s winding down into inevitable heat death at both the macrolevel and the microlevel, did certain kinds of systems evolve that ententionally preserve rather than dissipate the energy gradient between themselves and their environments?

9 November 2012

Generational Voting Patterns for US President

Filed under: Culture — ktismatics @ 6:54 am

It’s been surprisingly difficult through casual googling to find statistics about presidential voting patterns by age not just in the last two elections but over a longer historical time.The most useful source I found is this report from the Pew Research Center.

In the last three presidential elections, younger voters have moved decidedly Democratic while older voters have gone more Republican. One possible interpretation: as voters age, make money, have children, etc. they become more conservative and thus more likely to vote for a Republican president. Do the data support this explanation?

Briefly, no. Americans’ presidential voting patterns tend to stay consistent over the years, shaped significantly by the broader cultural and political climate within which they turned 18. Here are the trends:

People who came of age during these administrations             have tended to vote

Roosevelt                                                                               Democratic

Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson                                                             Republican

Nixon                                                                                      Democratic

Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr.                                                               Republican

Clinton, Bush Jr., Obama                                                        Democratic

Thus far the persistent generational voting effect is stronger for the youngest Democratic-leaning cohort — late Gen Xers and Millennials — than for earlier generations. So why, after 8 years of Clinton, was there no youth bounce for Al Gore versus GW Bush in 2000? Clearly the trends aren’t rock solid.

Generational voter preferences have flip-flopped over historical time, so another Republican-leaning trend among younger voters may emerge in the future. However, now the young Democratic-leaning bloc spans twenty years, comprising people aged 18-38. There aren’t many Roosevelt-era Democrats left; the next bloc to die off are the Republican-leaning “Silent Generation.”

In comparison to the generational flip-flop, the shift in the US racial and ethnic demographic is more persistent. Blacks and Latinos comprise a continually increasing percentage of voters, and historically they have tended to vote Democratic regardless of their age or generation.

4 November 2012

Go Green!

Filed under: Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 8:16 am

In a recent blog post, Jennifer Stuart provided a link to this NYTimes article about the unconscious priming of conscious decisions. It’s been demonstrated experimentally, for example, that strangers who bump into you are more likely to judge you as a “cold” person, unsociable and selfish, if you’re holding an iced latte in your hand than if you’re holding a cup of hot coffee. The author of the article explains:

Psychologists say that “priming” people in this way is not some form of hypnotism, or even subliminal seduction; rather, it’s a demonstration of how everyday sights, smells and sounds can selectively activate goals or motives that people already have. More fundamentally, the new studies reveal a subconscious brain that is far more active, purposeful and independent than previously known.

Here’s a possible example of unconscious priming that I experienced yesterday. I graduated from Michigan State University, and while I never thought much of the school and didn’t really enjoy my time there, for some reason I have continued to follow its basketball and football teams. Yesterday the MSU Spartans were playing the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers in a televised football game. Michigan State, underperforming all season, was hanging onto a precarious lead against the nationally-ranked Nebraska team. As the clock ticked down toward the end of the fourth quarter I heard a knock. You can imagine my irritation when, upon opening the door, I saw two strangers holding clipboards standing there. As I think back on it now, I don’t recall either of them holding any sort of beverage. “I’m watching the game,” I volunteered in order to ward off whatever spiel they intended to sling at me. “Sorry,” one of them said; “are you voting for Obama?” Canvassers. “No,” I replied; I’m voting Green.” Smiling cordially, the two thanked me and walked away.

Now it’s true that I had been leaning toward the Green Party despite the fact that I can’t even remember the name of their presidential candidate. On the other hand, confronted with the dead certainty that the Green candidate will lose the election combined with the Democrats’ traditional lesser-of-two-evils argument, I’ve persistently thought that I ought to “make my vote count” by choosing Obama despite my disappointment with his right-leaning politics. Now, in revealing my decision to the Obama canvassers, I had revealed it also to myself: no to Obama, yes to Green.

But why had my decision suddenly crystallized? I was irritated by the interruption in my game-watching: was I venting my irritation on the interrupters’ candidate? And Green: might my statement of support have been primed by the fact that the MIchigan State football team’s colors are green and white? “Go Green! Go White!” That’s the traditional cheer that erupts periodically from the crowded Spartan Stadium, a cheer that I’d no doubt heard several times while watching the game.

I closed the door on the two canvassers and resumed my spot in front of the TV. MSU would go on to lose the football game when Nebraska scored a touchdown with 6 seconds remaining. Will my irritation with the green team now override my irritation with the canvassers, resulting in my switching back to Obama before I step into the voting booth on Tuesday? Or will my unconscious now infiltrate me with dissonance-reduction and effort-justification tactics for reinforcing, with logic cold as iced latte and passion steamy as hot coffee, my conscious public commitment to the Green Party? The fate of the nation hangs in the balance.

2 November 2012

12 Monkeys by Gilliam, 1995

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 5:42 am

“I’ve seen this movie before.”

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