Archive for February, 2013


Bing It On

Bing should count it’s ad campaign as a massive success, because I actually got curious enough to see what was about.

I took the test. It’s set up well. 5 searches, and you decide for each one whether you liked the right or the left. I guess they vary which side google and bing are on.

Unfortunately for Bing, I chose 4 out 5 for google and for the fifth one, I chose a draw. I think it’s partially my style of search, which involves no “social” aspect and usually involves philosophical or psychological concepts. I tried to do a range of searches though and my search “restaurants in LA” was decisively won by google because they show you the map of things in the area, which also makes it really obvious that the side with the mapped options is the GOOGLE SIDE.

That said, the Bing pages are almost exactly like the google pages. There is almost no difference. This is bad news for google in one sense, because it shows that for most of our (my) searches, there’s not too much difference. This should help chip away at the idea that google’s algorithm is somehow special.

On the other hand, it’s pretty good news for google because Bing, even though it has basically cloned google’s product, is still seen as inferior.

As a smart bonus, Bing tries to hook you on their search by exclaiming at the bottom something about how searching with Bing has some reward system. I didn’t read the thing, so I’m not sure how it works, but at least they are trying to capitalize on the ad campaign that got me to their ridiculous challenge by trying to get more searches out of me. Too bad their product just got totally dominated.


Warm Bodies

I saw Warm Bodies, and I really liked it. It’s well done and the metaphor it’s playing with is obvious and powerful without needing to be constantly remarked upon. The narrative is tight and simple. There are really only three or four characters, and the dialogue is pretty minimal too. The movie kind of speaks for itself, and it’s self-speaking style is made all the more powerful by the fact that the production value seems below other hollywood fare (not way below, just unmistakably below).

So the overall metaphor of the movie is pretty clear. It’s from the perspective of “R,” a zombie who has little tinges of consciousness. He’s not quite a corpse, but he can’t articulate any thoughts. He just has this nagging thought that there’s something more to life than shuffling around and moaning. The other zombies that R shuffles by are zombies, but in reality, they’re standing proxy for ORDINARY PEOPLE and ORDINARY LIFE. The idea is that ordinary life can become corpse-like, a possibility that I appreciate and fear. People can, if things are just dehumanizing enough, be only going through the motions. Enter R, who wants more. He has a spark of feeling and slowly grows more human as he falls in love with Julie, a human he rescues on a whim.

What I think is the real story and the real artistry of Warm Bodies is the way that it finishes out the arc of the interest we have in zombies, vampires, and other things. What makes zombies compelling is the mythos that surrounds them. They are scary and they are the other. They are completely non-human, inhuman, anti-human. Whatever you want. And there are a TON of movies and tv shows (walking dead on AMC now, land of the dead, dawn of the dead, 28 weeks later, quarantine, night of the living dead) that explore the tension that a zombie world creates for human beings. For instance, do we become a garrison society? To survive, must we become in turn somewhat dead? Deadened to things that we take for granted in non-zombie life. There have been explorations of zombies as biological weapons gone wrong, pointing to the way that humans create their problems for themselves. Other movies explore the pure horror of facing something that is already dead. Some movies, like Shaun of the Dead, even use zombies to make jokes (as does Warm Bodies to an extent)

Sooner or later though, a theme and a mythos runs its course. Zombies are reflections of ourselves, a reflection of our flawed nature, our opposite, our future, our past, but in Warm Bodies, the mythos returns to ground zero — in Warm Bodies WE ALREADY ARE ZOMBIES AND ALWAYS HAVE BEEN. We return to the perspective of the zombie and enter their consciousness and we find out that in fact, not only are zombies like us, but they are JUST LIKE US. They have hopes and dreams and want to succeed, if only they can get the chance. It is the risk of intolerance from the humans that keeps them, almost, in their half-alive state. In this, the movie is pure genius, because it responds to an artistic tradition with poise: our entire fascination with zombies is reinterpreted and distilled into the character of the general. The movies asks us why zombies could fill all the roles that we made them play over the years and asks to consider the simple possibility that they might have feelings too. The movie asks to question the fundamental premise we used to create zombies: that they have nothing “inside,” and so have no use or value other than as threats to life and instruments to horror.


Laugh Tracks

Apparently, laugh tracks make audiences enjoy shows more. But also, laugh tracks are rightfully seen as a synthetic and somewhat repulsive attempt to control the impressions of the audience. Here’s an interesting paper on  it

From a philosophy perspective, this is fascinating. To me, it dramatizes the war that philosophers are always fighting which is to draw the line between the natural and the semantic, our animal nature our and our capacity for higher thought.

On the one hand, of course laugh tracks make us enjoy a show more. The whole purpose of humor, biologically speaking, is social nature. We don’t know the details, but its to help grease the skids a little so we can like each other and get along when we’re trying to live in a mate hierarchy in the jungle. Laughter is contagious, people know that from common senese. It’s on the many ways our very nature pushes us into a social order.

But we are not just monkeys anymore. We have an ability for higher interpretation of symbols. We have cognition and when we think about the laugh track from this perspective, it may seem trite, manipulative, or just insulting. Why allow network moguls to direct and subtly influence the meaning of the content presented before us? Of course they do this in thousands of ways, but even our humor? Really? But notice that this objection relies on concepts like “meaning” “interpretation,” and “media moguls” all of which do not exist in nature. These are human creations and so the laugh track interferes with them.

As philosophers, the goal should be to bring reconciliation or to say why we should side with one or the other. Utilitarians of some versions will side with laugh tracks. What matters is our mammalian feelings. We need food and warmth and happy feelings. Humor is just one way to get that, and if that means laugh tracks, then by god laugh tracks. Others will side with our cognitive side. Don’t take away interpretation, leave open the possibility to engage our cognitive architecture, they will shout. I don’t have a clear answer, I only want to point out where the battlefield is.


Change Blindness

This is an old study, but I”m just now getting to it because of some reading I’m doing on perception.

In this study, it was found that more than half of people could not tell when the person they were talking to was quickly switched in mid conversation. Experimenter y would start talking to a pedestrian, then two people holding a door would walk in the middle of the conversation, and experimenter y would be replaced by experimenter x. People had a hard time noticing. Of course, the interactions were brief and so people probably didn’t take much time to encode details about the person they’re talking to, but for me, that just reinforces how much autopilot we use each day.



Why do stewardesses call trash “service items”

I was listening to a podcast from the Moth, and on it was a woman who used to be a stewardess (maybe still is?).

She said that when she was being trained, she was told to say “service items” instead of trash. The reason was that some angry flight attendants would go up to people and ostensibly ask for their trash by saying “your trash” as in “would you please give me your trash.” However, “your trash” which is homophonically ambiguous with “you’re trash” and many attendants would intentionally try to evoke the latter meaning.

Isn’t that a gem?


My gun control bible

For now, this article is my gun control bible. It appears to be from a person who is honest in his biases, earnest in his attempt to give context and fair air to both sides, and even knows a little bit about what he’s talking about. I broadly agree with his prescriptions and I hope this piece sparks a better dialogue. I especially liked how he tried to explain what the value is that gun owners see in their guns and how it constitutes an activity that deserves some prima facie respect, because people find value in it in a complex way.

It’s really great.

*It’s interesting, because most people talk about how the fact that America already has a lot of guns is a big problem. We have so many in circulation, the thought goes, that we can’t reduce gun crime without draconian measures. That’s true, but the other way to look at it should be that bc there are so many guns out there, we cannot fall prey to tyranny very easily. The citizens are too well armed. What we can do though is pass laws that make the redistribution of those guns to criminals more difficult. This is why background checks seem like a slam dunk. Under an extreme background check regime, it seems that any citizen with an honest history could get a gun and anyone without such a history would have to work much harder to get one. Everyone wins.


Crisis Reasoning

I was running today, on Wilshire Blvd and Bundy, and I saw a man lose control of his three small dogs. He was an asian man and he chased after them, horrified. Then a car hit all three of them. Blood was on the street (though when I left, it seemed like they were all alive). The man picked up all of them in hands and hugged them to his chest. He cried out and I could see in dim light, the blood on his arms and body. He carried them to the side of the street and cried and shrieked. It was an arresting scene.

I was close by and wondered what I should do. I honestly did not know. I did not think cops would respond, I did not have a car to drive him somewhere. Others came up. Someone suggested an emergency dog hospital. Another got his car to help. Another hypothesized that the man was in shock. I waited in the small crowed to see what would be done and what could be done. Then I left.

I don’t think I did anything wrong in this circumstance, but I learned a lot about how I reason in surprising, intense situations. I don’t do that well. I thought of how I could help, but I didn’t get too far. Part of this was due to the fact that I did not have the tools or knowledge that would be helpful.  But I was also taken in by the presence of others (bystander effect) and also just a kind of weird inertia. I was disturbed while I tried to think about what to do, and my thinking had a thick, kind of underwater feeling.

In the future, I think I’m going to try to remind myself to think for 2 seconds about what my best response should be, and then I will try to execute that response. I think I should have at least asked the guy if he was ok. Somehow, in the moment, even that didn’t feel right.