Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Rent Day

  • Kathy and I have a poem in the new issue of Salt Hill, which you can preview online. Other excellent people in the issue include Christopher Salerno and Absent alumni Simeon Berry and Lily Ladewig.
  • I went to Alabama for the first time this weekend, in order to see my wonderful friend Heather Green (the poet, not the porn star) get married. Other things I saw there: Jessica Smith and her beautiful monkey-child, rare Cahaba lilies, pimento cheese, and the remains of a Hobby Lobby, reduced by tornado into a parking-lot-size pile of rubble. It (the state, not the destruction) was more beautiful than anticipated.
  • SOTD: Jolie Madame.
  • A joke: Q: How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb? A: One, but it has to want to change.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Poetics of Meatspace

There's a very persuasive, enveloping mythology around meat in this country. Most people seem to believe that vegetarians are only able to remain vegetarian through an extreme force of will, and that, if/when they go back to eating meat, it will seem insanely, irresistibly delicious, and they'll realize they were deluding themselves into believing they could live without the magic of meat, etc.

Neither holds true for me. About six years ago I decided to cut back on my meat eating, for ethical reasons, but ended up giving it up entirely, because I stopped wanting it. It was easy to do without. I'm gradually adding some meat back into my diet (this time for health reasons; now that grains and soy are a problem it's no longer easy to live without meat), and for the most part I find it less than delicious -- certainly way less delicious than I remembered it being. I used to think meat had a pretty neutral taste (the way vegetarians think of tofu, though tofu also has its own taste). Now I think it tastes like what it is: muscles and blood. After I swallow a bite of meat the metallic tinge reminds me of having a cut in my mouth. (This isn't true of bacon, of course, because bacon is salted and smoked within an inch of its life/death and is mostly fat anyway, not flesh. It's true that bacon is the most vegetarian-friendly meat for this reason: it tastes the least like meat.)

I'm curious: If you have returned to eating meat after an extended period without it, what was your adjustment period like, if there was one? Did meat taste like you remembered it? Better? Worse? If different/worse, did it ever go back to seeming normal?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Expert's Fallacy

With most art, including music, poetry and all visual art, I sometimes listen/read/watch and think, "OK, this just isn't my thing." With prose, though, I pretty always feel like I can definitively say whether it's good or not. What is that? I told John about this and he said he feels the same about both poetry and prose. I wonder if this is some kind of Expert's Fallacy, whereby when you've experienced enough of some genre, you come to believe you can act as a definitive arbiter of taste. (It's possible John has read more poetry than me; he's probably read more prose too, but it doesn't matter because we've both crossed the necessary threshold.) Come to think of it, I feel the same way about film: entirely confident in my ability to deem it good or bad. Of course almost everyone is an "expert" in film. It's practically our national pastime.

I once dated a guy for a while that I knew I would eventually stop seeing; he was very smart and very attractive but we just weren't compatible in any deep kind of way, which I think came down to his essential lack of weirdness. But almost every time we went out, we had just good enough a time that I put off ending it. (I say "almost" because there was eventually a final date when he managed to actively annoy me, pushing me over into sayonara mode.) I'm reading a book like that right now. It's not very good, but it's just entertaining enough that I haven't been moved to abandon and find a replacement read yet.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Kognitive Koncepts

This is the most condensed source of interesting ideas, spanning multiple disciplines and all described succinctly and for the layman, that I've read in a long time. It's a bunch of scientists responding to the question, "What one scientific concept would improve everbody's cognitive toolkit?" I hate the word "toolkit" as it reminds me of marketing-speak ("software solution"), but the idea is to talk about a concept that, if better understood or more widely known, could make us better and more effective thinkers/humans. Here are some excerpts:

Seth Lloyd, a quantum mechanical engineer at MIT:
I can't say that I'm very optimistic about the odds that people will learn to understand the science of odds. When it comes to understanding probability, people basically suck. Consider the following example, based on a true story, and reported by Joel Cohen of Rockefeller University. A group of graduate students note that women have an significantly lower chance of admission than men to the graduate programs at a major university. The data are unambiguous: women applicants are only two thirds as likely as male applicants to be admitted. The graduate students file suit against the university, alleging discrimination on the basis of gender. When admissions data are examined on a department by department basis, however, a strange fact emerges: within each department, women are MORE likely to be admitted than men. How can this possibly be?

The answer turns out to be simple, if counterintuitive. More women are applying to departments that have few positions. These departments admit only a small percentage of applicants, men or women. Men, by contrast, are applying to departments that have more positions and that admit a higher percentage of applicants. Within each department, women have a better chance of admission than men — it's just that few women apply to the departments that are easy to get into.

This counterintuitive result indicates that the admissions committees in the different departments are not discriminating against women. That doesn't mean that bias is absent. The number of graduate fellowships available in a particular field is determined largely by the federal government, which chooses how to allocate reserach funds to different fields. It is not university that is guilty of sexual discrimination, but the society as a whole, which chose to devote more resources — and so more graduate fellowships — to the fields preferred by men.
Fiery Cushman (what a name), post-doctoral fellow in mind/brain/behavior at Harvard:
Some of the most famous examples of confabulation come [from] "split-brain" patients, whose left and right brain hemispheres have been surgically disconnected for medical treatment. Neuroscientists have devised clever experiments in which information is provided to the right hemisphere (for instance, pictures of naked people), causing a change in behavior (embarrassed giggling). Split-brain individuals are then asked to explain their behavior verbally, which relies on the left hemisphere. Realizing that their body is laughing, but unaware of the nude images, the left hemisphere will confabulate an excuse for the body's behavior ("I keep laughing because you ask such funny questions, Doc!").

Wholesale confabulations in neurological patients can be jaw-dropping, but in part that is because they do not reflect ordinary experience. Most of the behaviors that you or I perform are not induced by crafty neuroscientists planting subliminal suggestions in our right hemisphere. When we are outside the laboratory — and when our brains have all the usual connections — most behaviors that we perform are the product of some combination of deliberate thinking and automatic action.

Ironically, that is exactly what makes confabulation so dangerous. If we routinely got the explanation for our behavior totally wrong — as completely wrong as split-brain patients sometimes do — we would probably be much more aware that there are pervasive, unseen influences on our behavior. The problem is that we get all of our explanations partly right, correctly identifying the conscious and deliberate causes of our behavior. Unfortunately, we mistake "party right" for "completely right", and thereby fail to recognize the equal influence of the unconscious, or to guard against it.

A choice of job, for instance, depends partly on careful deliberation about career interests, location, income, and hours. At the same time, research reveals that choice to be influenced by a host of factors of which we are unaware. People named Dennis or Denise are more likely to be dentists, while people named Virginia are more likely to locate to (you guessed it) Virginia. Less endearingly, research suggests that on average people will take a job with fewer benefits, a longer commute and a smaller income if it allows them to avoid having a female boss.
David Eagleman, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine:
In 1909, the biologist Jakob von Uexküll introduced the concept of the umwelt. He wanted a word to express a simple (but often overlooked) observation: different animals in the same ecosystem pick up on different environmental signals. In the blind and deaf world of the tick, the important signals are temperature and the odor of butyric acid. For the black ghost knifefish, it's electrical fields. For the echolocating bat, it's air-compression waves. The small subset of the world that an animal is able to detect is its umwelt. The bigger reality, whatever that might mean, is called the umgebung.

The interesting part is that each organism presumably assumes its umwelt to be the entire objective reality "out there." Why would any of us stop to think that there is more beyond what we can sense? ... Our unawareness of the limits of our umwelt can be seen with color blind people: until they learn that others can see hues they cannot, the thought of extra colors does not hit their radar screen. And the same goes for the congenitally blind: being sightless is not like experiencing "blackness" or "a dark hole" where vision should be. As a human is to a bloodhound dog, a blind person does not miss vision. They do not conceive of it. Electromagnetic radiation is simply not part of their umwelt.

The more science taps into these hidden channels, the more it becomes clear that our brains are tuned to detect a shockingly small fraction of the surrounding reality. Our sensorium is enough to get by in our ecosystem, but is does not approximate the larger picture.

I think it would be useful if the concept of the umwelt were embedded in the public lexicon. It neatly captures the idea of limited knowledge, of unobtainable information, and of unimagined possibilities. Consider the criticisms of policy, the assertions of dogma, the declarations of fact that you hear every day — and just imagine if all of these could be infused with the proper intellectual humility that comes from appreciating the amount unseen.
Beatrice Golomb, Professor of Medicine at UCSD:
Key presumptions regarding placebos and placebo effects are more typically wrong than not.

1. When hearing the word "placebo," scientists often presume "inert" - without stopping to ask: what is that allegedly physiologically inert substance? Indeed, even in principle, what could it be??

There isn't anything known to be physiologically inert. There are no regulations about what constitute placebos; and their composition — commonly determined by the manufacturer of the drug under study — is typically undisclosed. Among the uncommon cases where placebo composition has been noted, there are documented instances in which the placebo composition apparently produced spurious effects. Two studies used corn oil and olive oil placebos for cholesterol-lowering drugs: one noted that the "unexpectedly" low rate of heart attacks in the control group may have contributed to failure to see a benefit from the cholesterol drug. Another study noted "unexpected" benefit of a drug to gastrointestinal symptoms in cancer patients. But cancer patients bear increased likelihood of lactose intolerance — and the placebo was lactose, a "sugar pill." When the term "placebo" substitutes for actual ingredients, any thinking about how the composition of the control agent may have influenced the study is circumvented.

2. Because there are many settings in which persons with a problem, given placebo, report sizeable improvement on average when they are re-queried (see 3), many scientists have accepted that "placebo effects" — of suggestion — are both large in magnitude and widespread in the scope of what they benefit.

The Danish researcher Asbjørn Hróbjartsson conducted a systematic review of studies that compared a placebo to no treatment. He found that the placebo generally does: nothing. In most instances, there is no placebo effect. Mild "placebo effects" are seen, in the short term, for pain and anxiety. Placebo effects for pain are reported to be blocked by naloxone, an opiate antagonist — specifically implicating endogenous opiates in pain placebo effects, which would not be expected to benefit every possible outcome that might be measured.

3. When hearing that persons with a problem placed on a "placebo" report improvement, scientists commonly presume this must be due to the "placebo effect" - the effect of expectation/suggestion.

However, the effects are usually something else entirely. For instance: natural history of the disease, and regression to the mean. Consider a distribution, such as a bell-shape. Whether the outcome of interest is pain, blood pressure, cholesterol, or other, persons are classically selected for treatment if they are at one end of the distribution - say, the high end. But these outcomes are quantities that vary (for instance from physiological variation, natural history, measurement error...), and on average the high values will vary back down — a phenomenon termed "regression to the mean" that operates, placebo or no.

Strange phenomena, reprise

I'm re-posting this due to the Blogger blip, in case it doesn't re-appear on its own. Comments on the original post are lost for now.
  • The movie Catfish: Real? Not real? John and I watched it last weekend, believing it was a mockumentary. By the end we realized it was supposed to be real. But is it? I don't know. Has anyone seen it?
  • A mountain lion was shot at the H&H Car Wash in El Paso, Texas. This is one of my parents' favorite lunch places. They have good carne guisada.
  • Marfa, Texas, has become a hipster destination (or, if you prefer, the object of postmodern tourism). There's even a restaurant in NYC designed to emulate it: "Marfa NYC captures the spirit of its West Texas namesake within the urbanity of the East Village." It's so banal, it's sublime.
  • I lived in Texas for 22 years and the only thing I ever heard about Marfa was that it had lights. (I always thought they were like aurora borealis but apparently not.) See also Prada Marfa.
  • See also: Taos Hum (just one of several geographies with unexplained hums, AKA The Hum).
  • See also: "Julia" and other unexplained sounds. (Sexism or no sexism, pages like these are my favorite thing about Wikipedia. See also: Inventors killed by their own inventions.)
  • By the way, this Slate article is bullshit: "The idea that these gender imbalances represent gatekeeper bias was demonstrably false even before the Wiki reality check ... Famously, Wikipedia has no gatekeepers. Anyone can write or edit an entry, either anonymously or under his or her own name. All that is required is a zeal for knowledge and accuracy ... Wikipedia provides a naturally occurring control group to test the theory that females' low participation rate in various public forums is the result of exclusion." Spoken like someone who has never actually tried to write or edit a Wikipedia page. It's de facto, not de jure, gatekeeperism, and anyway the problem is not who is doing the editing per se but the implications of that on the resulting content, given our pervasive reliance on it as a source. (Also, I thought DoubleX was Slate's attempt at a feminist "department"? So why are they publishing writers who say things like "the shameless legerdemain with which contemporary feminists and their allies preserve the conceit of a sexist society"? Ugh.)

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Strange phenomena

  • The movie Catfish: Real? Not real? John and I watched it last weekend, believing it was a mockumentary. By the end we realized it was supposed to be real. But is it? I don't know. Has anyone seen it?
  • A mountain lion was shot at the H&H Car Wash in El Paso, Texas. This is one of my parents' favorite lunch places. They have good carne guisada.
  • Marfa, Texas, has become a hipster destination (or, if you prefer, the object of postmodern tourism). There's even a restaurant in NYC designed to emulate it: "Marfa NYC captures the spirit of its West Texas namesake within the urbanity of the East Village." It's so banal, it's sublime.
  • I lived in Texas for 22 years and the only thing I ever heard about Marfa was that it had lights. (I always thought they were like aurora borealis but apparently not.) See also Prada Marfa.
  • See also: Taos Hum (just one of several geographies with unexplained hums, AKA The Hum).
  • See also: "Julia" and other unexplained sounds. (Sexism or no sexism, pages like these are my favorite thing about Wikipedia. See also: Inventors killed by their own inventions.)
  • By the way, this Slate article is bullshit: "The idea that these gender imbalances represent gatekeeper bias was demonstrably false even before the Wiki reality check ... Famously, Wikipedia has no gatekeepers. Anyone can write or edit an entry, either anonymously or under his or her own name. All that is required is a zeal for knowledge and accuracy ... Wikipedia provides a naturally occurring control group to test the theory that females' low participation rate in various public forums is the result of exclusion." Spoken like someone who has never actually tried to write or edit a Wikipedia page. It's de facto, not de jure, gatekeeperism, and anyway the problem is not who is doing the editing per se but the implications of that on the resulting content, given our pervasive reliance on it as a source. (Also, I thought DoubleX was Slate's attempt at a feminist "department"? So why are they publishing writers who say things like "the shameless legerdemain with which contemporary feminists and their allies preserve the conceit of a sexist society"? Ugh.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Kentucky Derby Horse or Variety of Tomato?

  • Big Rainbow
  • Cherokee Purple
  • Derby Kitten
  • Yellow Perfection
  • Native Dancer
  • Mr. Stripey
  • German Johnston
  • Stay Thirsty
  • Brandywine
  • Mr. Hot Stuff
  • Red Beefsteak
  • Djena Lee's Golden Girl
  • Nebraska Wedding
  • Chocolate Candy
  • Solar Fire
  • Twice the Appeal
  • Sweet Million F1

Inspired by Jonathan Mayhew and my mom.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A little less meaning, please, Johnson, or, Why nobody reads poetry

A poet asked MetaFilter why many ardent readers choose not to read poetry. A selection of the responses:
  • "When I read poetry, I feel like I really have to concentrate and pay attention to each word."
  • "Poetry can seem very pretentious"
  • "Another problem I find is that I have met so many insufferable poets"
  • "Reading poetry takes more of an effort, and seems more like work"
  • "I enjoy discovering, exploring and understanding new things through reading fiction and nonfiction. Poetry--it seems to me--will only bring greater understanding of one particular person's inner thoughts and feelings: the poet."
  • "I read fiction, mostly science fiction and fantasy, because I want to think about new ideas. The stories I really love are the ones that show me something that's never occurred to me ... Without pointing any fingers or insulting anyone's craft, poetry just hasn't done that for me."
  • "Digging through the bad poetry to find the good stuff, is certainly not a good use of time. I devoured all the books by Terry Pratchett. They were fun. What poetry is fun like that?"
  • "This is going to sound stupid, but I think part of it for me it's the columnar format/line breaking of most poetry. If you could take a poem and put it in paragraph form, I would be more likely to attempt to read it. I guess though at that point it becomes prose."
  • "I find it too dense with meaning and associations."
  • "I read mostly nonfiction because I think when I read, I want to sit down and learn something - what life is like in North Korea or how to become more productive."
  • "I have a strong sense that it is contrived."
  • "I usually have to read it three times just to figure out how to emphasize the right words so it rhymes. And then rearrange some of the sentences to form actual understandable English, and then ponder out what all the metaphors and similies and symbolisms are supposed to mean"
  • "Why should I spend some of my precious leisure time trying to crack a bit of meaning from language deliberately crafted to be a kind of puzzle?"
  • "Poetry always feels like it's about the poet; good prose is about the story."
  • "Mostly, the insufferable introspection, the navel-gazing, the disregard for meter or rhythm, the sticky-poignant high-school girl quality of it, and the fact that I just don't plain like the word 'poetry.'"
  • "Poetry is too self indulgent, too obsessed with the minutiae"
  • "It's the rare poem which feels whole and bright but also edgy, revealing, tender, and vulnerable. When that happens- God Damn! Poetry is amazing. But I really don't find it that much, though I would love to find more of it."
The first statement and the last (in this list, not the full thread) are the only ones that ring true. Poetry does require more concentration than prose, and you do have to read every word. And yes, most of it fails. Everything else is a rationalization. (Poetry is not only about the poet's feelings any more than music is only about the musician's feelings; poetry is not a puzzle you need to translate into English any more than music is a puzzle you need to translate into English; TV is strongly contrived; good poetry is full of ideas, etc.) Most people don't read poetry for the same reason they don't read art books or listen to classical music: because they would have no idea where to start. In other words, most people don't read poetry because most people don't read poetry. We live in a prose culture; poetry is hopelessly sub-.

P.S. After writing this I see that one bloke (I can call him a bloke because he uses the word "whilst") did answer thus: "It's because I don't know where to start."

Friday, May 6, 2011

Crush

I have such a crush on this red-headed model. Her name is Cintia Dicker (not the most elegant name in the world). Whenever I see her in an ad I stare at it for about a minute.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Epigraphs, Part 2

Do you know the song "The War Criminal Rises and Speaks" by Okkervil River? It's been in my head a lot lately, coincidentally. I'd include a video but YouTube only has live clips of crappy quality. It's an amazing song.

More epigraphs! From The Economy of Cities, by Jane Jacobs (1969):
A few years ago the United States and the European Common Market engaged in what was called a chicken war. Each was trying to push its surfeit of chickens off onto the other. But this does not mean that the industrialized and urban economies of the United States and Western Europe were built upon surfeits of chickens.
From "Why I'm a Pacifist" by Nicholson Baker in the May issue of Harper's:
When are we going to grasp the essential truth? War never works. It never has worked. It makes everything worse.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Are You "Sure"?

My latest perfume column is up, and it's on deodorants. Yes, deodorants! I reviewed the scents (not the functionality) of 19 deodorants and antiperspirants for men and women. Go read the astonishing results. Here's an excerpt:
Dove Ultimate Cool Essentials Cucumber & Green Tea – Great branding here: this actually does smell cool and green. In functional settings, cucumber is usually combined with melon, a tired, sour combination that never fails to remind me of Tranquil Breezes, a scent Victoria’s Secret used to carry in the early ‘90s, which was wildly popular with sixth graders. By skipping the extra melon (cucumber already has a similar smell profile) and adding green tea, Dove achieves an accord that feels both fresh and refreshing. Unlike Original Clean, this one smells a little sweeter and fruitier on skin than in the packaging. I can see women wanting to smell like this all over, and accordingly Dove sells lotion and body spray in the same scent. A pleasant, summer-appropriate deodorant.

Mitchum Power Gel Shower Fresh – A more literal interpretation of the “clean” theme, Mitchum Shower Fresh actually smells like bleach: tile cleaner with a splash of Diet Sprite, a real nose-burner of a fragrance. Why smell like you just got out of the shower when you can smell like the shower itself? This is the one that I already owned – there was no unscented option when I purchased it, and it seemed like the next best thing – so I can report that the scent fades quickly after application. (And you know antiperspirant works better if you put it on at night, right?)
In other news, I'm reading at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival in a couple of weeks. I'll be "opening" for the headline event on Saturday night, May 14, at 7:30 pm, also starring Mark Doty, Patricia Smith and musician Kim Richey. Read more about the performers here. The festival is a weekend-long event in Salem and other poets present will include Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Brian Brodeur, Brian Turner, Daniel Pritchard, David Rivard, Gail Mazur, January O'Neil, Jericho Brown, Mike Young, Simeon Berry, Stephen Sturgeon and many more. Check it out if you're local.