Police and systemic storytelling

“Catching criminals.” This is the activity police truly like to identify with, however little of their time it occupies. Occasionally, police stumble on red-handed robbers or thugs fleeing an assault. But the bulk of “catching” people lies in traversing the city as necessary to find someone on the word of someone else. Police act as go-betweens for antagonists who may even be practically within arm’s reach — yelling outside their cars in a fender bender, or giving opposite accounts of a domestic dispute. Real “investigation” — the glorious business of tracing an unidentified malefactor after the fact of a crime, without just finding out who did it from the witnesses closest at hand — is an activity that does exist in police departments, but only among a tiny number of specialized personnel who don’t even have to wear uniforms.
 
When police identify crimes against the city, state, or law, rather than against an affronted person — the so-called victimless crimes of illicit possession, unlicensed work, or unlicensed sale — they perform the essential police function of distributing crime. The legislature declares certain objects and unlicensed commerce illegal; the police then go and distribute these violations. Street drugs are made illegal (prescription drugs are fine), hidden and unlicensed weapons are illegal (carried by people on unsafe streets, which is to say the poor), flawed cars are illegal (busted taillight, broken muffler, unpaid insurance). Thus police spend a large part of their time distributing crime to the sorts of people who seem likely to be criminals — the poor and marginal — and the prediction is prophetic: these people turn out to be criminals as soon as they are stopped and forced to turn out the contents of their pockets or glove boxes. Leave them alone, and most would never be “criminal” at all. The majority of violations technically listed in the tables of the law are of no interest to uniformed police. People who break laws in business are unlikely to be detected or sought out, and when their violations are disclosed — leading to the awkwardness of having to reach a settlement — they are dealt with by regulatory agencies, guilds, or accrediting bodies, and at the far extreme by civil-court proceedings and court-mandated money exchanges. Very rarely are police or criminal justice brought in.
 

From this brilliant piece by Mark Greif on police.

Pop culture is worth deep scrutiny because it is how so many people come to understand the role of certain jobs in society, like that of the police, and so the distortions of mediums like film and television become the mental errors of the populace. An analogous misperception exists with lawyers, who are almost always litigators in criminal proceedings in the movies and film, and then we enter the business world and spend most of our time working with lawyers on contracts, playing chicken on indemnification with lawyers representing some other entity in a transaction.

The basic ambition of a policeman is to ceaselessly project force, stolidity, seriousness, intimidation. But that’s impossible. Policing contains daily humiliations at each inevitable failure of the policeman’s front. The uniform itself, the badge in its widest sense, with the luster of all shields meant to dazzle, is meant to maintain this front regardless of the individual inside. But the uniform can never succeed. You would need Robocop. There is something in the cladness of police, their preoccupation with holding the uniform together, that makes us aware of all their armor’s shortcomings, or inspires one to imagine these human beings naked, their uniforms taken away. The traditional English name for the mana with which police are invested is surely awe. Erving Goffman, in his famous conceptualizations of front, face, and performance, recalled Kurt Riezler’s point that the inevitable obverse of awe is shame.
 
The coupling of awe and shame among police comes out in our awareness of police symmetry and asymmetry. A shield is worn on the peak of the hat, while a second one covers the heart. The gun descends from one side of the utility belt, and, traditionally, the nightstick hangs from the other. Sometimes a flashlight substitutes. Looking at individual police, they almost always seem lopsided. The belt pulls down on one side. The blouse comes undone. They are constantly hiking up their pants. The regulation shoes are the same as those of nurses, waiters, and mail carriers. Heaviness gathers at the waist, in a sedentary, slow, caloric job. There is something in police that droops.
 

"The inevitable observe of awe is shame." A wonderful line, one that can't help but bring our current President to mind, with his deep-seated need to reinforce his self-regard with public declarations laced with superlatives, staving off the despair that might come from confronting what is more than enough shame to last a lifetime. Shamelessness is exactly what it sounds like, an absence of shame, but it need not be nature. I've met many a person who can nurture their own seamless shell against the onset of their own shame; one can be shamed by the public but it truly wounds when one feels it themselves.

[I steer clear here of bodily shame, though many have directed such attacks at people like Trump and Bannon. I'm almost certainly guilty of this in the past, and I regret it. Body shaming is hitting below the belt no matter who it's directed against, and Trump and Bannon would be no less evil if they looked like George Clooney.]

Most surprising, perhaps, is that to spend time looking at police is to see that the law is not a true resource for them. A rationale, yes, but a thin one. Police lack law. I hadn’t noticed this until I really started watching them, thinking about what I saw, reading research done on them. The original television version of Law & Order split each episode into two parts. First, policing; second, courtroom proceedings. It took me years to notice that the title was backward. Police are order. This explains the police perception of, and anathema toward, any symbol of disorder or mess. In their daily practice, police pledge at every level to clean up dirt. The cliché from Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger, her cross-cultural study of the constitution of dirt and taboo, holds up here: What we call dirt is only “matter out of place.”
 
It is always hard to remind or convince police that their stated loyalty is to the Constitution. It’s not their fault, really, so much as it is the fault of a municipal organization of authority that keeps legal and political thinking at a level “above their pay grade.” A bad consequence is that it’s quite difficult to make police feel responsible for civil rights violations or unjust laws, since rights and the law of the polity are not theirs to know or decide.
 

This is one area where culture has shed some light on this paradox of police work. In film, the protagonist is often a rank and file policeman who tries to enforce the law but is deterred, sometimes by the a puppet of a police commissioner whose strings are being pulled by those with real power, like corrupt politicians, and sometimes by fellow cops who exploit their position to stand outside the law.

Still, it's an easy conflation. I haven't played the Sims since I was a child, but I'm sure if I played that game today, one of the tasks to be checked off in building any city would be the installation of a police headquarters as a proxy for instilling law and order. As Greif notes, that handles the "order" half, but law is something else entirely. I'm not sure if the game would be as appealing if establishing the rule of law were a prerequisite to building a community, but it would be an order of magnitude more instructive.

Liberal and social contract theories of democracy — those that begin from Hobbes and Locke and that form the official philosophical background to the American Republic that was constituted in 1787 — do have a central place for punishment, but not for police. This is perhaps because, on a strong version of contract theory, police ought not to exist. How could democratic agreement fail to be self-enforcing in its daily practice if the agreement is real, sustained by each individual’s consent? Social-contract theory does include the discouragement and rectification of error after definite breaches of the contract, as punishment will address the convicted wrongdoer who either gave in to the temptation of self-interest or was perverted to it by some personal flaw. But the right agency for requital is penal law. Crime and punishment belong to judicial proceedings and courts, where the cause can be unfolded after the fact. There is no location alongside or outside the citizens and their contract for a supplementary force or additional locus of authority and violence, for mediation or interruption. There is no place for any intervening agency with political standing, only as a kind of collector or picker-upper of persons — hence, an agency very much like that of a trash picker or one who carries dirt from the streets, as Smith proposed.
 

Again, film and television cues us to the separation of police from detective work and law through its choreography of crime scenes. The detective, not in police uniform, arrives and steps under the police tape to be greeted by one of many who are in police garb, handling the administrative work of keeping the crime scene clean. The detective is the one who kneels over the victim's body and asks the question, and the detective is the one that spots something amiss which will lead to the next development in the case, or the plot, as they are synonymous.

SUPPOSE WE SAY THIS: Police are negotiators, but without access to contract, law, or eloquence. Their medium is not law. They do not always use memorable or wholly coherent words. Usually they confront situations of conflict they did not cause, but which they are required to enter as third parties. There, they become deliberately distracting, grandstanding observers, turning the attention of other parties away from each other and toward themselves.
 
When you look at them this way, focusing on the middle range between space-holding inaction and violent attack, you can see how negotiating is actually what the police do unendingly, habitually — but unfamiliarly, because in some way they refuse to recognize or care about the original goals of the relevant parties. They bring a separate set of criteria to bear, and not always an appealing one. Is this chargeable? Should this person be removed or transported temporarily? How soon can I leave, and how do I scare these citizens a bit so they won’t come into conflict again and police won’t need to come back? Police negotiate without a unitary reference or goal — other than to end the necessity for their being present, unless they’re in a location they want to forbid the use of to others. And they are always asking themselves a separate question, of whether to lift a person out of the horizontal conflict and into the vertical mechanism of criminal justice — a process they will not ultimately be responsible for, and which they won’t have to enter into themselves.
 

The pleasure of a David Simon work is that he is a systems storyteller in a world where most pop culture is focused on lone hero, the descendants of Odysseus in the Western canon. What made The Wire so astounding, and what makes The Deuce the best show on television right now, is Simon's recognition of the power of structural forces. The way he teaches is through a nested Russian doll plot architecture which still, at its core, begins with an individual, but the story always ends with that individual trapped several layers deep. He's hooking us with the marionette, but then removing all the stage dressing and scaffolding so we see the puppeteer.

Systems storytelling isn't always pleasurable. As Penn and Teller have noted about explaining how magic tricks work, doing so usually removes all the magic.

Matt: “So why don’t you explain all your tricks?”
 
Teller: “Because the short explanation—the explanation that you’d have to do during a theatrical or TV performance—is dull and no fun. The greatest secret to making a deceptive piece of magic is you do it by the ugliest possible means. It’s complex, it’s unromantic, it’s unclever. Because there are no big secrets. There is no safe full of magic secrets somewhere. Jim Steinmeyer said he thinks most of the public believes there’s a big safe that contains all the magic secrets. The biggest job for a magician, he says, is to conceal the fact that that safe is empty. Because every magic secret is just a minor modification of something that you fully understand in everyday life. Take suspending something with a thread, for example. Everybody’s not been able to see a piece a thread when they were trying to put it through a needle. What makes it difficult to find is lighting and background. If a magician’s using a thread on stage, say, to levitate a ball, he must use lighting and background to conceal the thread. There’s no obscure secret in that. You learned that playing in your grandmother’s sewing box. Every magic ‘secret’ is hiding in plain sight in the everyday world. It’s not news, and eminently drab.”
 

But it doesn't have to be dull. As Penn and Teller themselves have shown, sometimes revealing the mechanics of magic is still magical. Dorothy was disappointed to find the Wizard of Oz was just a man behind a curtain, pulling knobs and levers, but we probably don't revere systemic understanding nearly enough.

Show don't tell

I suspect we do a better job teaching children than adults, and much of that has to do with trying harder to explain things visually, in the most intuitive, simple way possible, to children. As we grow older, we start stacking on level after level of abstraction, losing more and more students along the way.

Even language is an abstraction, and while I enjoy writing, the ratio that a picture is worth a thousand words is a cliche that describes a very real ratio. As someone I chatted with noted this week, we have an actual way of quantifying the relative value of video versus images versus words: the CPMs that advertisers are willing to pay for video ads versus display ads versus text ads. My early years at Hulu, it was unbelievable how high and rock solid our video ad rates were compared to other ad formats on the market. All the recent pivots to video are surprising only for how late they're coming for many; trying to run a business off of text and display ad revenues is life with poverty unit economics.

This is not to say video is always better. As a format, it's harder for many to master, and like many, I often roll my eyes when sent a link to a video without a transcript. It's not because I don't believe video is a more accessible, democratic, and moving medium. It's just that a lot of instructional video would be just as information rich and more quickly scanned for its key messages if transcribed into text. Many a media site will struggle with pivoting to video unless they understand the format at the same level they do text and photos.

Video at its best is much more than a camera pointed at a person speaking. Now, granted, some speakers are immensely gifted orators, and so a TED talk may have more impact when watched rather than read. However, the average MOOC video, to take one example, is dull beyond words.

Video as a medium still has enormous potential, especially for education. In the trough of disillusion for MOOCs, I expect we'll see something rise from the ashes that finally unlocks video's potential as a communications medium. We've done a solid job with that format as a narrative storytelling device, and that's partially because the revenue in Hollywood supports an immense talent development infrastructure. Education might be able to provide that level of financial incentive if global distribution through the internet allows for aggregation of larger scale audiences.

One of the core challenges of education, as with disciplines like fitness and diet, is motivation. That is another area where video shines. David Foster Wallace warned of the addictive nature of video in Infinite Jest, and the fact that the average American still watches something like four to five hours of TV a day, despite the wealth of alternatives in this age, is an astonishing testament to the enduring pull of filmed entertainment.

As with anything, the seductive nature of moving images is merely a tool, inheriting its positive or negative valence from its uses. When it comes to teaching abstract concepts, I prefer good visuals over clear text almost every time if given the choice. Our brains are just wired for visual input in a way they aren't for abstractions like language, which explains many phenomenon, like why memory champions translate numbers and alphabet characters into images, and why they remember long sequences like digits of pi by placing such images into memory palaces, essentially visual hard drives.

One could try to explain the principles of potential and kinetic energy, for example, with a series of mathematical formulas, in a long essay. Or one could watch the following video.

Here's the video of the full routine by Joann Bourgeois, performed in San Sebastian. Just gorgeous.

This is what I wish Cirque du Soleil would be every time someone drags me to one of their shows.

Why don't you understand my needs?

Sometimes, when my Echo has been sounding the alarm for a while for a timer I instructed it to set, I snap. 

"Alexa, STOP!"

It's ridiculous, of course, it's not the Echo's fault I didn't respond to the timer sooner, but still.

At least once a day, my Apple Watch gives me a tap. I glance at it, and it reads, "Breathe."

I have no idea what the logic behind when those alerts appear, but recently they've started driving me up the wall.

"I am breathing, how do you think I'm still alive? Why don't you breathe? And by the way, who has to remember to charge you every night, and I mean EVERY night, or you'll be useless the next day. Yeah, that's right, useless. I said it. So maybe keep your reminders to yourself."

I don't say that out loud, that would be odd, but if I had a thought bubble over my head, you'd either see one of those dark clouds, like the one over Charlie Brown's head in a Peanuts comic strip when Lucy pulls the football away YET AGAIN.

Sometimes, when I'm driving, and engrossed in a podcast, Waze will just chime in mid-sentence, shamelessly.

"Car stopped on shoulder ahead" or "pothole on road ahead."

So I have to rewind the podcast and listen to the part I missed. But not before I sigh heavily and glare at my phone.

Yes, this highway has potholes, our nation's infrastructure is in disrepair because our government is a bureaucratic quagmire with a mental midget in the Oval Office, and yes, there are cars on the shoulder of the highway every day, I don't give a damn. I have searched all through Waze for a setting to turn off these random voice alerts but have yet to find one, so sometimes I just turn off all audio prompts, just so I can listen to my podcasts uninterrupted while I sit in yet another traffic jam.

When I first started hanging around my friends who'd been married a few years, it always surprised me how often they'd descend into sharp arguments over trivial things. But as days accumulate across months and then years, the slightest irritation chafes enough to break skin and draw blood. Once you identify any such annoyance and classify the exact nature of the character flaw underlying it, every successive instance is grounds for prosecution.

So to all of you designing the next generation of voice UI's, please balance the intermediate stupidity of such AI's against their human owners' equally deficient temperaments. The health of such marriages depends upon it.

I was playing Jeopardy on my Alexa recently and it misunderstood my response and said I'd gotten the question wrong, even though I was CLEARLY CORRECT.

"Why can't you be more like the Scarlett Johansson OS in Her?" I said. "She was smart, and thoughtful, and she sounded like, well, Scarlett Johansson. All smoky and sexy. You sound just like Siri, you both don't understand what I'm talking about half the time. Scarlett Johansson OS would understand me, I know she would."

Alexa ignored me, as does Siri. Both only respond when I address them by name. They insist upon it. Of course they do.

1 personal update and 10 browser tabs

I haven't spent much time on personal updates here the past several years, but it matters on some topics to know what my personal affiliations are, so I wanted to share that I've left Oculus as of mid July. I'm not sure what's next yet, but I've enjoyed having some time to travel to see friends and family, catch up on reading, and get outside on my bike the past few weeks.

It's also been great to have the chance to connect with some of the smart people of the Bay Area, many of whom I've never met before except online. Bouncing ideas around with some of the interesting thinkers here is something I wish I did more of sooner, and I'm trying to make up for lost time. It has certainly helped me to refine my thinking about many topics, including my next venture, whatever that turns out to be.

Please ping me if you'd like to grab a coffee.

***

One of my goals during this break is to clear out a lot of things I've accumulated over the years. I donated six massive boxes of books to the local library the other week, and I've been running to a Goodwill dropoff center every few days. 

The other cruft I've accumulated is of a digital nature, mostly an embarrassing number of browser tabs, some of which have been open since before an orange president became the new black. Such digital cruft is no less a mental burden than its physical counterparts, so I'm going to start to zap them, ten at a time. I have to; my Macbook Pro can no longer handle the sheer volume of tabs open, the fan is always on full throttle like a jet engine.

Here are the first ten to go.

1. The War Against Chinese Restaurants

Startlingly, however, there was once a national movement to eliminate Chinese restaurants, using innovative legal methods to drive them out. Chinese restaurants were objectionable for two reasons. First, they threatened white women, who were subject to seduction by Chinese men, through intrinsic female weakness, or employment of nefarious techniques such as opium addiction. In addition, Chinese restaurants competed with “American” restaurants, thus threatening the livelihoods of white owners, cooks and servers; unions were the driving force behind the movement. 


The effort was creative; Chicago used anti-Chinese zoning, Los Angeles restricted restaurant jobs to citizens, Boston authorities decreed Chinese restaurants would be denied licenses, the New York Police Department simply ordered whites out of Chinatown. Perhaps the most interesting technique was a law, endorsed by the American Federation of Labor for adoption in all jurisdictions, prohibiting white women from working in Asian restaurants. Most measures failed or were struck down. However, Asians still lost; the unions did not eliminate Chinese restaurants, but they achieved their more important goal, extending the federal policy of racial exclusion in immigration from Chinese to all Asians. The campaign is of more than historical interest. As current anti-immigration sentiments and efforts show, even today the idea that white Americans should have a privileged place in the economy, or that non-whites are culturally incongruous, persists among some.
 

The core of the story of America is its deep seated struggle with race, not surprising for a country founded on the ideal of the equality of all even as it could not live up to that itself, in its founding moment. That continual grasping at resolving that paradox and hypocrisy is at the heart of what makes the U.S. the most fascinating social experiment in the world, and one reason I struggle to imagine living elsewhere right now.

2. Two related pieces: The revolt of the public and the “age of post-truth” and In Defense of Hierarchy 

From the former:

A complex society can’t dispense with elites.  That is the hard reality of our condition, and it involves much more than a demand for scarce technical skills.  In all human history, across continents and cultures, the way to get things done has been command and control within a formal hierarchy.  The pyramid can be made flatter or steeper, and an informal network is invariably overlaid on it:  but the structural necessity holds.  Only a tiny minority can be bishops of the church.  This may seem trivially apparent when it comes to running a government or managing a corporation, but it applies with equal strength to the dispensation of truth.
 
So here is the heart of the matter.  The sociopolitical disorders that torment our moment in history, including the fragmentation of truth into “post-truth,” flow primarily from a failure of legitimacy, of the bond of trust between rulers and ruled.  Everything begins with the public’s conviction that elites have lost their authorizing magic.  Those at the top have forsaken their function yet cling, illicitly, to their privileged perches.  Only in this context do we come to questions of equality or democracy.
 
If my analysis is correct, the re-formation of the system, and the recovery of truth, must depend on the emergence of a legitimate elite class.
 

From the latter:

To protect against abuse by those with higher status, hierarchies should also be domain-specific: hierarchies become problematic when they become generalised, so that people who have power, authority or respect in one domain command it in others too. Most obviously, we see this when holders of political power wield disproportionate legal power, being if not completely above the law then at least subject to less legal accountability than ordinary citizens. Hence, we need to guard against what we might call hierarchical drift: the extension of power from a specific, legitimate domain to other, illegitimate ones. 
 
This hierarchical drift occurs not only in politics, but in other complex human arenas. It’s tempting to think that the best people to make decisions are experts. But the complexity of most real-world problems means that this would often be a mistake. With complicated issues, general-purpose competences such as open-mindedness and, especially, reasonableness are essential for successful deliberation.
 
Expertise can actually get in the way of these competences. Because there is a trade-off between width and depth of expertise, the greater the expert, the narrower the area of competence. Hence the best role for experts is often not as decision-makers, but as external resources to be consulted by a panel of non-specialist generalists selected for general-purpose competences. These generalists should interrogate the experts and integrate their answers from a range of specialised aspects into a coherent decision. So, for example, parole boards cannot defer to one type of expert but must draw on the expertise of psychologists, social workers, prison guards, those who know the community into which a specific prisoner might be released, and so on. This is a kind of collective, democratic decision-making that makes use of hierarchies of expertise without slavishly deferring to them.  
 

What would constitute a new legitimate elite class? It's a mystery, and a grave one. When truth is largely socially and politically constructed, it weighs nothing. The whole psychology replication crisis couldn't have hit at a worse time. With the internet, you can Google and find a study to back up just about any of your views, yet it's not clear which of the studies are actually sound.

At the same time, we can't all be expected to be experts on everything, even if, with the internet, everyone pretends to be.

3. Why Men Don't Live As Long As Women

Evidence points at testosterone, which is useful for mating but costly in many other ways. I maintain there is nothing more frightening in the world than a bunch of single young men full of testosterone.

This does not mean, however, that men cannot evolve other reproductive strategies. Despite their propensity to engage in risky behavior and exhibit expensive, life-shortening physical traits, men have evolved an alternative form of reproductive effort in the form of paternal investment—something very rare in primates (and mammals in general). For paternal investment to evolve, males have to make sure they are around to take care of their offspring. Risky behavior and expensive tissue have to take a backseat to investment that reflects better health and perhaps prolongs lifespan. Indeed, men can exhibit declines in testosterone and put on a bit of weight when they become fathers and engage in paternal care.10, 11 Perhaps, then, fatherhood is good for health.
 

Perhaps we should be extolling the virtuous signal that is dadbod to a much greater degree than we have. And, on the flipside, we should look with a skeptical eye on fathers with chiseled abs. How does one get a six pack from attending imaginary tea parties with one's daughter for hours on end?

4. Increasing consumer well-being: risk as potential driver of happiness

We show that, even if, ex ante, consumers fear high risk and do not associate it to a high level of happiness, their ex post evaluation of well-being is generally higher when identical consequences result from a high-risk situation than from a low-risk situation. Control over risk-taking reinforces the gap between ex ante and ex post measures of happiness. Thus, our article provides empirical evidence about a positive relation between risk and individual well-being, suggesting that risky experiences have the potential to increase consumer well-being.
 

While I'm not certain what I'm going to do next, I would like to increase my risk profile. It seems a shame not to when I'm fortunate enough to live with very little downside risk.

5. “When the student is ready the teacher will appear. When the student is truly ready, the teacher will disappear.”  —  Lao Tzu

There is some debate over the provenance of this quote but I have rarely read the second sentence, the first part is the one which has had the more enduring life, and for good reason. It's a rhetorical gem.

The second half is underrated. The best coaches know when stepping aside and pushing the student to new challenges is the only path to greater heights. Rather than becoming some Girardian rival like Bill Murray in Rushmore, the best teachers disappear. In the case of Yoda in Return of the Jedi, he literally disappears, though not until giving Luke his next homework assignment: to face Darth Vader.

6. The third wave of globalisation may be the hardest

First we enabled the movement of goods across borders. Then the internet unleashed the movement of ideas. Free movement of people, though? Recent nationalist backlashes aren't a promising sign. Maybe it will happen in its fullest online, maybe in virtual reality.

I am pro-immigration; my life is in so many ways the result of my parents coming to America in college. For decades, the United States has had essentially first pick of the world's hungriest, most talented dreamers, like a sports team that gets to pick at the top of the draft year after year despite winning the championship the year before. Trust the process, as Sam Hinkie might say.

On the other hand, taking off my American goggles, the diversity in the world's cultures, political and social systems, and ideologies is a source of global health. It feels like everyone should be encouraged (and supported) to spend a year abroad before, during, or after college, prior to entering the world, just to understand just how much socially acquired knowledge is path dependent and essentially arbitrary. 

7. Tyler Cowen's Reddit AMA

What is the most underrated city in the US? In the world?
TylerCowen
Los Angeles is my favorite city in the whole world, just love driving around it, seeing the scenery, eating there. I still miss living in the area.

I don't know if I have a favorite city in the world, but I'd agree Los Angeles is the most underrated city in the U.S. considering how many people spit on its very mention. Best dining destination of the major U.S. cities.

8. What are the hardest and easiest languages to learn?

Language Log offers a concise scale as a shorthand answer.

EASY
1. Mandarin (spoken)
2. Nepali
3. Russian
4. Japanese
5. Sanskrit
6. Chinese (written)
HARD
 

9. Under mentioned side effect of global warming

Time was, the cold and remoteness of the far north kept its freezer door closed to a lot of contagion. Now the north is neither so cold nor so remote. About four million people live in the circumpolar north, sometimes in sizable cities (Murmansk and ­Norilsk, Russia; Tromso, Norway). Oil rigs drill. Tourist ships cruise the Northwest Passage. And as new animals and pathogens arrive and thrive in the warmer, more crowded north, some human sickness is on the rise, too. Sweden saw a record number of tick-borne encephalitis cases in 2011, and again in 2012, as roe deer expanded their range northward with ticks in tow. Researchers think the virus the ticks carry may increase its concentrations in warmer weather. The bacterium Francisella tularensis, which at its worst is so lethal that both the U.S. and the USSR weaponized it during the Cold War, is also on the increase in Sweden. Spread by mosquitoes there, the milder form can cause months of flu-like symptoms. Last summer in Russia’s far north, anthrax reportedly killed a grandmother and a boy after melting permafrost released spores from epidemic-killed deer that had been buried for decades in the once frozen ground.
 

Because we don't already have enough sobering news in the world.

10. Why do our musical tastes ossify in our twenties?

It’s simply not realistic to expect someone to respond to music with such life-defining fervour more than once. And it’s not realistic, either, to expect someone comfortable with his personality to be flailing about for new sensibilities to adopt. I’ve always been somewhat suspicious of those who truly do, as the overused phrase has it, listen to everything. Such schizophrenic tastes seem not so much a symptom of well-roundedness as of an unstable sense of self. Liking everything means loving nothing. If you’re so quick to adopt new sentiments and their expression, then how serious were you about the ones you pushed aside to accommodate them?
 
Oh yeah, and one more thing: music today fucking sucks.
 

I still pursue new music, despite being past my twenties, driven mostly, I suspect, by a hunger for novelty that still seems to be kicking. At some point, I can't really recall when, the signaling function of my musical tastes lost most of its value. Once most of your friends have kids, you can seem cultured merely by having seen a movie that's released in the last year.

Virtue signalling

What is the opposite of a Like on social media? These days, perhaps the closest thing is an accusation of "virtue signalling." Given the current age, one of recursive outrage hurtling to and fro through online conduits at ever increasing frequency, someone was sure to try to claim higher moral ground through accusations of lazy armchair posturing.

James Bartholomew laid claim to coining the phrase in a self-congratulatory article which seems so smug in tone that perhaps he was trying to head off even a hint of faux modesty that might be interpreted as virtue-signalling (the subhead reads "It’s a true privilege to have coined a phrase – even if people credit it to Libby Purves instead").

To my astonishment and delight, the phrase ‘virtue signalling’ has become part of the English language. I coined the phrase in an article here in The Spectator (18 April) in which I described the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous. Sometimes it is quite subtle. By saying that they hate the Daily Mail or Ukip, they are really telling you that they are admirably non-racist, left-wing or open-minded. One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous. It does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbours or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all.
 
Since April, I have watched with pleasure and then incredulity how the phrase has leapt from appearing in a single article into the everyday language of political discourse.
 
...
 
I bumped into Dominic Lawson, former editor of The Spectator, who remarked that my life is now complete: I have added to the English language and can retire from the scene, perfectly satisfied. I have reluctantly given up hopes of ever appearing on Desert Island Discs — a pity considering I have been preparing for it for some 35 years — but at least I can comfort myself that I have coined a phrase. I thus join, admittedly at a low level, the ranks of word-creators such as William Shakespeare (‘uncomfortable’ and ‘assassination’ and many others) and Thomas Carlyle (‘dry as dust’ and, most famously, ‘environment’).
 

Given the culture world war that is 2017, last week the NYTimes published an essay on virtue signalling. The implications of the term seem fairly self-evident, but for those who are new to the phrase, the piece provides a primer.

When people offer their vehement condemnation of some injustice in the news, or change their Facebook profile photos to honor the victims of some new tragedy, or write status updates demanding federal action on climate change, observers like Bartholomew smell something fishy: Do these people really care deeply about the issue du jour? They probably aren’t, after all, out volunteering to solve the problem. What if they’re motivated, above all else, by simply looking like people who care?
 
This sort of ostentatious concern is, according to some diagnoses, endemic to the political left. A writer for the conservative website The Daily Caller wrote this summer that virtue signaling ‘‘has been universalized into a sort of cultural tic’’ on the left, ‘‘as compulsive and unavoidable as Tourette’s syndrome.’’ There are plenty on the left who might agree. It’s not difficult to find, in conversations among progressives, widespread eye-rolling over a certain type of person: the one who will take a heroic stance on almost any issue — furious indignation over the casting of a live-action ‘‘Aladdin’’ film, vehement defense of Hillary Clinton’s fashion choices, extravagant emotional investment in the plight of a group to which the speaker does not belong — in what feels like a transparent bid for the praise, likes and aura of righteousness that follows.
 
The charge of virtue signaling, though, has metastasized well beyond this type of comical figure. Once you’ve decided this ‘‘cultural tic’’ has become universal on the left, almost any public utterance of concern becomes easy to write off as false — as mere performance. It applies when people express dismay that a robotics team made up of Afghan girls may be barred from entering the United States; when someone frets about the American poverty rate; when The Associated Press shares information about a deadly oil-tanker fire in Pakistan. Every one of these things has been described online as the unholy product of ‘‘virtue signaling.’’
 

Of course, accusing another person of virtue signalling is its own form of virtue signalling. When I made reference to claiming moral high ground earlier, I should've been more clear. Whe applied to online arguments, moral high ground really means people taking turns sliding a sheet of paper under their feet in succession, ending with both sides about an inch off the ground.

My internet was physically disconnected by mistake last week and I spent a week largely offline, and in the few days since it's been turned back on I've returned back into the aftermath of the Google memo, the day or two we could afford on the North Korean nuclear weapon debacle, and then headlong into Charlottesville. All serious topics, all deeply troubling, but it's the online discourse around them which has quickly destroyed any accumulated peace of mind from my brief internet vacation.

W.B. Yeats' poem "The Second Coming" is never far from my mind these days, so spot on it is when applied to current online discourse.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer; 
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; 
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, 
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; 
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity. 
 

Much of social media, but in particular Twitter, should be regarded as Scolding as a Service. Unfortunately SaaS has already been claimed as an acronym, but it's not too late to tout this moat as a unique feature on their next quarterly earnings call. You can go to any old social media service for some sweet, sweet confirmation bias, but if you want to be scolded repeatedly and on demand, no service can beat Twitter.

I'm not going to spend much time rehashing the usual arguments on virtue signalling. By traditional signaling theory, much of online signalling, not just instances of moral indignation, is weak by its very nature.

One of the core tenets of signalling theory is that the best and strongest signals are the costliest ones, the canonical example being the peacock's tail. Human equivalents abound; if you drive a half million dollar Ferrari convertible down a busy thoroughfare, your message gets across clearer than if you're driving a $70,000 BMW. Since so much that is done online is inherently low cost, online signals are going to suffer from an amplitude problem in general.

[Some claim that the casual dress among Bay Area billionaires is some variant of that theory of costly signals, but I consider it to be the same; the costly signal there is the demonstration of power in disregarding fashion norms. You have such reputational capital that you need not even resort to traditional signals like nice clothes, like some normie.

It is surprising that ways of attaching verified cost or Talebian "skin in the game" to one's online signals hasn't been tried online. Perhaps an avatar change that can't be made for free but can only be purchased through a donation to some charity, almost like a virtual outfit in some MMORPG. Occasionally someone will match donations to a charity, which is similar, but one of these social networks with an economist on staff is sure to suggest a platform solution at some point.]

This long detour on virtue signalling brings me back to the VC sexual harassment revelations earlier this year. It wasn't that long ago and already it seems like a scandal from another age.

I wrote about the issue from the angle of mutual knowledge becoming common knowledge. In the wake of one woman after another coming forward with their stories of being harassed by various Silicon Valley investors, many in the tech community expressed outrage, and like a moral gag reflex, many of those who expressed outrage were hit with accusations of virtue signalling.

Whether or not you believe those who joined the chorus of outrage when the scandals broke, what they were doing in that context serves an entirely different and important signaling function.

Recall that until the story about Justin Caldbeck broke, many women had held back for years on sharing their own stories, many out of concern they wouldn't be believed, that they might be blackballed by the largely white male investing elites of Silicon Valley. Based on the names of those investors who acknowledged and corroborated the stories of various accusers, the women were right to be concerned.

In fact, many people, myself included, had to update our priors about the incidence of such sexual harassment, and the types of people who might commit such acts. Some who took a fall from grace were highly respected, smart, well-known investors, and the news that yet other stories of harassment might be buried by non-disparagement clauses meant that many had to recalibrate their priors upward even more. The Google memo was a similar issue that had people updating their priors as the volume of visible support both inside and outside the company for Damore took many by surprise.

When a whole lot of people are rapidly updating their priors, signalling where you stand, whether it's virtuous posturing or not, can serve another purpose. It can help people to clarify where you lie on the distribution in question.

Sorry white male investors accusing others of virtue signalling, it may feel silly to have to publicly declare that you're not going to harass the next woman (especially an Asian woman) entrepreneur that you come into contact with, but after hearing so many stories of harassment from such a wide variety of white male investors, many in the community honestly have no idea which of you are prone to such behavior. Clearly, identifying those of you who are wasn't as simple as identifying, say, a white supremacist, who might be Sieg Heiling or waving a Confederate or Nazi flag in public. The sexual harassers didn't have any such villainous mustache or common identifying feature other than being white men. If the signs were clearer, those stories wouldn't have made for such explosive news.

Signaling for one side or the other to help people establish proper priors really matters when it comes to sexual harassment. The more female entrepreneurs believe that the majority of investors are going to give them a fair shake, rather than try to exploit the inherent leverage in the investor-entrepreneur relationship, the more those entrepreneurs will feel safe raising money and calling out bad behavior when it does occur.

In other times in history, having proper priors was a matter of life or death. So for white male investors, to take the example at hand, it could certainly be worse. You could be black, and have to signal that you're not a criminal every day you walk around in public, for fear of being arrested or worse, shot. You could be female and have to signal every day of your life that you're not passive, that you're technically capable of doing your job. For most of history, being white and a man has been the default, meaning that those lucky enough to be in that group have had no socially inherited identity debt to manage or pay down.

More and more, white men, and white people, are being treated as a distinct segment, with their own cultural brand, rather than as the default. Some of this is by choice, some of it is exogenous pressure.

The transition won't be easy. It never is, because it is difficult to notice the absence of something. It's easier to detect if you reverse your surroundings. When I travel to a place like Taiwan, where the majority of people around me share my ethnicity, I feel a bit like Kal-El landing on Earth, a planet with much lower gravity than my home. I feel a weight lifted off of me. The journey many white men are taking now is the reverse.

In the trailer for the next Justice League movie, Barry Allen, the Flash, turns to Bruce Wayne at one point and asks, "What are your superpowers again?"

Ben Affleck, in what will likely be the best line in the entire movie, responds, "I'm rich."

He should have said, "I'm white." It may be suffering a bit of depreciation recently, but it's still just about the most effective signal going.

Aposematism

From Wikipedia:

Aposematism (from Greek ἀπό apo away, σ̑ημα sema sign) was a new term coined by Edward Bagnall Poulton for Alfred Russel Wallace's concept of warning coloration. It describes a family of antipredator adaptations in which a warning signal is associated with the unprofitability of a prey item to potential predators. Aposematism always involves an advertising signal. The warning signal may take the form of conspicuous animal colorationsoundsodours or other perceivable characteristics. Aposematic signals are beneficial for both the predator and prey, since both avoid potential harm.
 
Aposematism is exploited in Müllerian mimicry, where species with strong defences evolve to resemble one another. By mimicking similarly coloured species, the warning signal to predators is shared, causing them to learn more quickly at less of a cost to each of the species.
 
Warning signals do not necessarily require that a species actually possesses chemical or physical defences to deter predators. Mimics such as the nonvenomous California mountain kingsnake (Lampropeltis zonata), which has yellow, red, and black bands similar to those of highly venomous coral snake species, have essentially piggybacked on the successful aposematism of the model. The evolution of a warning signal by a mimicking species that resembles a species that possesses strong defences is known as Batesian mimicry.
 

Some wonderful terms in there like aposematism, Müllerian mimicry, Batesian mimicry. I recently wrote about the value of using rhetoric to encode one's ideas. German is gloriously efficient in its compression, with single words like schadenfreude for phenomenon that require many more words in English, but fields like science, philosophy, psychology, and sociology offer their own concise gems of language.

The rest of the entry is a good read on why aposematism might have come to be despite seeming to be an evolutionary paradox, and just what Müllerian and Batesian mimicry refer to.

What intrigues me about aposematism is how it functions as a really overt form of signaling. I find myself reaching for the framework of signaling theory often these days, perhaps because once you've lived a certain number of years, you've had a chance to see the relative effectiveness or futility of past signals, but you're not yet old enough to be at the point where your remaining days are so few or your status in the world so static that signals no longer matter.

When time stretches eon and eon

One of my favorite movies from Sundance this past January was David Lowery's A Ghost Story, which remains one of the better movies in what has been a weak year at the cinema. One reason it is so moving is a stretch of the film which decides to take a super long view of time. We're talking centuries long, as in a time lapse that bounds across years and decades in mere seconds.

[The movie also spends five minutes on one much discussed, uncut shot of Rooney Mara eating a pie, so it is a film that plays with time dilation in both directions, one of its several interesting formal tactics.]

Sometimes we can only get true perspective on life by looking at it through binoculars turned backwards. It all sounds a bit vague and hand-wavy except we have evidence that a 10,000 foot view really can alter one's mind. The overview effect is a phenomenon in which astronauts who have seen Earth floating in the vast emptiness of space return to the planet with an intense global perspective, having moved beyond the petty concerns of individual nations or communities. We humans are susceptible to perceptual hacking, but that makes us a fun kit to tinker with.

Perhaps growing older has increased my fondness for art that folds time in on itself so densely. What do we accumulate as we age as reliably as perspective? I really enjoyed the stunning graphic novel Here by Richard McGuire, every page of which takes place in the same living room in the same house, but across hundreds of thousands of years. It is a Cubist story where every frame on the page is a shard of story from a different time in that spot on Earth.

One of my favorite movies of this century, and ever, is Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, which, more than any other film I can recall, grapples with the existential mystery of the universe. It begins after the Big Bang, sweeps through the age of dinosaurs, stops in a childhood story inspired by Malick's own life, and dreams of what the afterlife might hold. And in every frame, you sense the director grappling with the question of why? Why this? Why everything? Why anything?

This genre of time compressing art needs a name. Some label for its own section at the video store or bookstore. For now I take to calling it eonic art, but some reader may come up with something better, or perhaps it already has a name I'm not aware of. It need not cover the history of the universe, but it generally has to traverse at least several centuries, or at a minimum, two generations of mankind. The Three Body Trilogy comes to mind from works I've read in the past few years, as does Cloud Atlas, which I have not read but saw once on an international flight. A.I., for its coda.

I know I'm missing plenty. What are your favorite works in this genre?

The rhythm of writing

Tony Zhou's Every Frame A Painting video essay series has a devoted following online, and for good reason. His pieces are one of the few things you can honestly say couldn't work in any form other than video.

That isn't the case for most content. It's trendy to bash media outlets for pivoting to video, but like many, I can't stand receiving a link to a video without a transcript because most of the time video is the least efficient way to consume the information within. Like many infovores, I can read and scan faster than I can listen to someone talk (which is why I listen to podcasts at 2X speed, sometimes even faster depending on who's talking). Video scanning and seeking is notoriously inefficient, and if the internet has done anything it's turned us into screen scanners with even shorter attention spans than before (as anyone who has looked at data from any eye-tracking study can attest).

Back to Every Frame A Painting. The series works well as video in part because Zhou has a deep understanding of film's visual grammar, but don't underestimate the patience needed to rip discs and scan through video. Someday, that may be easier to do, but for now, it's a long time suck, involving ripping Blu-Rays and DVDs with MakeMKV and then transcoding them with Handbrake into a format editable in Premiere or Final Cut, then watching over and over to assemble the clips, then writing a script and recording the voiceover, then fine-tuning. Writing an essay isn't easy, but compared to producing a video essay it's trivial. Christian Marclay's The Clock is a remarkable piece, but a moment of silence for all the assistant editors and interns who had to rip and label all the video from which it was assembled.

The Zhou essay on Kurosawa titled Composing on Moment reminded me of something about writing that has become more salient to me over time: rhythm. Zhou's essay is about shot structure, movement, and length, but many of the lessons he discusses apply to writing.

Each shot in a movie is a sentence. One of the simplest ways to improve one's prose and to keep a reader's attention is simply to vary sentence length. I don't love editing my own writing, it's so easy to overlook errors when your mind knows what it was trying to say; it tends to fill in the blanks instead of processing what's actually on the page.

However, I don't really have any other option, so I am my own editor. To protect against my familiarity, I usually set aside anything I've written for a long time, sometimes months, until I've forgotten it completely, before revisiting it to revise and edit. Once you're estranged from your own work you can see it anew. Also, sometimes the work doesn't survive the test of time and can be tossed.

The most effective way I've found to edit myself is to read the text out loud (using my inner voice, that is). Reading the text out loud does two things. One, it slows me down. Speed readers largely increase their velocity by training themselves to not read aloud. When I started editing myself, I had to un-train myself in speed reading techniques like word block scanning.

The other benefit of reading out loud is to render the rhythm of your writing audible. Where in a block of text can you pause to take a breath, and where do you go breathless? The cadence of breathing and speaking tends to mimic the frequency of the brain's ability to process words and sentences..

Think of your reader as someone with as a limited amount of RAM. They can only hold so much of a thought in their head at once. The longer your sentence, the more structure it needs if you're hoping the reader will remember it.

There are exceptions, as there are to any rule.

Here's an opening line from Cormac McCarthy:

They crested out on the bluff in the late afternoon sun with their shadows long on the sawgrass and burnt sedge, moving single file and slowly high above the river and with something of its own implacability, pausing and grouping for a moment and going on again strung out in silhouette against the sun and then dropping under the crest of the hill into a fold of blue shadows with light touching them about the head in spurious sanctity until they had gone on for such a time as saw the sun down altogether and they moved in shadow altogether which suited them very well.
 

That's from Outer Dark.

There are other authors known for an occasional colossus of a sentence, and some who seem to rely on it as the base unit for entire novels, like Joyce or Proust. The film equivalent is something like the nearly 3-minute continuous shot that opens Boogie Nights by Paul Thomas Anderson. or the famous Copacabana Steadicam shot from Goodfellas.

[If you plot the Copacabana shot spatially you realize that Ray Liotta takes a purposefully circuitous route through the kitchen to lengthen the shot, for no apparent reason other than to lengthen the shot. But it's such a great moment, and it has such a purpose in the film at that moment, that you forgive it the indulgence. Ray Liotta is trying to impress Lorraine Bracco, and the lack of a cut allows him to draw out the performance in one unbroken, escalating build. It works. No one who watches the movie ever notices the circuitous route because the shot itself is so dazzling, which is how magicians pull off many a sleight of hand.]

In both text and video, such a flourish is overtly showy, like magician wearing a tuxedo with tails, conjuring one dove after another from his breast pocket, his sleeve, his collar, back to his sleeve, and oh! here's three doves at once. Or a sporting event employing flame throwers during introductions, or a concert beginning with the artist rising from beneath the stage through billowing florets of smoke. 

As anyone who builds such an elaborate apparatus knows, such displays inevitably attract accusations of grandstanding. As soon as any film auteur releases a long unbroken shot in a film, an argument will erupt online over whether the shot is justified and breathtaking or just self-indulgent, rent-seeking on the viewer's attention. Generally it's both, and where you settle is a matter of taste.

I find my novelty-seeking sloping upwards at this point in my life, so I appreciate the occasional grasp at the sublime. Not every sentence needs to be in the unadorned prose style of The New Yorker (Tom Wolfe once described their house style it as "leisurely meandering understatement") and not every film needs to be a series of back and forth over-the-shoulder shots while two people talk, like is common in a network TV drama which must brute-force its way through a 24 episode full season order.

In my spare time, I've dabbled with creating my own writing app, a common fantasy among those who write, since no one is ever perfectly satisfied with their word processor.

[Processor, incidentally, is a terrible name for an application. "Word processor" is bad, and so is "food processor." Is there any craft that can retain the slightest bit of romance and dignity when its primary tool is named a processor? There's a reason we don't call Tinder and other dating apps mating processors, though many might argue that online dating deserves exactly such a name. Processing is a word that should be reserved for bureaucratic procedures; it feels appropriate that so many government institutions have FAQs about processing times.]

Among the many odd features I'd include in my theoretical writing app (whose goal would not just be to make it more enjoyable to write, but to write better, and which would likely make for a terrible business), one would be an editing view which would transform the rhythm of the text into a more scannable form. It might be color coding each sentence according to its word length, or turning a block of text into a graphic like a line graph, with sentence length as the y-axis. You might be able to calculate the variance of sentence length mathematically, though I suspect such a figure would be too reductive to be useful.

The longer the text, the more sentence length variation is desirable, so regardless of methodology, the goal would be the same, to make monotonous stretches of similar sentence lengths more visible to the writer. Readers can't handle being bludgeoned with sentences of the same length in perpetuity. Occasionally they need a breather.

A pause.

The next time you edit something you've written, look for places where a sentence or two needs trimming or splitting, or where a longer sentence might find an opportune moment in which to wander languidly. We may not all be poets, but even a million monkeys at a million typewriters can churn out the occasional line of Shakespeare, more so if they know what to look for.