Category Archives: culture

You and I are going to the top of the charts!

So, a “supergroup” in the UK provided the latest British entry in the ongoing spectacle that I like to call, “What’s Up with People?” This, from the guardian, via Boing Boing:

Later today, Pete Doherty, the Kooks, Billy Bragg, Imogen Heap, Orbital and many more will gather in a London studio, collaborating in a bid for this year’s Christmas No 1. But the strangest bit is not the team-up: it’s that they are not recording a single note. The ad hoc supergroup is assembling in support of Cage Against the Machine, a charity campaign to take John Cage’s infamous 4’33” – a composition of pure silence – to the top of the Yuletide charts.

So many things.

First, referring to a collection of musicians as a “supergroup,” when the headliners are Imogen Heap and the Kooks is like referring to the Pittsburgh Pirates’ “All-Star lineup.”

Second, doesn’t a charity campaign to take a single to the top of the charts sound a bit like a McDonald’s “charity” campaign to sell a lot of Happy Meals?

Third, am I going to be listed in the credits for my performance on the Jingjingler? Are you going to receive royalty payments for your performance on the Floofloober?

Fourth, WTF?

Okay, to be fair, it seems that the proceeds from the record will be going to actual charities. And, also to be fair, I did not actually stand in the studio not playing my Jingjingler for four and a half minutes. I have no information on the whereabouts of you and your Floofloober on Monday.

If you’re like me – and my particular personality disorder makes me assume that you are – you have no idea what is going on here. If you’re in the UK, you’re probably familiar with the backstory, but if not, here is my understanding of the situation. There is a TV program called X Factor, which is the Simon Cowell’s replacement for Pop Idol, which is the off of which American Idol was spun, along with a host of other things. Apparently, for three or four years running, the winner of X Factor would release their record, and it would shoot to the top of the downloads chart around Christmas.

Eventually, some people got fed up, and last year there was a campaign to get people to buy the profanity-heavy “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine in late December, specifically to keep X Factor winner Joe McElderry out of the top Christmas song spot. And it worked, by something like a factor of 10.

So, this year, there are multiple copy-cat campaigns designed to keep this year’s X Factor winner out of the top spot, including Cage Against the Machine, as well as an apparently much more popular one focused on the 1963 hit “Surfin’ Bird.” In addition to being derivative of last year’s “Killing in the Name” campaign, Cage Against the Machine is also highly reminiscent of a drive from just a couple of months ago to sell copies of “2 minute silence,” a track containing two minutes of silence, a reference to two minutes of silence observed on Remembrance Sunday (think “Veterans’ Day). Apparently the dance group Orbital (think “Neifi Perez“), which is part of the Cage Against the Machine group, released a remix of one of their tracks back in 1994 that consisted entirely of four minutes of silence.

An excerpt from my new novel, 947 Pages. I will be starting a 501(c)3 dedicated to getting onto the New York Times bestsellers list in time for Intergalactic Tutu Day.

Let me be clear. I am 100% behind loosely organized groups of people doing things that are snarky and pointless. And I’m not questioning that the money Cage Against the Machine donates to the British Tinnitus Association will be well spent. I guess. Also, this is not a complaint against conceptual art.

What this is a complaint about is the smug recycling of conceptual art that, in my view, completely misses the point. When Duchamp calls a toilet a fountain, it is a statement – or a question – about what constitutes art. It is a big moment, and one that contributed substantially to a change in our collective perceptions. If I come along 90 years later, take a toilet and call it a fountain, it is just a lazy attempt to embezzle some cultural capital.

From xkcd:

Ni, Mr. Cage., Ni.

What’s the Swedish internet made of?

So, if you’ve never played with Google Analytics, I highly recommend it. It is awesome. You can see who came to your website, where they came from, and what they were actually trying to find when they fell victim to your amateurish attempts at search engine optimization (“Sexy Megan Fox bikini pix!! Sexy Megan Fox bikini pix!!”). You can sort them by operating system, web browser, social security number, or alphabetically by password. It’s the second best way to waste huge amounts of time on your computer – the best if you work at a place with content filtering.

For example, last week, I got a hit from Georgia. Not the Coca Cola and Peaches one; the Stalin and fighting-with-Chechens one. This person got to the site by searching for “ჯონ ვილკინს” on Google, which I can only assume is Kartuli for “People’s 2010 rankings of the top 100 sexiest evolutionary biologists.” It’s an incredibly efficient language.

A couple of days ago, I got a hit from Sweden. Yes, the ABBA and Volvo one. In this case, the interesting thing was the service provider: “handelshogskolan.” Now, we know that the American internet is a series of tubes. Well, apparently so is the Swedish internet, but their tubes are made out of pig intestines. Sadly, that means that from now on, when I hand my e-mails to my hamster, Hedwig, and send her off, I’m going to have to mentally revisit that whole Richard Gere thing.

On aging, conservatism, and experimental economics

So, it is standard conventional wisdom that people are liberal when they’re young, and conservative when they’re old. To the extent that we interpret “liberal” as “eager for change” and “conservative” as “against change,” this trajectory is only natural. Especially in the modern world, where things are changing all the time, it may simply come down to a difference in experience: you’re less likely to pine for the way the world was thirty years ago if you weren’t alive thirty years ago.

But what I am really interested in here is the apparent trend where people become more conservative with respect to economic policies. In this context, the argument about familiarity does not seem to hold. In the United States, the government’s economic policies have been trending more conservative for decades, and the familiarity argument would predict that older people should be, on average, more liberal. However, there is a different aspect of familiarity that may be relevant, as it pertains to our beliefs about human nature.

A key aspect of the economic debate between liberals and conservatives is a difference in the assumptions they make about how people will behave when left to their own devices. If you will forgive me for painting complex things with a simple brush, the cartoon versions of these are something like this. Conservatives believe that people are inherently self-serving and lazy, and will work hard only if they are given tangible incentive to do so. From this perspective, progressive tax structures and government programs like welfare and social security are problematic because they take away the incentive to earn money. Liberals, by contrast, believe that everyone is trying hard, that inequality comes largely from societal structures that are beyond individuals’ control, and that people should not be punished for the inherent unfairness of society (except maybe those at the top of the pay scale, who have benefitted most from those inequalities).

Now, the most obvious difference between young people and old people is that old people have a lot more experience with other people than young people do. That is, we tend to start out with positive views about human nature, but over time we interact with more and more people, they disappoint us, and we become progressively more cynical. Many conservatives see this as evidence in favor of their position: we start naive, and become conservative when we learn what people are actually like. However, I want to suggest a different explanation, having to do with asymmetries in how we perceive positive and negative deviations from our expectation. Intuitively, this comes down to the fact that we notice whenever we get stopped by a red light, but often don’t notice when we hit a green light. Therefore, we perceive that stoplights are red more often than they actually are.

This also happens in the economic domain, as has been extensively documented by experimental economists in a variety of “public goods” games. The basic structure of these games is as follows. You have a group of people, say 10, and you give each of them some money, say $10. Each person can then contribute a fraction of their $10 to the “pot.” The money in the pot is the multiplied by some factor, say 5, and then distributed equally among the ten players. So, if no one contributes anything, everyone gets to keep the $10 they were given at the beginning. If everyone contributes the full $10, the pot has $100, which is multiplied by 5 to give $500, which is distributed back to the players, and everyone walks away with $50.

The ideal thing for the group as a whole is for everyone to contribute the maximal amount. However, the ideal thing for the individual is to contribute nothing (and to hope that everyone else contributes the maximum). For example, if I contribute nothing, and everyone else contributes $10, I walk away with $55, and everyone else walks away with $45. If I contribute $10, and no one else contributes anything, I’ll get $5, and everyone else will get $15. From an “economic rationality,” “Nash equilibrium” perspective, the thing to do is contribute nothing. However, this is not what happens in practice.

In a wide variety of experimental setups, what people actually do is contribute about 50% of what they are initially given. So, the typical outcome in our experiment would be that everyone contributes about $5, which makes $50 in the pot, which is multiplied to $250, and everyone walks away with $30 (the $5 they kept plus $25 from the pot). Across a broad range of cultures, ages, quantities of money, etc., people come into these experiments with a somewhat liberal perspective, as they seem to both trust the good will of the other players, and care about the results for the group as a whole.

However, if we play the game over and over again, an interesting thing happens: the average contribution gradually declines, until eventually, no one is contributing anything to the pot. Based on interviews with the participants in these games, economists believe that they understand this trend. Let’s say that one person contributes $5, which is the average among the group, but some people contribute $4, and some $6. This person will not really think about the people who gave $5 of $6, but will think a lot about the people who gave $4, get pissed off, and reduce their contribution in the next round. While it is mathematically trivial that people, on average, contribute the average amount to the pot, it seems to be psychologically true that people perceive themselves on average as having made an above-average contribution.

What I think is that something analogous happens over the course of the lifetime of an individual. We meet some people who are hard working, and some who are lazy, but there is this perceptual bias that means that the lazy, selfish people we meet weigh more heavily in our developing opinions about “what people are like.”

The other interesting finding from these experiments is that it is remarkably easy to reset the spiral of cynicism. If you take the participants out of the room, give them a cup of coffee, and let them use the bathroom, when they go back in, they often go right back to contributing 50% on average. So, note to Democratic lawmakers, if you can figure out how to let the country drink a collective cup of coffee and use the collective bathroom, you may find a dramatic increase in support for social programs and a progressive tax structure.

Humanity as an emergent property: of douches and douchbags

So, why is it an insult to call someone a douchebag?

The “douche” part is easy. Anything associated with the crotchal region, however tangentially, eventually makes its way into the lexicon as an insult. These terms are insults because they carry a connotation of being “dirty,” physically and/or morally. However, I think that most people would agree that calling someone a douchebag is a step up in the degree of insult, and that is what is curious. If we naively try to interpret its meaning based on what a douchebag actually is, it should be, if anything, a milder insult, if not a complement, as it is an implement with the specific function of remedying the very dirtiness that is the basis of any crotch-related insult.
Obviously, that is not the right way to parse “douchebag.” When we call someone a douchebag, we are really calling them a douche + bag. It works through analogy to the other “-bag” insults, like dirtbag or scumbag. Suffixes like “-bag,” “-sack,” and “-bucket” function as as intensifiers, or perhaps insultifiers. They can be productively added to just about anything, and it sounds more insulting. “Jerkbag” sounds worse than “jerk.” In many contexts (e.g., volleyball), calling someone a “wall” might be a complement. Calling someone a “wallsack” would be mostly confusing, but could probably safely be interpreted as an insult.
I think that these modifiers implicitly deny the emergent humanity of the insultee, by reducing them to no more than the sum of their constituent parts. Stick with me here. The fact is, the very thing that makes us human — or alive for that matter — is not the components that make us up, but rather the complex relationships among those components. To quote Patty Loveless, “Break us down / to our elements, / and you might think He failed. / We’re not copper for / one penny or / even iron for one nail.” [1] The critical attribute of a bag or a sack is that its contents are disordered, and that complex functional or structural relationships among those contents are unlikely to exist. If someone calls you a douchebag, they are both calling you a douche and implying that your value is not greater than the sum of your parts.
What I like is that the productive family of suffixes “-bag,” “-sack,” etc. implies a sophisticated, if unconscious, understanding that the essence of our humanity is a classic emergent property, not derivable from a simple summation of our human components. For those of you who aspire to greater explicitness when insulting people (I know you’re out there), let me suggest the following variant next time you are thinking of calling someone a scumbucket: “high-entropy scum.”
[1] This is not technically true anymore, since the introduction of copper-plated zinc pennies in 1982. According to Wikipedia, penny weighs about 2.5 grams, and is now about 2.5% copper, which means that it takes about 62 mg of copper to make a penny. According to the Copper Development Association, the human body contains perhaps 100-200 mg of copper, depending on the size of the particular human body in question. So, we are, in fact, copper for one penny, but most of us are not copper for four pennies. In Patty’s defense, the song was released in 1994, and, given that coins can commonly last for 25 years or more, the majority of the pennies in circulation at the time may well have been of the pre-1982 variety, containing 15 to 20 people worth of copper.