Friday, August 31, 2012

Song of the Day X: Cracks

Freestylers, "Cracks (Flux Pavilion Remix)". This song gets stuck in my head every time it pops up on one of my Pandora channels. I'm not even going to watch this video, lest I have this song tormenting me for the rest of the evening.

Post-modern Christians

I'm looking forward to Kyle Kupp's series on the interaction (intersection?) of his postmodernism and his Catholicism, the introductory post of which is here. For years, I've been fascinated by the postmodern Mormonism of Clark at Mormon Metaphysics. I suppose in some ways the marriage of postmodernism and Christianity seems perfectly natural: hermeneutics is, after all, a science that arose within Christianity, and it is within any religion based on scripture that the problem of interpretation becomes the most acute. That said, it seems like a postmodern Christian will have to walk on a bit of a tightrope to avoid tearing apart the entire foundation upon which he or she stands. So Kyle's series should be fun to watch.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Clever animals invented knowledge

In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the highest and most mendacious minute of "world history"—yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die.
Nietzsche, "On Truth and Lies in an Extramoral Sense"

Song of the Day IX: Under Control

ApSci, "Under Control." Enjoy.

I also dig this live version, from a rehearsal:

ApSci (short for Applied Science) is one of the more accessible "experimental hip hop" groups. I saw them live 5 or 6 years ago at Emo's, and they were pretty damn fun.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Song of the Day VIII: Creator

Santigold, "Creator." She's awesome. Enjoy.

Why does time fly?

Another paper in the August issue of Psychological Science, this one by Gable and Poole, looks at the conditions under which time flies while we're having fun. Their hypothesis is that approach motivations result in shorter perceived time intervals. Approach motivations? Well, one way of thinking about goals and motivations is like vectors, with some moving towards your goal and some moving away from them. You know, I like to approach a slice of chocolate cake, but avoid the dentist at all cost (I know it may ultimately be impossible to do both, but that's a question of intertemporal choice, which we'll get to some other time). In three experiments, they show that "positive approach motivation" (that is, you feel good about moving towards a goal) speeds up the perception of time, and the stronger the approach motivation, the faster time is sped up (within limits of course). That's all interesting, but what I really liked about the paper was their potential explanation for why positive approach motivations (let's just call them "fun") makes time fly. I'll quote the article:
Reduced perceptions of time may assist in abating irrelevant processes that would delay or hinder goal acquisition. (p. 6)
In other word, by shortening our perception of the time it takes to achieve whatever goal we're approaching (say, getting a piece of cake), we're less likely to get distracted and deviate from the path to the goal. I'm looking forward to future studies testing this hypothesis directly.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Song of the Day VII: Hijo de Africa

Mc Solaar is incredibly popular outside of the English-speaking world. He should be more popular here. "Hijo de Africa." Enjoy.

French hip hop, even top 40 (and Mc Solaar is definitely top 40), tends to be really good. I like to listen to it while I'm working because, since I can't understand most of the lyrics (my French would barely get me to the bathroom in Paris), I can listen without getting wrapped up in the words. English-language hip hop sucks me in with the lyrics and serves as a sort of verbal interference for any reading or writing I might be doing.

Anyway, the Yo La La podcasts, which are free, are a great introduction to French-language hip hop, which includes not just hip hop from France, but also from Africa and Qu├ębec and anywhere else French is widely spoken. I recommend starting from the beginning.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Song of the Day VI: Molten Light

Chad VanGaalen is a disturbed man. Disturbed, but awesome. The drawings are all his, as well as the music. "Molten Light," enjoy.

Seeing is (Deontologically) Judging

There's an interesting paper (free PDF version) Elinor Amit and Joshua Greene in the June issue of the journal Psychological Science, on the role of visualization in moral judgment. They show that visualizing the effects of our choices has an affect on the type of reasoning we use to make moral judgments. In essence, when we "see" our actions, we tend not to consider their effects, and therefore make choices based less on the consequences of those actions than on the moral valence of the actions themselves.

Before we get to the study, however, a little background information is in order. The dominant theory of moral judgment in psychology right now is a dual process theory, which argues that moral judgments are made either through a quick, intuitive system, or through a slower, conscious, deliberative system. The intuitive system, which is largely affect-driven (that is, emotion plays a big role), and unconscious, tends to favor deontological moral judgments, which is to say, moral judgments that strictly adhere to a rule like "Thou shalt not kill." The conscious, deliberative system tends to favor consequentialist judgments, which is to say, judgments that consider the outcome and try to choose actions that will leave to the best possible one.

The now classic Trolley and Footbridge problems are often used to illustrate the difference between the two sorts of judgments. The trolley problem, in which an out of control trolley is headed towards five unsuspecting people, whom it will surely kill, asks you whether you would flip a switch which will cause the trolley to change tracks and kill one unsuspecting person, or let the trolley continue on to kill the five. In most cases, people say they would flip the switch, thereby killing one and saving five. This is generally considered to be an example of consequentialist thinking: causing the death of one person to save a greater number of people.

The footbridge problem also involves an out of control trolley that is headed down a track on which five unsuspecting people are waiting, and will surely be killed if the trolley is not diverted. This time, however, you are on a footbridge overlooking the tracks, and the only way to divert the train is by throwing a person standing next to you off the bridge and on the track, resulting in that person's death, but causing the trolley to stop or derail or otherwise be diverted, and thereby saving the five. When given this dilemma, most people choose not to throw the person off the bridge, and therefore not sacrificing the one to save the five. This is generally treated as an instance of deontological moral reasoning.

I won't get into the wealth of research over the last decade that explores the differences between these two types of moral judgments, and under what sorts of conditions we use one or the other, except to say that one conclusion from that research, as I've already suggested, is that when we make these moral decisions quickly and intuitively, without conscious deliberation, we tend to judge deontologically, whereas when we make them consciously and slowly, usually without a personal emotional commitment, we tend to make them using consequentialist reasoning. Hence the dual process theory. Most of this research uses trolley and footbridge-like moral dilemmas, and while there are issues with those two particular dilemmas, several others (e.g., Sophie's choice, which, as in the movie, involves choosing one child or no children, the "crying baby" dilemma in which you have to smother a crying baby or sacrifice everyone in a room, etc.) that make up for some of those issues are also used.

This gets us to the Amit and Greene paper. They conducted three studies designed to assess the effects of visualization on moral judgment, under they hypothesis that visualizing would increase intuitive, deontological judgments and reduce consequentialist ones. I won't go into the first study, which used individual differences in cognitive style (visual vs. verbal), because that would require a great deal of background on cognitive style. Instead, I'll start with the second. In that study, they had participants perform either a visual or a verbal working memory task (along with a third condition in which participants did not perform any working memory task). These tasks are designed to tax, or interfere, with specific types of processing: by performing a visual working memory task, the visual reasoning system is overloaded, leaving less processing capacity for other visual information, and by performing a verbal task, the processing of verbal information is interfered with in the same way. When given footbridge-like problems in which people usually make deontological choices (that is, not throwing the poor bastard off the bridge), participants in the visual interference task were more likely to make consequentialism-based, or deliberative judgments that considered the consequences, than those in the verbal or no-interference tasks.

In their third study, Amit and Greene asked participants who reported visualizing their choice to rate whether their visualizations had focused more on the action they chose or on its consequences (e.g., on throwing the person onto the tracks or on the five people dying). As you might expect, most people focused on the action, and not the consequences, and this focus was correlated with making deontological rather than consequentialist moral decisions.

Amit and Greene conclude, then, that visualization triggers the more emotional, intuitive decision-making process, and thus deontologically-based moral decisions. I wouldn't get too caught up in the deontological vs. consequentialist distinction. As the third study seems to show, it's not so much a lack of the consideration of consequences that results in people not choosing to save the many with the sacrifice of one, but instead which consequences people focus on when they're visualizing their decisions. If you focus on killing the one, you're less likely to choose to do so then if you focus on the death of the five. However, it is consistent with the dual process theory: visualizing the unpleasant, even horrific direct consequences of one's actions, e.g., the person's falling off the bridge to their death when you push them, makes it difficult to disinterestedly deliberate on the consequences of not doing so (the death of the five). Plus, it suggests another way in which the intuitive system works: through visualizations that prime emotions, which then guide the decision process.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Your Racism Is In Your Reaction Time

Perhaps the most persistent myth of human nature is that our true self, that is who we really are, is our conscious self. It's persistent for precisely the reason that it is just a myth: because we don't think about it, it's just there, it is the self we notice, because it's what noticing is for us. We aren't aware of the 95% of our mental lives that take place below the level of conscious awareness because, if we were aware of it, it wouldn't be below the level of conscious awareness.

Because we hold this myth, and hold it at such a fundamental level, it is not surprising that we do not believe that we think certain things at all if we don't think them consciously. Put differently, we may think many things unconsciously that rarely, if ever, enter our consciousness, but because they don't enter our consciousness, we don't think we think them. Regardless of whether we're aware of them, though, they affect our behavior (in fact, they determine, to a large extent, what we are aware of consciously). This is true in every area of our lives, and so it is true when it comes to our processing of race.

I won't go into a long literature review of the evidence for the existence of implicit attitudes, and implicit stereotypes or prejudices in particular, because so much has been written about it already (just Google "Implicit Association Test" and "Race," if you don't believe me; hell, there was even a King of the Hill episode about it). I'll simply say this: what the evidence from that research reveals is that we generally display at least a preference for members of our own race, if not a prejudice against others. Developmentally, these implicit prejudices start showing up as early as six years, they've been shown in children at several ages, in college undergraduates, even in physicians.

Now, under ordinary circumstances, or at least under circumstances of a relatively normal cognitive load, that is, when our minds aren't overly taxed (when they are, stereotypes tend to start to pop up pretty clearly), we may not recognize these biases in individual behaviors. But they're there, and they can affect everything from our evaluations of job candidates to how we, as jurors, view defendants in criminal cases. Or they may just determine whether we like a TV show, or a product that uses a black person or a white person in its commercials. Or, over time, what our social circle looks like. And they're all the more dangerous because we can't see them.

This means that it's important to be aware that they're there, even if we can't see them, and to do our best to avoid letting them affect our behaviors whenever possible. In some cases, perhaps in most of them, this will be impossible. The title of this post, a play on the sorts of experiments researchers use to measure implicit associations, isn't too far off. Sometimes the difference between my evaluation of a black person and a white person might be measurable in milliseconds, and in individual cases, there's probably nothing I can do about that. But in the aggregate, over the course of our lives, and over the course of our many interactions, those milliseconds add up, and it may be that the only thing we need to do to counter it is to try, over time, to remain aware that it's going on.

Song of the Day V: Non, je ne regrette rien

Edith Piaf, I love you. "Non, je ne regrette rien." Enjoy.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Song of the Day III: The Weeping Song

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "The Weeping Song." Enjoy.

What If We Elected a Black President?

During the last few months of the 2008 presidential election, I was dating a woman who was a grad student and, to pay her bills, worked as a reporter for a small town paper. On the day after the election, her editor called her and asked her to interview gun owners and gun store employees about the rush to buy guns and ammo in the wake of Obama's election. How he knew such a rush would occur within hours of Obama's election becoming official, I do not know, but he was right, because there was a spike in gun sales, at least according to the gun stores in this small town.

I remember finding the whole thing odd, because I didn't remember Obama speaking about gun control all that much during the campaign, and his record on the issue certainly didn't imply, to me at least, that he was going to be coming for people's guns once he was inaugurated. Then, after she'd done several interviews and was writing up her story, she listened to her interviews on tape as I sat there and listened along. I was shocked at what I heard. There was a level of paranoia among the ordinary people she'd interviewed that I had never heard before, and I grew up surrounded by gun-totin' rednecks. It became very clear, to me at least, that these people were less afraid because a Democrat had been elected than because a black man had been elected, and a black man coming from their guns was apparently a very, very scary thing. So they rushed out to buy guns and ammo. Suddenly it made sense to me. This wasn't about anything Obama had said, or about any of his past votes; it was about his race.

For some reason, this popped into my head again as I read Ta-Nehisi Coates' recent article in The Atlantic, "Fear of a Black President" (a play on Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet I assume, though I thought of the hilarious Fear of a Black Hat). Coates touches on many things in that article, including racism towards Obama, but also Obama's treatment, or rather lack of treatment, of race issues, and also the myth of Obama held by many black people in this country. It really is a must read, because it expresses many of the things I've heard from black people over the last four years, and does so better than anyone has to date.

What I really want to talk about, however, is not the article itself but the reactions to it here, which I suspect is a pretty typical range of reactions among white people in the less hyper-partisan regions of the blogosphere. It's the same reaction I see every time the issue of racism comes up. There are three species of reaction: those who passionately exclaim that racism is a big issue, those who think that any talk of racism is at best poisoning the well, at worst another expression of "gotcha" politics or at least "gotcha" rhetoric, and the self-appointed moderators between the views who say, in essence, that maybe we shouldn't talk about racism, because it leads to such heated arguments between the first two species. This last group is, in essence, siding with those who are offended by the mere mention of racism, because they're suggesting that we do precisely what the offended want: ignore racism altogether.

I find this incredibly frustrating, because it is precisely in such circles that racism needs to be discussed, because it is precisely in such circles that the path of continued racism is laid out. This may seem harsh, but it's true. Racism doesn't continue because of the skinheads or Neo-Nazis or other rabid racists. Those people are rightly despised by pretty much everyone who doesn't count themselves among their number. Racism as it pervades our society isn't this sort of fervent hate. As Coates puts it in his article,
Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others. Black America ever lives under that skeptical eye.
It is among the aforementioned circle, intelligent, educated, relatively successful white folk, that this sort of racism, the racism of casual, often implicit skepticism, that the seeds of future racism germinate. It's these people who carry it forward now, subtly, in their attitudes and behaviors, even if they're not aware of it, and it's these people's children who will carry it forward in the future. I wish I knew, then, how to engage them. I don't; I get too angry, too accusatory, to self-righteous for the people who most need to hear what I'm trying to say to hear any of it at all. And this only frustrates me all the more.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Song of the Day I: Thank You Lord for Sending Me the F Train

In the summer of 1995, I somehow stumbled into a Soul Coughing concert at the Exit/In in Nashville, when they were touring in support of their first album, Ruby Vroom. I'd never heard of them before, but I was so blown away by the show that I went out and bought the album the next day. At the time, I was one of something like 75,000 people who had. They went on to get a bit bigger, even achieving some mainstream success with "Circles" off of their third album. I saw them 4 more times, in Cincinnati, Nashville, and Austin, all but the last of which were amazing. The Austin show, in 2000, felt kind of forced, and I wasn't surprised when they called it quits as a band soon after that. It wasn't until 6 or 7 years later that I learned that Mike Doughty had put out some solo material. It is really good as well. To prove it, here's the song that my alarm clock woke me up with this morning. Enjoy.