Thursday, November 16, 2017

Evolutionary psychology for the masses

There are a non-zero amount of people who proclaim to be adherents of evolutionary psychology. More often than not, those who are most vocal about this tend to follow up with the least interesting statements possible. Preferably about how some arbitrary gender attribute found today goes way back to primal times; for instance that women wear high heels because something something biology.

This seems to me something of a wasted opportunity. There is a great buildup - the human organism evolved over millions of years to a very specific set of environmental and social circumstances, and this has implications for how it works today - and all that backstory is wasted on making an observation about the present condition that doesn't even hold water if you have more than a passing knowledge of history and/or fashion. You do not need to invoke millions of years of gradual adaptation to be wrong - there are more direct and efficient routes to achieve that end.

A more interesting take is that the aforementioned gradual adaptation adjusted humans to a certain set of conditions, and that the modern circumstance ain't it. The disconnect between what is and what our evolutionary gestalt expects to be, is bound to create a not-insignificant amount of discomfort in actually existing human beings, and addressing this discomfort ought to be a non-trivial part of evolutionary psychology. If nothing else, it would be a more useful take than attempting to reinforce increasingly outmoded gender stereotypes.

But then again.

What could we expect from barely evolved monkeys?

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Small logistics

There are a large number of small things that are easy to learn, yet which at the same time are utterly impossible to figure out. If someone shows them to you, them look like the easiest thing in the world, but if you have to speedlearn them on your own, difficulties ensue.

A dramatic example of this is a young man finding himself in the situation of having to unclasp a bra. It is a very small thing indeed, and the logistics involved can be performed without much thought, and yet. Difficulties ensue. Possibly also a non-zero amount of fumbling.

Similar (possibly, but not always, less dramatic) instances of small logistics occur just about everywhere, most of them having become so routine it takes an act of effort to notice them. Computer interfaces, what to say when ordering fast food, the art of performing an academic citation - these are all instances of small logistics where the knowing of how to get it done has merged into the back of one's mind. Once upon a time you had to learn these things, before they became obvious.

It pays off to pay attention to these things. Not only do you become aware of what you are (quite literally) doing, but you also gain the opportunity to think about other ways of doing these very things. And, if you notice someone not quite knowing how to move things along, the insight into just what they need to learn for future reference.

It's the little things, as the saying goes.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Count me in

It's been a hectic couple of weeks at the university, and there has been little time for writing. Or, rather, there has been too much writing, and a body can only use a keyboard for so many hours a day.

Which is another way of saying that if you wonder where the posts are, they went into methodology papers. Science stuff, you know.

One of the recurring themes in my particular course is that the distinction between qualitative and quantitative science really does not make sense any more. There are different paradigms, to be sure, but the dividing line is not between qual and quant, and they can more often than not be combined to create new insights about various things. It is somewhat counterproductive to think of these things as completely separate entities which only rarely interact, when they do in fact interact more often than not. It is also counterproductive to get into arguments about whether one is better than the other, when the simple truth is that sometimes there is a need for the one and sometimes the other.

Which, to be sure, is a very sociology thing to say. But it rings true.

Here is something to mess up the categories. Imagine a thousand deep interviews, conducted at length, with follow-ups as needed. Imagine then that the results of these interviews are (through some procedure of quantification) condensed into a series of graphs. Would that be a qualitative or quantitative study?

If your thought process is "I wish we had those kind of resources", you are ahead of the game.

Here is another category-disturbing thought. When designing surveys, a traditionally quantitative endeavor, the aim is usually to get some numbers out of it. But in order to ensure that the numbers actually mean anything, a lot of thought has to go into the questions. The respondents only have the words on the questionnaire to work with, and thus those words have to be crafted very carefully to avoid confounding factors. This is a task that requires a non-trivial amount of careful attention, empathy and understanding. In order to get something quantitative out of the ordeal, a qualitative approach has to be baked into the process.

Then there is the whole thing with getting people to actually answer the darn things. Turns out just handing them out willy-nilly is less effective than one might think.

A third category-bender is, surprisingly enough, what has happened in physics. As the units of analysis have become smaller, we run into non-trivial limitations of the hardware used to measure things. On the one hand, this is countered by building ever larger instruments (atom smashers take up a surprisingly large space). On the other hand, this is also countered by admitting that subatomic processes simply do not make sense to human beings, and the admission that we will have to think long and hard about this in order to even know what we are knowing.

As the common refrain among physicists goes: it does not make sense, you just get used to it.

These three examples might be interpreted as arguments for the supremacy of the qualitative method. But that would be to try to answer the wrong question. Determining whether one is better than the other is slightly beside the point if you will end up using both of them anyway. What is more interesting is what it means that this distinction is insufficient in describing the actual work of actual scientists, and what other line of thinking we might replace it with.

To be sure, we have interesting times ahead of us.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The application of memories

Sometimes, you stumble upon a song you haven't heard in a while, and go "oh yeah, I remember this, this exists". It sparks a memory of times past, and of the emotional equilibrium (or lack thereof) that went along with them. It might be a strong memory, or a passing one. Either way, the memory chord is struck.

Most of the time, nothing much comes of it. You just remember the memory, and then move on. It is the way of things. The world is big and contains many memories.

Sometimes, you stumble upon a song from an artist you only ever heard the one song from. Out of curiosity, you decide to check if there were any other songs made back in the days, and if they are anything like what you've heard so far. After some listening, you discover that there is and that they aren't. In fact, the rest of the artist's production is nothing like that one song; it is an unexplored field of newness that awaits personal discovery.

At times, this is how new favorite artists are found.

To be sure, this process has been made simpler through systems of file sharing - whether they be spotify or discography torrents. Any time you remember something, the option is always there to shore up everything this person has ever done and peruse. All that is needed is a memory, and a name.

It is one of those things that is easy to take for granted. But it is useful, nonetheless.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Lies to live by

There are things you have read which have profoundly changed your mind and the way you think. More often than not, these things you have read are wrong.

This is not meant as an accusatory or derogatory statement. It is just the nature of texts - they are wrong about things, and flawed in the ways which they are right. It goes with being an imperfect medium.

Still. You did read these things, and they did change your mind. They must have done something right.

The thing about texts is that they do not have to be perfect. Or even right or wrong. They have to mobilize what you know into new thoughts, new directions and - possibly - new ways of living.

All fiction is wrong. All fiction is a lie.

But that's okay.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Let's talk about that new Star Trek thingy

There is a new Star Trek on the loose.

I have not seen it. But I have seen people talk about it, and on numerous occasions these fine folks have said - independently of each other - that while there are more important things to talk about than Star Trek, they are now going to talk about it.

When things happen many times independently of each other, the ol' pattern recognition sets in. Something seems to be going on, and it seems to be going on whilst everyone is thinking about something else. This something going on needs to be interrogated, if only to find out just what it is. It might be important.

(To be sure, it is possible to note this as an example of writing in the presence of enemies. But that's another thought.)

The notion that Star Trek is not important is a strange one. As a cultural institution, it has built the foundation for many imaginations, both public and private. It is no exaggeration to say it is a part of a shared cultural heritage - the themes and mythologies spawned from it have had an impact far greater than mere intuition would suggest. It has been a fixed cultural point of reference for generations (in canon and in real time), inspiring countless young minds to do what they do and go where they went. In terms of sheer cultural impact, Star Trek is a big one.

Thus, new iterations of Star Trek are important by virtue of their connection to old iterations. In present terms, it is important through the sheer fact that millions of people are watching it and discussing it - it becomes a part of the overall zeitgeist. In the longer term, it becomes important as a reference point (for critics and fans alike): in the old Star Trek they did x, but in the new one they did y, and this is significant of cultural change z.

This means we cannot attribute these assertions that there are more important things to talk about than Star Trek, to Star Trek. There is something else going on here.

To be sure, there are a non-zero amount of other important things to talk about. Climate change, the rapid transformations of modernity and - not least - the totality of the political situation in the US loom large as important other things. The sheer amount of clusterfucks (actual or potential) that exist in the world are sufficient to make mere lived experience seem trivial and unimportant, and thus discussions thereof follow suit.

Thing is. All we have is lived experience, and denying ourselves the opportunity to talk about it would be detrimental. Even if it happens to be what we thought about the new Star Trek series.

It is a sign of hope that people do talk about Star Trek after having made the disclaimer about there being more important things to talk about. It means there is still a humanity left to explore those final frontiers. -

Friday, September 22, 2017

As it stands, we are in a hurry to stand still

Here is a process, probably familiar to you:

Some person of note makes a remark. This remark is problematic, and since there are many people of the opinion that problematic things are not to be left unexpounded, there is a flurry of activity to expound the problematic nature of this remark. Given that any statement is an invitation to further statements, further statements occur, some of them insightful, some of them problematic. And since a problematic statement cannot stand either unopposed or unexpounded, things compound.

You have seen this happen. Most likely online, but probably offline too.

In these situations, new topics of discussion are introduced, with varying degrees of relation to the problematic remark. Suddenly, everyone is abuzz about something, and even if you did not think you would ever have an opinion about it, you all of a sudden do. It is easy to be caught up in the moment, and the moment has a tendency to extend itself for longer than one would initially suspect.

Expounding takes time, after all. If it could be done in a hurry, it wouldn't need doing; it'd be a done thing.

Thing is. Discourse produced under these circumstances tend to be local responses to local statements, rather than global considerations. This goes with the conversational nature of the situation - everyone involved is talking to everyone involved, making things very involved. Attempts to sort things out afterwards have to go ever backward, in order to ascertain what any particular statement responded to, and what prompted that earlier statement, and so on. Statements do not stand by themselves; quoted out of context, they will read very differently than in context. (Let's avoid the temptation to ponder the meaning of being quoted out of context in context.)

The short of it is that writings produced under these circumstances have a limited shelf-life, and the long-term return on emotions invested will probably not make up for any temporary intensity. If the goal is to leave a lasting impression, this is not the way.

Consider these words from the Invisible Committee:

Power is now immanent in life as it is technologically organized and commodified. It has the neutral appearance of facilities or of Google’s blank page. Whoever determines the organization of space, whoever governs the social environments and atmospheres, whoever administers things, whoever manages the accesses—governs men. Contemporary power has made itself the heir, on the one hand, of the old science of policing, which consists in looking after “the well-being and security of the citizens,” and, on the other, of the logistic science of militaries, the “art of moving armies,” having become an art of maintaining communication networks and ensuring strategic mobility. Absorbed in our language-bound conception of the public thing, of politics, we have continued debating while the real decisions were being implemented right before our eyes. Contemporary laws are written in steel structures and not with words. All the citizens’ indignation can only end up butting its dazed forehead against the reinforced concrete of this world.

This, too, is a process that is probably familiar to you. Even more so now, as you cannot unsee it once becoming aware of it. It shall stand in the way, as it were.