Beauty is Not in the Beholder

The “beauty myth” holds that attractiveness is a cultural construct, a control mechanism of the patriarchy, a way to sell us cosmetics we do not need. Modern social theory says that the beauty of the face and body depends on when and whom you ask, and that we could learn to love anyone if only our iron-maiden social norms permitted it. This is a pleasing thought. It says that accidents of ancestry do not truly count. Unfortunately, when we actually do the experiments and test nature versus nurture in the case of facial attractiveness, genetics wins. Facial beauty is, quite emphatically, not culturally defined.

The best survey is a meta-analysis by Langlois and colleagues, published in the Psychological Bulletin in 2000. They did an exhaustive search of the experimental literature on facial “attractiveness” and ended up including 919 separate experiments on how attractiveness is perceived, how we judge ourselves and others based on attractiveness, and how attractive versus unattractive people actually behave. It turns out that facial beauty is “real” in the sense that it does not depend on who you ask; ratings of attractiveness are very stable across ethnicities, cultures, age, and gender:

Both our cross-cultural and cross-ethnic agreement effect sizes are more than double the size necessary to be considered large, suggesting a possibly universal standard by which attractiveness is judged. These analyses seriously question the common assumption that attractiveness ratings are culturally unique and merely represent media-induced standards. These findings are consistent with the fact that even young infants prefer the same faces as adults.

If beauty was a cultural construct, we would expect different cultures to rate the same people differently. However, we might imagine that global media has erased the diversity that used to exist. This is why the experiments with children and babies are so important: if beauty is learned, then children would have to learn it, presumably beginning in early childhood. Yet the age of the beholder seems not to matter at all in subjective rankings of the attractiveness of others, and even newborn babies will look longer at photographs of people that adults have judged “attractive.” This cannot be learned behavior.

When we check the evidence, (facial) beauty standards seem to be universal and innate (biological). Doubtless, this is going to upset some people.

Here is what I think happened: we saw beauty used as a weapon. We saw women especially destroying their self-image under the assumption that they were ugly. Capitalism grew up around selling to our insecurities, and yes, the patriarchy said that girls were only as valuable as their looks. In defense, we decided that beauty was a myth. We tried to escape from these traps by telling ourselves that the object of contention didn’t exist.

But it does. Some people really are more beautiful than others, says our universal physiological nature. Accepting this implies a new social project. Rather than trying to teach ourselves that beauty does not exist, perhaps we should be trying to decouple value from beauty. It’s not that everyone is equally attractive, it’s just that attractiveness, like intelligence, doesn’t actually make you a “better” person. The corollary is that it’s worth understanding what roles beauty actually plays in human life, both cultural and psychological. What emotions does a beautiful face trigger in others? What assumptions are made? What does beauty actually do? While beauty may be objective, our reactions to it may still be learned.

The situation is somewhat analogous to the violent impulses that everyone is capable of: rather than pretending that anger doesn’t exist, we learn to deal with it in some healthy way. Similarly, it seems to me to be far healthier in the long run to acknowledge that beauty, at least facial beauty, is real and universal. To the best of our knowledge so far, this also has the advantage of being true.

Intelligent News Agents, With Real New

You cannot read all of the news, every day. There is simply too much information for even a dedicated and specialized observer to consume it all, so someone or something has to make choices. Traditionally, we rely on some other person to tell us what to see: the editor of a newspaper decides what goes on the front page, the reviewer tells us what movies are worth it. Recently, we have been able to distribute this mediation process across wider communities: sites like Digg, StumbleUpon, or Slashdot all represent the collective opinions of thousands of people.

The next step is intelligent news agents. Google (search, news, reader, etc.) can already be configured to deliver to us only that information we think we might want to see. It’s not hard to imagine much more sophisticated agents that would scour the internet for items of interest.

In today’s context, it’s easy to see how such agents could actually be implemented. Sophisitacted customer preference engines are already capable of telling us what products we might like to consume — the best example is Amazon’s recommendation engine. It’s not a big leap to imagine using the same sort of algorithms to model the kinds of blog articles, web pages, youtube videos, etc. that we might enjoy consuming, and then deliver these things to us.

There is a serious problem with this. You’re going to get exactly what you ask for, and only that.

True, we all do this already. We read books and consume media which more or less confirm our existing opinions. This effect is visible as clustering in what we consume, as in this example of Amazon sales data for political books in 2008.

Social network graph of Amazon sales of political books, 2008

This image is from a beautiful analysis by orgnet.com. Basically, people buy either the red books or the blue books, but usually not both. The same sorts of patterns hold for movies, blogs, newspapers, ideologies, religions, and human beliefs of all kinds. This is a problem; but at least you can usually see the other color of books when you walk into Borders. If we end up relying on trainable agents for all of our information, we risk completely blacking out anything that disagrees with what we already believe.

I propose a simple solution. Automatic network analyses like the one above — of books, or articles, or web pages — could easily pinpoint the information sources that would expose me to the maximum novelty in the minimum time. If my goal is to gain a deep understanding of the entire scope of human discourse, rather than just the parts of it I already agree with, then it would be very simple to program my agent to bring to me exactly those things that would most rapidly give me insight into those regions of information space which are most vital and least known to me. I imagine some metric like “highest degree node most distant from the nodes I’ve already visited” would would work handily.

You can infer a lot about somewhat from the information they currently consume. If my agent noticed that I was a liberal, it could make me understand the conservative world-view, and vice-versa. If my agent detected that I was ignorant of certain crucial aspects of Chinese culture and politics, it could reccomend a primer article. Or it might deduce that I needed to understand just slightly more physics to participate meaningfully in the climate change debate, or decide (based on my movie viewing habits) that it was high time I review the influential films of Orson Welles. Of course, I might in turn decide that I actually, truly, don’t care about film at all; but the very act of excluding specific subjects or categories of thought would force us, consciously, to admit to the boundaries of our mental worlds.

We could program our information gathering systems to challenge us, concisely and effectively, if we so want. Intelligent agents could be mere sycophants, or they could be teachers.

What Foxmarks Knows about Everyone

I recently installed Foxmarks, a Firefox extension that automatically synchronizes your web bookmarks across all the computers you might use. Refreshingly, the developers got it right: the plug-in is idiot-simple and works flawlessly.

This is accomplished through a central server, which means a lot of bandwidth, hardware, reliability costs, etc. In short, it’s not a completely cheap service to provide. As there is no advertising either in the plug-in or on the site (yet?) I began to wonder how they planned to pay for all this. I found my answer on their About Us page:

We are hard at work analyzing over 300 million bookmarks managed by our systems to help users discover sites that are useful to them. By combining algorithmic search with community knowledge-sharing and the wisdom of crowds, our goal is to connect users with relevant content.

Of course.

There is a lesson here: knowledge of something about about someone is fundamentally different than knowledge of something about everyone. As with Google, Amazon, or really any very large database of information over millions of users, there are extremely valuable patterns that only occur between people. The idea is as old as filing, but the web takes this to a whole new level, especially if you can convince huge numbers of people to voluntarily give up their information.

So far, I haven’t said anything new. What I am suggesting is a shift in thinking. Rather than being concerned primarily about our individual privacy rights when we fill out a form full of personal details, perhaps we should be pondering what powers we are handing over by letting a private entity see these large-scale intra-individual patterns — patterns that they can choose to hide from everyone else’s view, naturally.

I am beginning to wonder very seriously about the growing disparity between public and private data-mining capability. Is this an acceptable concentration of power? What effects does this have on a society?

Are We Buying This?

Are you buying this?

Water shipped from Fiji is being advertised as environmentally friendly. Wow.

One sustainability blogger estimates that the total amount of water used to produce and deliver a single one liter bottle of imported water is 6.74 liters, and 250 grams of greenhouse gases are released.

The company claims that it intends to become carbon neutral, but not actually: they’re buying carbon offsets, which don’t actually reduce the quantity of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere (This is because there is no international framework to incrementally reduce the total number of credits available.)

There’s really no way around the fact that shipping water across the ocean in small plastic bottles is just a much dumber idea than getting it locally through pipes.

I mean, c’mon people.

In Ur Suburb, Selling U Burgers

Burger King has gone lol!!!

OMG!!! The local Burger King Slurpee machine sez: “cool it with ur fav flav.” Lolspeak is in ur multi-national!

Corporate America can has teh funny? No wai, only wants sell cheezburgers! Co-option of kulcher? Mebbeh. Or mebbeh teh kittehs win!

LOL!

Mai theweh, let me show you it. Lolspek is awsum meme, like new languish, even haz dik-shun-ary. Teh hoomans who lieks kittehs lieks cheezburgers too, so teh burger stoar lurnz lolspeaks.

But mebbe if enuf mawket-urs has teh lolspeak, iz not “authentic” n e moar? I doan no! Kwestions of “authenticity” in kulcher make mai hed asplode!

My Invisible Visa

Little known fact about the developing world #23: your friends can’t visit you. Citizens of the developed world generally know that immigration is restricted, that a random African (for example) can’t just move to a rich country and call it home. What most people don’t know is that, for the most part, the world’s billions cannot even come and visit.

The United States of America has of course become secretive and paranoid after 9/11, so I’ve used my home country of Canada as an illustrative example. A government web page lists those countries whose citizens require visas in order to enter Canada. This is not to live or work in Canada, but merely to visit. I’ve summarized the results on a map. People from the blue places need a visa for entry.

Countries for which a visa is required to visit Canada

As you can see, most of the people in the world can’t simply show up at the airport for a visit.

Naturally, there is a procedure for obtaining a Canadian tourist visa. One goes to the nearest Canadian Embassy, typically in your capital city, for a visa application and interview. This is not a mere formality. As this Canadian government web page notes,

All applicants wishing to visit Canada must satisfy an officer that they will leave Canada by the end of the period authorized for the stay, that they will not contravene the conditions of admission (for example, that they will not study or work without prior authorization), and that they do not belong in a category of persons inadmissible to Canada under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

In reaching a decision, an officer considers several factors, which may include:

  • the applicant’s travel and identity documents;
  • the reason for travel to Canada and the applicant’s contacts there;
  • the applicant’s financial means for the trip;
  • the applicant’s ties to his or her country of residence, including immigration status, employment and family ties;
  • whether the applicant would be likely to leave Canada at the end of the authorized stay.

This means you wait in line with a hundred other brown undesirables. This means you borrow money from your friends, family, or loan-shark moneylenders for that single-day bank statement that shows you much richer than you actually are. This means you make up reasons, swap stories and superstitions, and hope. Not all that many visas are issued per year, and maybe, just maybe, you can get away from your poor country, where everyone is starving / where the war is on / where you can’t possibly make a living. In Canada, you can become one of those people who works a good job and remits money each month to support your family back home. Sure, you won’t have a work permit, sure, you’re supposed to go back home in two weeks, but that can be sorted out later. The first step is just getting there, isn’t it? So please, Ganesh. I implore you, Allah– let me say the right thing to the stony-faced guardian of the borders when my turn comes. Let me be one of that fraction of a percent whose visas are granted.

The walls and telephone poles near every first-world embassy are papered with ads for shady immigration services.

But me, white first-worlder, I don’t have this problem. As a Canadian citizen, I can go to any of the blue countries whenever the whim takes me. I need visas too, of course, but that’s a sure thing, a birthright. I can walk into just about any embassy in the world, fill out a form, pay a fee, and arrange a trip to where ever I want to go. My developing world friends cannot; Baba and Shai and Mohammed can never come to visit me. Most of the world’s people are effectively trapped in their country of birth.

Access to Knowledge and the Banality of Evil

It pisses me off that there is a huge body of very important information that most people can’t get at. I’m not talking about books, the poor paper things, but the world’s academic and scientific journals, which are already online.

Most people don’t even know that the world’s academic journals exist, but this is the master record, the huge source that all those science blogs and mis-representative popular articles draw from. These research journals are the collective output of every professional researcher in the world, in all subjects — only you’re not allowed to read them.

Continue reading Access to Knowledge and the Banality of Evil

Images Before and After Death

Before Death

I have recently run across an extraordinary project by photographers Walter Schels and Beate Lakotta. They took portraits of 11 people shortly before and shortly after dying. The photographs were displayed at the Wellcome Collection in London this spring.

I think this is wonderful, and one of the reasons I think it is wonderful is that there is really no more I care to say about it. There is nothing at all I can add to it.

Visit the online version of the exhibition.

Weak AI Will Win

Depending on who you ask, machines taking over the world is either a good thing for humanity or a bad thing. The traditional SciFi script has advanced intelligences replicating through all the networks of the galaxy and having high-bandwidth intellectual conversations about things like the fundamental nature of physics and whether biological life deserves to continue to exist, since it’s such an out-dated evolutionary stage and all. But in his new novel Daemon, and in his talk last night at the Long Now Foundation‘s lecture series, Daniel Suarez argues that it’s not hyper-intelligence at all that we need to be wary of: humanity can lose control of the situation well before the appearance of consciousness on the internet. We’re already delegating our decision making to the machines, specifically the lowly “bots” we use now for a variety of practical online tasks.

Continue reading Weak AI Will Win

Medicine is the Killer App For Technology

I’ve met quite a few people who feel that civilization was a mistake. Technology in particular, they say, is bad in some way. If they’re an anarcho-primitivist theorist, they’ll tell you it’s alienating: it creates hierarchies, produces psychological illusions of scarcity, and turns us into little more than specialized insects. If they’re less geeky and more hippie, they’ll just expound on how happy they were living in that rural Indian village, how spiritual that life was, how much more natural a world without technology would be.

In the bright Nepali sunshine, sipping chai in a tourist cafe overlooking the lake, I found I could not agree, no matter how cute the dreadlocked girl sitting across from me. I see a lot of idealism and projection in her arguments. I also see an iPod in her bag. But neither could I come up with a concrete reason to insist that technology is fundamentally good, that the human race should invest as heavily in technology as it has. I admit that I really enjoy both the intellectual playground of technology and the fruits it brings, but that’s no way to form a moral imperative.

Until Ethiopia. I was working on a trachoma epidemiology study. This is an ancient, simple disease, and so fragile that the merest hint of civilization will destroy it — we’re not quite sure why yet. It could be antibiotics used for other things wipes it out, it could be that just washing your hands daily in clean water prevents its spread. But if left untreated long enough, this feeble disease will make you blind.

I had the cliché moment. I hiked out across the roadless wilderness to that idealized little village, that tiny traditional portion of the way we used to live. The simple folk gathered round us, gazing strangely at our white skin and synthetic fabrics. In turn we stared at their traditional cotton garments and coarse shiny jewelry, artifacts of a society that makes everything with its own hands. We stood a moment in that field, contemplating one another across vast distances of education and context. Then I looked into the scarred corneas of a blind young man and felt suddenly: this sucks. This man cannot see, for no reason at all. Extremely simple medicine could have prevented that.

It’s one of those moments when you realize that you’re not okay with the world as it is.

Medicine is good because health is good. I see no other way to draw this conclusion. And medicine is technological. Antibiotics are in no sense natural, x-rays and heart transplants less so. Medicine is the moral justification for continued technological development and dissemenation. It’s the killer app for technology, because it’s not just medical technology that must be known: modern medicine requires an entire technological infrastructure to design and manufacture its many, many inputs. Computers. Polymers. Superconducting magnets. Refrigerators to make the ice to keep cold our collected samples, and enzymes to do the PCR to detect the trachoma DNA, mathematics to do the statistical analysis to determine if our mass antibiotic distribution is actually denting the epidemic. It takes a world to raise a hospital.

That’s the moral reason for continued technological development. That blind man. Go tell his mother that we’d all be happier as hunter-gatherers.

Of course, that’s not why we actually will continue to develop our technology.

In the late afternoon sunlight I lounged against a tree, waiting for the last few villagers to show up so we could test them. They had fed us some (traditional, natural, idealized) beer, and I was sleepy and idle. I extracted my MP3 key from my kit and put the headphones in, leaned back to something relaxed. A kid came up to me, looking expectantly. He must have been about twelve.

“MP3 player?” he said.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“How many gigabytes?” he asked. Then: “I want one.”

I find it hard to disagree with him.