Monday, August 15, 2011

An example of glib pseudo-academic pretension

This article is incorrect on many levels, but it *does* bring up some good (though old) points. The way that media influences the types of memes that are most likely to be propagated has been discussed endlessly, and the kind of oversimplified "twitter is only good for talking about your breakfast" statements by journalists was a big part of the inspiration for the SOMA project (

A breakdown of fallacies in this article:
1) Print literature is the only source of important ideas : This fallacy was discussed by McLuhan at length. While McLuhan was more or less in favor of print media, he recognized that it encouraged particular types of thinking and discouraged others, in addition to giving political power to particular types of people and taking it from others. Print media encourages linear, long-form ideas that can easily be put into words, while visual media encourages nonlinear ideas that are difficult to put into words and non-print textual media encourages ideas that can be formulated in shorter sequences of words. Long-form and easily-written ideas are not the sole source of useful knowledge.

2) We live in an age of information overload : This old chestnut has been popping up in the speech of old-guard folks since Socrates (and probably even earlier). How legitimate it is depends upon how you define information. By the rigorous mathematical formulation, information is actually decreasing because knowledge (which is to say, mental models) is increasing and becoming more accurate -- the jumping jesus phenomenon makes things more predictable. By a lazy layman's definition, the consistent upward trend in the effectiveness of communications technology that appears to have been in place since the invention of spoken language means that someone of any given generation can expect to have the ability to learn more things more quickly and with a greater variety of subject matter than someone of a previous generation. But, just like the other old chestnut (that the world is going to hell in a handbasket), this one is always said and the implied end result never actually happens.

3) People are becoming more shallow : People are always shallow. The rule of news is that it progresses towards tabloid material, and Time Magazine is no exception. This has nothing to do with the Internet, aside from the fact that print magazines lost their monopoly and thus became less profitable, leading to the need to appeal to a larger audience in order to stay afloat. While it's true that much of the communication online is shallow, sturgeon's law applies here: 90% of any print publication is also noise; for every nine people talking about their breakfast on twitter there's one making groundbreaking statements, which is about as good as any other medium ever has been (including, arguably, peer-reviewed academic papers).

I post it here because I consider it to be an excellent example of this kind of shallow anti-anti-intellectualism that does nothing but serve the ego of the author (who comes off as a bastion of hope for intellectual purity against a world conspiring to eat the brains of otherwise promising intellectuals and replace them with copies of The Daily Mail, or something). These kinds of articles are no more new than the kinds of things they criticize, and I consider it important to realize that they don't have any more content than that which they deride either. A habitual contempt does not reflect a finer sensibility; it merely reflects a habit of contempt.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Putting the rock-occult connection into context

I have mentioned before in passing the connection documented between popular music and occult practice. I have come to the tentative conclusion that this is a subset of the general connection between occult movements and economic elites, and how this relates to leisure-class societies.

Most of us spend a large portion of our time working. It is anomalous to have large quantities of leisure time prior to old age, but there has been a leisure class since at least the establishment of Eridug more than six thousand years ago. The leisure class is defined not by not working, but instead by not needing to work (and thus having their occupation driven by interest rather than economic factors). My thesis about leisure class occupation is that there are three primary categories of popular leisure-class occupation, one of which is dominated by mysticism.

Those classes of occupation available only or mostly to those who are not viscerally and mortally concerned with the accumulation of money are: physical philosophy, abstract philosophy, and time-wasting. Physical philosophy contains such things as tinkering, home improvement, small-scale engineering, painting, sculpting, scientific experimentation, electronics, model trains, and computer programming -- things that are ostensibly potentially profitable but whose potential for profit is a gamble. Abstract philosophy has potentially higher stakes and a lower success rate, and contains both those things we think of as philosophy today, mysticism, the occult, and more rigorous practices like mathematics. Time-wasting contains things like casual golfing -- things that are done to fill leisure time but not done in such a way that money could be gained from them.

A rock star is not initiated into the occult by some record-company-sponsored ritual. A rock star, when he or she makes it big, no longer has to work day and night to make it big; there is more leisure time (though I am not implying that rock stars are slackers; a self-made band, as opposed to a group manufactured by a record company, must generate enormous quantities of flukes before managing to get signed -- Radiohead sent out demos for years under the name On A Friday before they managed to push out Pablo Honey -- and an established artist can have those flukes published rather than sending demos to yet another company). If you no longer have money woes and you can get away with putting in a third of the work you have for years, you can either maintain your current effort (and potentially burn out) or you can take up those things that you could not before. As a result, The Beatles made Crowley and Hare Krishna references, and Bowie writes songs about the Sephiroth. It is easier to get into the occult in a group already saturated with occultists and ex-occultists, and the popular music scene is such a group. But, other notable successful musical artists have taken up building instruments or painting or piloting commercial aircraft.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Exploits in the Human Biocomputer (digest)

So, I haven't been around too much. But, I've run into several interesting things for my Unpatched Exploits in the Human Biocomputer series. Time for a digest edition.

On the subject of imposition of order (a subject very close to my heart) we have some scientism:

and some content-free narrative literature:

On the subject of subliminal messages and the use of priming, The Language Log has an excellent article that references several studies on the subject. There is also this post there, relating to the results of lacking audience-awareness, though that post relates more closely to my obsession with Project Xanadu (and, by extension, the use of appropriate rather than standard user interfaces) than to cogsci.

In fact, there are several recent Language Log posts that belong here: the abuse of empathy reflexes in persuasion and the joys and errors of computational linguistics have both been mentioned recently. I have expanded upon the paragraph length analyses in the above post.

The so-called 'nym wars' should yield the material for a possible pseudonym-vs-anonym post in the future.