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April 14, 2014 @ 11:01 am

Not Your Daddy’s Falcon

My son and his friend agreed that Falcon was the coolest character in The Winter Soldier.  This was not the red-and-white Falcon with a telepathic link to his pet bird.  This Falcon wore black, and his wings were metal, and he carried machine guns.  Boy, I can’t wait until it’s their turn to be the Daddy whose comics are not good enough.

Falcon80s.jpg

Which is really just me being grumpy, because the new Falcon actually was pretty cool.  "More of a soldier than a spy," as he told Nick Fury at one point.

I am getting really tired of this other trope, though, that people have to be frightened or tricked into building a better and more cooperative world.  This is not just Watchmen; it apparently goes all the way back to Plato's "noble lie."

And it's personal.  We all want our own way.  Some of us are willing to compromise on that most of the time out in the real world, but we are all little dictators inside our own heads, totally convinced that the world would be a better place if it would just listen to us.  I spent a lot of yesterday in exactly that sort of pleasantly unpleasant mental place, mad at the hordes of other visitors to the Zoo just for existing.  David Brin (in a book by Episode 19's Barbara Oakley) called self-righteousness an addiction, but to me it seems an exaggeration of the necessary "standing up for yourself" that's involved in game theory situations like The Prisoner's Dilemma.

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April 13, 2014 @ 10:23 am

Robust Predictive Control

My wife and I were both sick from some nameless fever-inducing alien virus all last weekend.  Fairly horrible.  Not Agent Coulson, "Let me die, please just let me die" horrible, but not pleasant at all.  Thus the flashback.

I tried to read a couple of papers about sleep, including

A new theoretical approach to the functional meaning of sleep and dreaming in humans based on the maintenance of ‘predictive psychic homeostasis’

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3306324/

The basic gist of which is that sleep is a time when the brain updates, at every level, kind of like your desktop synching the files on all of your mobile devices.  In this analogy, the mobile devices are your peripheral organs.  They focus on the kidney, which I personally haven’t paid that much attention to since my 300-level physiology class in undergad.  But as they point out, what’s more important than the kidney for setting the circulating levels of those sodium and potassium ions that the brain spends so much energy shuttling back and forth across its membranes?  For instance, right this minute I’m losing considerable amounts of salt and water through the mucus that is pouring out of my nose.  If I don’t want that to affect my brain function, I need to offset those losses to keep the ions in proper balance.

These imaginative Italians take the case a step further.  The “reactive homeostasis” I described above is generally thought of as consisting of negative feedback loops, to put it in engineer-speak.  There’s a set point that is relatively constant, and any deviation from that set point is corrected for.  Agnati et.al. describe a “predictive homeostasis,” where the deviations themselves are recorded and used to estimate what tomorrow’s likely disturbances will be.  There’s a huge engineering literature on this idea.  Google just handed me over two million results for “robust predictive control,” but none of the top 30 was written for the math-phobic public, or even biologists.  Probably the closest things are Nassim Taleb’s books on risk and uncertainty, which start with finance but range over many other topics.  Fine thought-provokers.

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April 5, 2014 @ 1:37 pm

Totally Dreamt of in My Philosophy, or, Wait, Doctor Orpheus doesn’t smoke

I woke up from a nap with this phrase from the song "Jackson" running through my head.

We got married in a fever

Hotter than a pepper sprout

Not the whole song, just those two lines, over and over.  I hadn’t heard the song recently (probably not since seeing Walk the Line), so it probably was not the random recombination of daily information that seems to be a part of long-term memory consolidation during dreams (or so I learned during grad school, but see here).  I’d felt like crap all day, straight through my classes, and I felt cold much of that time.  Was I sick from exposure to new people on my trip to Raleigh the day before, or just exhausted and under-dressed for the weather?  On waking up, with that song snippet playing, I was pretty sure.  Later my wife took my temperature -- 101°.  Not blazingly hot, but definitely a fever.  Not a particularly profound example of my subconscious mind trying to tell me something, but a really clear one.  Experimentally verifiable, even, which is unusual with omens.

We do not understand our brains.  This does not mean that our brains are magical.  Our brains are complicated, and old.  The arrangement of our cranial nerves is at least as old as the sharks, with whom we share it.  The newer parts, language and such, are the parts we pay attention to, but they’re not the most important parts.  Alan Watts (treated nicer by the South Park guys than anyone I've ever seen) apparently said this in many different ways.

watt2BJ.jpg

http://youtu.be/7YgEhvZDZVg

My favorite goes something like,

Your hair grows, your nails grow – are you doing that?  Is that something that you ... DO?  Do you know exactly how to work all those rods and cones at the back of your retina?  

Clearly, in terms of keeping us alive and healthy, those old parts of the brain, like the hypothalamus, are more important than Broca’s area up in the cortex.  The problem is that those old important areas don’t seem to have many direct connections to Broca’s area.  It’s rather like the broadcast news media, rattling on about shallow things to fill their 24-hour news cycles, while the important decisions are being made as the result of back-room deals down in the deeper areas of the brain.  What does Broca’s area understand about circadian rhythms?  Only what it reads.  It doesn’t produce those rhythms.

Not to say that reading isn’t impressive.  Rerouting visual information into an auditory area, so that printed symbols on a page take on a voice of their own?  That’s a major construction project.  No wonder it takes most of us years to learn.

I appreciate Watt’s insistence that he was not advocating for a particular view, but I don’t think that’s entirely accurate.  He was advocating for a larger view.  He wanted us to look at the elephant not as a collection of parts, like the old poem about the blind men.

 work-designation-limitation.gif

He wanted us to see the elephant as a subject, even as a social animal embedded in a culture of elephants, in an ecosystem.  All at once, or switching between those perspectives seamlessly as needed by the situation.

***

I awoke from another illness-induced nap this afternoon with a lingering image of talking to my older brother (who died several years ago, in the spring).  One of my left molars painfully squeezed out its filling, which I spat into my hand.  Not even going to pretend I know what the hell THAT means.

REFERENCES

Continuing the 'what IS sleep for, anyway' thread

"Psychic Homeostasis," which is a phrase I can just hear Doctor Orpheus intoning mellifluously

Back-room deals for good or ill

Terri Gross on how women's rights was inserted into the Civil Rights Bill by a Virginia senator (in an attempt to kill it!)

http://www.npr.org/2014/04/04/299063588/the-politics-of-passing-1964s-civil-rights-act

Michael Lewis describes how the NYSE sells real estate closer to its exchange servers so that high-frequency traders can insert themselves between your transactions and skim pennies from every trade.

http://www.npr.org/2014/04/01/297686724/on-a-rigged-wall-street-milliseconds-make-all-the-difference Flash Boys

Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish, now a 3-part series on PBS.

http://www.pbs.org/your-inner-fish/home/

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April 3, 2014 @ 8:42 pm

Tyson vs. Swimme: Cage Match Wonder-Off

Yesterday was UNCG’s Chautaqua on environmental education.  Last night was a screening of Brian Swimme in the one-hour version of The Journey of the Universe.  Co-executive producer John Grim introduced it and led the after-discussion.  He suggested at one point that we might usefully compare JotU with Neil de Grasse Tyson’s new Cosmos series, the first episode of which my son walked out on because it was too trippy.  He had the same reaction when I came home tonight and told him that “The stars are our ancestors.”

“What you talking about, with your Sun Wolf ancestor jibber-jabber?”  OK, that was a little too Mr. T, because I don’t remember his exact words, but that was the gist.  He was basically calling me a superstitious barbarian.

mr-t-gold-chains-sparkling.gif

Anyway, we never got around to comparing the two shows during the after-movie discussion, and I really wanted to.  So here's my thoughts.

One of the main differences between the two shows, as far as I can tell from the first episode, is their attitude towards religion.  Both shows want us to feel an emotional connection to the universe.  However, Tyson takes several minutes of animation to recount the story of mystical dream astronomer Giordano Bruno, who preached that Earth was not the center of the universe (among other things, like Jesus being a magician).  The Jesuits, who we met recently in Amir Alexander’s book Infinitesimal, didn’t like that, and they burned him at the stake to shut him up.  So religion was the villain (and they're catching a good deal of flak for that decision, though they're basically right; in that place, at that time, religion was acting the role of control freak). 

In JotU, the focus is on our emotional reaction to our modern destruction of the living environment, and there are images of big machines tearing up the ground and forests being burned for agriculture. They clearly think religion, or at least mystical religious impulses, are good.  “A communion of subjects, not a collection of objects,” is the Thomas Berry phrase they use.  If they have a villain, it's capitalism, though they're careful not to say so openly.  JotU refers more to patterns, like eddies in water, as self-organizing structures that continue to exist even as the individual component pieces cycle into and out of them. 

Unfortunately, our human social circuitry is wired to look for villains.  That may be why Tyson (who has felt the sting of prejudice himself) felt the need to personify stupid, selfish, control-freak behavior, to which we are all vulnerable, as a group of people (the Catholic Church). 

"I was stopped and questioned seven times by University police on my way into the physics building," he said. "Seven times. Zero times was I stopped going into the gym — and I went to the gym a lot. That says all you need to know about how welcome I felt at Texas."

If I were Neil Gaiman, I would abstract and personify these impersonal patterns of behavior into gods.  The story would go like this. 

Religion and Business got together and sold indulgences.  But then Business switched sides and joined with Science to beget Industry.  Business was also the friend of Democracy for a while, but became too greedy, and now Science and Religion are trying to get past their old differences in looking for a way to restrain Business. 

Gaiman would make it sound a lot more hip, of course, with the snappy dialogue and all that.

I wonder if it would be a fitting bit of intellectual judo to borrow a phrase from atheist Richard Dawkins, and say that arrogance is a virus of the mind that infects whichever group is on top power-wise, whether that group is religious or scientific or composed entirely of plumbers. 

Would that shift allow us to resist arrogance without demonizing the infected?  To hate the sin, but not the sinner?  What if we drew them as faceless microbes, instead of as the distorted humans from Shazam?

SevenDeadlySins.jpg

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March 26, 2014 @ 5:07 pm

Balloonicorn? Huh?

One of the sessions at Science Online Together 2014, 8A, was "Is your lack of art sabotaging your written message?"  There was a clear and data-driven consensus that pictures drive traffic, and a much less formal intuition that stock photos kind of suck.  The organizer (herself a photographer) recommended using original photos and art, while several of the audience chimed in about cartoons.  They made a big deal out of the idea that it's the specificity of the drawing more than the technical sophistication of the drawing that is important.  They cited xkcd as an example of simple stick figures being really effective.

answers.png
I've posted my own drawings to Facebook a few times, but those were usually sort of incidental to some other thing I was doing with my students, nature journaling or chronicling an Alien Ecosystem Project. I've also continued making little graphs and diagrams for my classes, mostly in Powerpoint, just because it's convenient.
I made the mistake of calling them "crappy little info-graphics" to an animator after that session, meaning that I didn't put much all that much time into them, not that I was ashamed of them or anything.  I show them to students all the time.  Anyway, that conversation got me thinking about taking up the pencil again, not just as a stress reliever, but as an integral part of my work.  Sooo...
Balloonicorn25.jpg
This was a visual pun off of the balloon animals that my son was making and the Rainicorns or Monochromicorns that live in the land of Ooo with Finn and Jake.  Didn't really intend for the head to look quite so skeletal, either, but OK.  Gotta start somewhere.

REFERENCES
What IS sleep for, anyway?
Sleep as a fundamental property of neuronal assemblies (from 2008)
follow up from 2013
An evolutionary hypothesis from 2000

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March 25, 2014 @ 6:21 pm

The kid with slightly less fear of some specific thing than he had prior to experience with that thing

OK, so my son is outside with a hatchet and a saw, cutting branches in the carport.  He gets bored with doing things efficiently and tries to take “shortcuts” that in fact cost a lot more energy.  I happen to have a lot of experience with hand tools in terms of manual labor (almost none in terms of craftsmanship), but he doesn’t want to listen to me about the boring, efficient way to do things.  He also didn’t want to wear gloves until after he had nicked his hand with the saw.  How to explain this?

My wife posted this article to my Facebook newsfeed over the weekend. 

http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/03/hey-parents-leave-those-kids-alone/358631/

She was interested in it from the anxious parent’s point of view.  There’s another, equally important view, however, and that’s the risk-taking child’s point of view.  Why are children fascinated with guns, knives, explosions, and FIRE?  Why do they insist on climbing everything in sight, when they could get the same amount of exercise by doing nice, safe pullups on a bar?  Because pullups are BORING.  Pullups do not require the same amount of coordination between different muscle groups as wrestling or Parkour.  Pullups are not dangerous.

Like most other biological variables, there may be an optimum for danger, a range that this paper calls “thrilling.” 

http://www.epjournal.net/wp-content/uploads/EP092572842.pdf

Too little danger, boredom.  Too much danger, injury or emotional trauma leading to persistent anxiety.  Just enough danger, a transient thrill, followed by a learning response that lessens the thrill each time. 

The Sandseter paper doesn’t discuss this, but we can see the same dynamics playing out in the mating behaviors of adults.  How much of sexual “kink” is just playing with something that feels dangerous, whether it actually is or not?  There’s a show on TLC that touches on lots of these issues, whether people are fantasizing about 1000-foot-tall women crushing them, or leaving their sex-toy furniture out during an open house, which could be embarrassing (something most people avoid like the plague) or could be thrilling, depending on your point of view.

http://www.tlc.com/tv-shows/strange-sex

Most of the online discussion about thrill-seeking (also called sensation-seeking) appears to be in terms of individual differences in stable personality traits – are you a risk-taker or a comfort creature?  -- or in terms of the dynamics of sexual addiction within those people at the right end of the bell curve.  The Sandseter paper is looking not so much at the variation between children as the patterns of behavior within “normal” children over time. 

Each of us has crazy moments.  I remember climbing around in the tobacco barn as a kid, swinging off the two-by-six rails where we hung the sticks and dropping to the ground if I was low enough, or sometimes getting scared and swinging my feet back to a lower rail.  I was fairly conscious of trying to train myself to be more fearless, because I was the smart kid who got picked on, and who read a lot of Spider-Man (Daredevil, not so much, although he was “The Man Without Fear”). 

This was not just personal emotional development, though that aspect was definitely there.  There were practical consequences, too.  We worked up in that barn, in high heat and high humidity, lifting heavy weights, sweating, getting dehydrated.  There were wasps’ nests, and although my dad tried to prep the barn ahead of time by spraying them, sometimes he missed one.  One of our hired hands took eleven stings one hot summer day.  If he had panicked, he might have fallen thirty feet.  Being nervous slowed you down, made your movements less fluid and more effortful, which was more tiring.  It also meant you had to be up there in the heat even longer, and taxed the patience of your fellow workers.

My younger brother was more of a risk-taker at the time than I was, and he was smaller, so he usually worked the third tier, at the top.  There was a trade-off, namely more heat and more anxiety (both of which he was resistant to), but less actual labor, since he only touched those sticks of tobacco that he had to hang himself.  The people lower down had to hand his sticks up to him, and to hang their own as well.  I worked second tier or, when I got stronger and heavier, first tier.  My older brother, the strongest but also the heaviest of us, stood on the wagon where he could get some air.  My dad floated to whatever position he felt like at the time, depending on who needed to be rested or what he perceived the danger level to be.  It was not hunting and gathering, exactly, but there were parallels.

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March 23, 2014 @ 3:01 pm

Episode 67: iiiiinVENtion Time with Dad and Jack

With Daddy's blog and Jack the human . . .

I think this is the most technically ambitious episode we've tried, with all the embedded sound clips (I even used a fade out there at the beginning).  It came out OK, I think, although Levelator did some weird things there in the middle.  Good way to spend a cold and rainy morning at Caribou Coffee.

Our next one will be quite different, a follow-up to Brain Awareness Week, which we celebrated with a brain dissection last Saturday, and with an upcoming autism-themed Science Cafe with two postdocs from Chapel Hill.  Come on out for that if you're local.

Balloonicorn25.jpg

REFERENCES
Kirby Ferguson's Everything is a Remix (including the fascinating new iPhone case study video)
http://everythingisaremix.info/


Balloon Bassoon
(translated from the Australian)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W7wlJ0BsMfk


Balloon Base

invented NOT by Addi Somekh but by Sean Rooney (which sounds Australian, but is actually Canadian)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Addi_Somekh

Addi Somekh's Unpopable http://www.balloonbass.com/
playing the "Peter Gunn theme"
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cg9Bs0S6L0

Aaaand their channel
http://www.youtube.com/user/balloonbass

How to build one
(Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" at the end)
http://www.maniacworld.com/how-to-make-a-balloon-bass-guitar.html

"Balloon Music" from Adventure Time with Finn and Jake

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i2r8dfu8i_E

Lyrics
http://factsforwhatever.wordpress.com/2011/12/14/adventure-time-lyrics-marcelines-closet-balloon-song/

Ode to Joy on wine glasses filled with varying amounts of water

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rlk59xdM_YY

Water Whistles (like my ceramic bird)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=haOUYULoHXU

Optimal Foraging Theory

"This book analyzes feeding behavior the way an engineer might study a new piece of machinery"

Information foraging theory as an extension.

00:0000:00
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March 21, 2014 @ 10:11 pm

How do you choose your tribes 3

My students are at the phase of senior project where they are done summarizing research papers; now they have to compare and contrast them, to integrate them into a single argument.  I’m practicing along with them.

Tuesday night Geeksboro played three episodes of Twin Peaks, a 1990s show that I watched like a millenial, all at once over a three-day VHS binge sometime during my two-year sabbatical between college and graduate school.  I didn’t think of it as a break at the time; I thought (hoped) I was done with school forever.  But I got tired of waiting tables and serving as a tape monkey in a prescription data library, alongside the robot that would eventually replace me.  The internet did not exist then, so finding information about jobs or programs was a lot more difficult.  I had heard somewhere that people taught English overseas, and that sounded interesting, but I never managed to meet anyone who had any experience with that system until I was already in graduate school.  By then it seemed too late.

Today we have the opposite problem, the problem of having too much information.  The difficulty is one of sorting, prioritizing, and checking the zillions of “facts” we have available. It seems to most of us that humans are simply not smart enough (or patient enough, or long-lived enough) to scan through all of that information individually.  Compare your Google results (which are filtered and sorted for you, based on your prior Google activity) with your results from DuckDuckGo, a search engine which does not save or process (or sell) your search strategies.  Google is quicker, easier, more seductive.  In a competitive environment, it seems to most of us that we have to filter.  Otherwise making decisions and acting seems overwhelming.

That filtering is a major function of cultural training.  When we are young, we absorb the priorities and strategies of our communities, and so many of our decisions are made for us, in a sense, unconsciously, by just following those rules.  The advantage is that these decisions are quick, convenient, and don’t consume a lot of calories in conscious deliberation.  Too, uncertainty is stressful; it feels bad to be confused, and most people instinctively avoid that feeling.  Unfortunately, this kind of information filtering can set up a positive feedback loop, where our personal and cultural biases are continually reinforced.  Duck Duck Go calls this a “filter bubble,” but it can happen off the Internet, out in the real world of social interactions, just as easily and just as invisibly.  We only see confirming information reflected back from our peers, which feels good, and we become ever more convinced of our own rightness, and of the wrongness of people who disagree with us.  Because of our social nature, our tendency to group together and “tribe up,” most of those people who disagree will be outside of our tribes.  Sociality magnifies our disagreements into wars.

According to Amir Alexander in his math-history book Infinitesimal, science as we understand it today arose as an answer to this problem.  The religious wars of the Reformation were bloody and brutal, prompting Thomas Hobbes to call life itself “nasty, brutish, and short.”1  The Jesuits (and later Hobbes) responded by trying to clamp down on dissent, by trying to build a system of belief so consistent and so powerful that dissent and war would be impossible.  This is the positive feedback solution, not positive in the sense of good, but positive in the mathematical sense of recursive, self-reinforcing.  It concentrated power at the top, which is dangerous, because mistakes are magnified right along with good decisions.  In Italy, the Jesuits and the Inquisition won.  They silenced dissent, and according to Alexander, helped end the Italian Rennaissance.

The Royal Society of London came up with a different solution.  They encouraged discussion and dissent, up to a point. The ultimate decider was the publicly performed experiment, as interpreted by the audience, not a single fallible dictator.  They prioritized information from outside their white aristocratic male bubble (not people, sadly, but at least information collected through experiments).  They found a way to cede some of their personal authority not to another human being, but to Nature.  Arguments did not have to spiral upwards into wars, and noone had to be right all the time.  In England, they won their battle.  Hobbes died a grumpy old man, not a hero.  His ideas returned, though, used by totalitarian regimes of the 20th century.

I mention these two case studies because the strategies they represent continue their struggle for our hearts and minds today.  Scientists identify with the Royal Society, who won, and with Galileo, whose ideas were good, but who lost his personal battle with the Jesuits and spent the last eight years of his life under house arrest.  Scientists may not personally know that the Inquisition burnt the astronomer Giordano Bruno as a heretic, but most of us are deeply identified with that cultural ideal of the scientist as a rebel against the totalitarian religion engineered by the Society of Jesus almost 500 years ago.  For many of us who chose to join the culture of science, our decisions were in part driven by personally enduring a family tradition of totalitarian religion.  I’ve heard this story over and over again; I lived it myself.  I left the religious culture of my birth and joined the scientific culture.  Thus each cultural tradition sustains itself by selecting for those people who agree with it.

What happens, though, when you put a rebel in charge?  Power corrupts, the old phrase goes.  There are now scientists (not all, by any stretch, but some) defying the tradition set by the Royal Society, demanding that people believe in evolution, in climate change, in vaccination, whatever.  These scientists are correctly recognizing that belief can often be a shortcut to action.  I imagine they feel the same urgency that the Jesuits felt at watching the Protestant Reformation sweep across Europe.  They see the world coming apart around them, and they want us as a society to respond to it, together, and quickly. They are not wrong in this.  Their intentions are noble and good.  But they are giving in to the same fear that drove the Jesuits and Thomas Hobbes to build their Leviathans, their elaborate deductive systems of control.  It’s a desperation move, one that might work in the short term, but which is not sustainable.  Understanding is better than belief -- although as a teacher, I’m the first to agree that it’s a hell of a lot more difficult to achieve.

Thus endeth the sermon.  Time for bed.

NOTES

1. As an aside, I have to credit Bill Waterson for his restraint in never (to my knowledge) having Hobbes the tiger make such an obvious joke about his little buddy Calvin.

 

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March 19, 2014 @ 9:51 pm

How do you choose your tribes 2, or, A Kinder, Gentler Conspiracy

EW’s “Criminally Underrated” issue features Orphan Black, season one of which I’ve been watching, and which is really good.  I don’t think it mentions Twin Peaks, which was popular, or the prequel Fire Walk With Me, which was not (except in Japan, apparently?)

http://grantland.com/features/twenty-things-david-lynch-fire-walk-its-20th-anniversary/

The two shows are very different in tone.  Orphan Black is hip and ironic, full of references to Lulu Lemon (carefully sarcastic and dismissive) and visual product placements that are as carefully unstated as the clues and foreshadowing (like that drugged bottle of liquor in Beth and Paul’s kitchen cabinet).  Orphan Black looks forward to tech that doesn’t actually exist yet.  Twin Peaks is almost campy in the deliberate deadpan weirdness of its characters, its insistence on saying plot points out loud, and its mixture of 90s modern and faux-fifties decor and tech.  In the Twin Peaks episodes I saw Tuesday night, two different characters were using cassette tapes to deliver messages, not the CDs that were just catching on at that time.

There are important similarities, though.  Tatiana Maslany deserves to be celebrated for her performances of the clones, which are so nuanced that even when Sarah is impersonating Allison – wearing Allison’s clothes, copying Allison’s flat Midwestern accent -- she still feels like Sara to me (or vice versa).  The writers are using the clone metaphor to explore all the different phenotypic expressions of the same genotype, all the different expressions of the same face.  Sarah’s a punk; Allison is a soccer mom from hell; Helena a religious fanatic; etc., etc. 

But check this description of Sheryl Lee’s totally uncelebrated performance in Fire Walk With Me, from the above-linked Grantland article (which is good; you should read the whole thing).

“Lee is playing a vast range of stereotypes and archetypes here, all of which still seem to have sprung convincingly from one character’s soul; this is, among other things, one of the bleakest, cruelest movies about teenage self-actualization ever made. The fact that Laura dies at the end doesn’t make her any less the hero of this movie; she’s Lynch’s version of Jean Grey–Dark Phoenix from the X-Men mythology, struggling valiantly against an unconquerable evil.”

Sound familiar?

tumblr_m15wzhD81k1qc7f4bo1_1280.jpg

http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m15wzhD81k1qc7f4bo1_1280.jpg

According to EW, most of Orphan Black’s fans are young women, using the clone metaphor to explore their own transformations.  And noone could blame them for picking Maslany over Lee.  Laura Palmer does not kick ass, Buffy-style (or Helena-style, to stay on point); she endures, she cracks, and then she dies.  Not an easy role model for the millenial girl.  Orphan Black kills that aspect of Maslany’s character off in the first 30 seconds of the show.

There’s another, looser, spiritual similarity between the two shows, since they’re both science fiction.  A central mythic task of almost any science fiction hero or heroine is to accept the impossible, to deny cultural training and deal with the “reality” of the plot, however arbitrary or weird it is.  My single favorite line from Kyle MacLachlan’s Special Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks sums up this challenge, after their fateful jailhouse interview with Body Hopping Bob:

Harry,” Cooper says to Twin Peaks’ sheriff, Harry S. Truman, when he balks at the supernatural aspects of this explanation, “is it easier to believe that a man could rape and murder his own daughter? Any more comforting?” 

Now that is some hard core philosophy of science, there.  Expressed brutally, but essentially correct.  The process of science destroys comfort, even ugly comfort.  The world is a big, complicated place, and we do not understand it completely.  We are always guessing.  

The clones (except for Beth Childs) are pretty successful at this.  In fact, they go beyond acceptance --  they actively manipulate the belief and disbelief of their families and opponents.  Of course, they also have each other for support, as sarcastic and bitchy as that support tends to be.  Laura Palmer accepted the impossible, but she used her manipulations to isolate herself in an attempt to protect her loved ones and her social position, to numb herself to her confusion and pain, and she paid with her life.  Her identical cousin, Maddy Ferguson (also played by Sheryl Lee), did take others into her confidence, but without Laura’s prior information and personal gumption, community was not quick enough to save her.  Yeah.  Pretty bleak, indeed (more on that view of the world next time).

Unlike Game of Thrones, I haven’t read the books already (because there are no books).  I don’t know how the Orphan Black saga will end for the clones, but I’m guessing not as badly as GoT or Twin Peaks.  I could be wrong, though.  They could pull a Red Wedding in Season 2.

 

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March 18, 2014 @ 11:40 am

How do you choose your tribes?

OK, I can admit it.  I am unreasonably prejudiced against Entertainment Weekly, one of those magazines my wife gets with airline miles.  I tend to lump it in with People Magazine.  I don’t care much about social status, about who’s “in” and who’s “out,” in Hollywood or in politics.  I am interested in what a sudden change in status does to people, so I did attempt to make small talk with Emily Graslie of The Brain Scoop in the breakfast buffet line at scio14.  I really do like  her show, from the little I’ve seen of it (about 3 or 4 episodes), but I suppose it was obvious that I was not a true fan -- I didn’t even know that she was an art student instead of a scientist.  She obviously didn't know dick about me (who does? I am like a ninja of science...).  She was gracious nonetheless, which is sort of a survival trait in those situations of asymmetric information. 

I occasionally get stuck in the opposite role of that same situation when I’m approached by former students, particularly the quiet ones who didn’t give me much reason to remember them.  Last week one walked up to me and challenged me, “You don’t remember me, do you?”  Facially, yes, name no – hours later, her obsessions with Criss Angel Mindfreak (and possibly Michael Jackson) bubbled up from the storage banks, but it was no help in that uncomfortable moment.

Which brings me back to Entertainment Weekly.  I rarely even open it, but this week it was the underappreciated 100 (as chosen by famous people, of course), and Tatiana Maslany from Orphan Black was on the cover.  I saw the final two or three episodes on BBC America last summer, and it was pretty good.  The science was not horrible, and the concept of a single actress playing a dozen or so clones of herself appealed to me as well -- like a twin experiment times twelve.  So I opened it to find a surprisingly good editorial reflection on the question “What are you into?”

"My point is this:  If we are what we read, watch and listen to, then it follows that we are what we recommend.  Aside from Sorting Hats, the Choosing Ceremony in Divergent, and the oh-so-brutal reaping in The Hunger Games, it is this mechanism -- recommendations -- by which we all find a tribe, develop cultural connective tissue, dovetail our dreams.  It could just make the trip to the breakroom a welcome diversion, or it could amount to much, much more."

Matt Bean is right.  Other societies still subdivide themselves based on ethnicity or religion or geography.  We are attempting not to do that.  However, we still feel the need to sort ourselves based on something.  We need hooks to feel connected to other people, to drive our cooperative interactions, and our competitions.  Can’t cooperate with everyone, after all.

The protagonist of Orphan Black, Sarah Manning, doesn’t really feel connected with anyone beyond her daughter and her foster brother, drug-dealing painter Felix.  Even them she treats badly; she just feels guilty about it.  As for her marks, they deserve it for being stupid enough to trust her.  See, Sarah is a con artist, a parasite who specializes in pretending to cooperate.  Her biggest challenge in assuming the identity of the first clone she encounters, Elizabeth Childs, is her lack of information in knowing what to offer the people in Elizabeth’s life.  She has no problem in offering her new boyfriend sex in order to distract him.  She would have had no problem offering the guy at the bank sex, either, if she thought that would get him to release the funds from Elizabeth’s account, or a cash bribe, but she correctly guessed that offering him a donation to his next charity run was the best option.  It pushed the “gain” off onto a third party, so that the bank guy didn’t feel a conflict of interest. Note that unlike a real cooperator, Sarah had no intention of following through on her promised donation, any more than she intends to continue having sex with Elizabeth’s boyfriend.  Her plan is to take the money and run.

So now that the second season is starting soon, and we’re not investing in HBO for Game of Thrones this year, I’m watching Orphan Black from the beginning on Amazon Prime.  We’ll see how that goes.

***

On a similar theme, Terry Gross had a fascinating interview last week with Walter Kirn, whose book Blood Will Out describes how a real life con artist who called himself Clark Rockefeller was able to fool so many people for so long.  His answer? 

“Vanity, Vanity, VANITY.” 


Figure out what people want and offer it to them, in such a way that they would say no, so that he almost never had to follow through.

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