Too Safe, Too Funny

In the post Is Safer Always Better? I argued that modern Western Civilization, especially American civilization, has become obsessed with safety to the point of absurdity. I think I now have definitive proof. Johnson & Johnson has produced, for the benefit of single mothers and tort lawyers everywhere, a booklet on how to walk safely:

Apparently this was distributed to all J&J employees, perhaps in the hope that no one would sue for slipping on the immaculately maintained non-slip flooring. Let’s peruse, shall we? Continue reading Too Safe, Too Funny

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 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.

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!


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!

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.

Is Safer Always Better?

A dozen warning signs on a construction site in KL

On January 2, 2008, an American soldier stationed in Iraq was electrocuted in his shower due to an improperly grounded water pump.

I’ve been shocked by showers in Bolivia, India, Thailand, and Ethiopia. Fortunately not seriously, but it did make bathing more exciting. You learn not to touch the taps. Actually, I once read of an entire apartment building in Mumbai which was improperly grounded. The tenants had taken to coating their faucets with silicone caulk to prevent electrocution.

Why does this happen, how could this happen? Do such places have poor codes or poor enforcement or is it just the mere sloppiness of heathens? Any way you slice it, the developing world is a more dangerous place. This isn’t always by choice: clean water and emergency services are mostly unavailable to the very poor. But those are risks that make sense, risks as old as humans that require infrastructure and advanced civilization to mitigate. What I wonder about are the billions who ride motorbikes without helmets.

And yet. And yet. There are freedoms lost in safety. All of the trains in my Toronto childhood had stickers on the window saying “keep head and arms inside.” A pity, because I loved to feel the wind in my face. Likewise, subway platforms in developed countries around the world tell us to stay back from the edge. Do we really need to be told not to fall off the edge?

Continue reading Is Safer Always Better?

Future 4th of July


I am about to run away for the weekend with some friends to play with fire art and motorcycles. There will be no ball games, fireworks, or kegs for me. There will be no Janet Jackson, no proud Amerfican Eagle, no barbecues, and no flags. I just never could connect with the symbols of the American Good Life. We do have propane, admittedly, but we have 800 pounds of it. We’re running a thing we built called 2piR, a sort of interactive magic platform. Standing on it, you can direct huge gouts of flame from 16 nozzles ranged around you in a 50 foot diameter circle. This is what we do for fun. This is our little piece of the future we’re building for ourselves — not the hardware, but the fact that we built it.

Continue reading Future 4th of July

Chinese-American Fairness

There was an ad on the Muni, on the 30 through Chinatown, printed in English and Chinese. It was a public service announcement, warning people to beware of hustlers selling fake visas. Among other things, there was a bullet point that said,

Don’t believe anyone who says ‘we know people at the immigration service and can get your papers done quickly.

I imagine talking to a Chinese immigrant about this. I imagine their confusion. “But,” my friend Ming says, “it is very difficult to get a visa. If they know someone, this solves the problem.”

“It doesn’t work like that,” I’d tell him.

Ming blinks his confusion. How can it not work like that? Continue reading Chinese-American Fairness

French HIV Campaign is Sexy, not Scary

Most countries now have some form of safer-sex public health campaign, but the message is usually some variant of “you will die!” Consider this poster from the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia (2004):

AIDS Poster in Malaysia

By comparison, a recent French campaign talks about sex as if it were a good thing, with their “Explore — just protect yourself” series:

French HIV prevention poster

This poster is really quite an exceptional piece of art, and well worth examining at full size (just click.) Additional information can be found here.