Apocalypse Porn

Thinking about the end of Wednesday’s post this morning before rolling out of bed, I realized that joining up with a collective of applied Ballardian fiction writers is just about the last thing I’d want to do.

I get it that Ballard exerts strong appeal in certain circles, and I do find myself intermittently drawn into their orbits. Ballard explicitly theorizes his own novels from inside the text — a kind of “theory fiction” that lends itself to traditional scholarly writing. And Ballard’s diagnosis of late-capitalist culture resonates with a lot of people. Here’s a passage from Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise:

These people were the first to master a new kind of late twentieth-century life. They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives which, needing nothing, were never disappointed.

Alternatively, their real needs might emerge later. The more arid and affectless life became in the high-rise, the greater the possibilities it offered. By its very efficiency, the high-rise took over the task of maintaining the social structure that supported them all. For the first time it removed the need to repress every kind of anti-social behavior, and left them free to explore any deviant or wayward impulses. It was precisely in these areas that the most important and most interesting of their lives would take place. Secure within the shell of the high-rise like passengers on board an automatically piloted airliner, they were free to behave in any way they wished, explore the darkest corners they could find. In many ways, the high-rise was a model for all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly “free” psychopathology.

That’s Ballardianism in a nutshell, or spilling out of the cracked shell. I’m skeptical that late-capitalist anomie and ennui, fermenting in the decay of traditional societal connections and expanding in the vacuum left by the collapse of traditional social constraints, is distilling itself into all hell breaking loose, the comfortably coddled bourgeoisie’s unrecognized and repressed desires frothing forth in a hedonic eroticized death drive pitting all against all and each against each. It hasn’t happened in the 44 years since High-Rise was published: the privileged bourgeoisie remain complacently conformist while those consigned to the lower storeys of the socio-economic high-rise are becoming more desperate, marginalized, precarious, more attracted to unshackling their aggression not as a Ballardian tonic for alleviating boredom but as an act of desperation.

Maybe the Ballardian reality is delayed but still coming. Maybe what seem like the side effects of late capitalism, the recoil from schadenfreudean hubris, the collateral damage and the unintended consequences, are really the main effects, the objectives. Maybe the distributed unconscious of the stock market really wants to crash. Maybe the multitude of immaterial labor — the creatives and bureaucrats and technocrats — really want to be made redundant by inhuman labor, tantalized by the nightmare of finding themselves suspended precariously above the abyss. Maybe the bored psychopathic elite really do mean to undermine their own security, to render the planet unlivable, to crank the creative destruction up to 11, to pick up the red phone and push the red button, to turn the controls over to an all-knowing psychopathic AI. Maybe Trump desires impeachment and imprisonment. Maybe the Democrats want to provoke the Trump followers to armed insurrection so they can call in the military to quell the insurgency, declaring martial law and suspending democratic process indefinitely. Maybe all of the Ballardian drivers are accelerating into the crash, thirsting for their own annihilation.

In contemporary theory, Ballardian notes can readily be discerned in Accelerationism, its Deleuzian lines of flight propelled by technology, capital, and intelligence, thrusting a disembodied affectless desire beyond the humanistic gravitational field into a posthuman exploratorium that to the normies left behind can look a lot like “the expression of a truly free psychopathy.” And Ballardianism permeates the world of fiction, from cyberpunk to the new weird to new horror into mainstream commercial entertainment. The medieval decadent ruling class in Game of Thrones and the well-heeled clientele of the futuristic Westworld theme park occupy recognizably Ballardian dystopian imaginaries. Are these cautionary tales or apocalypse porn?

Trump parades himself before his acolytes as a Ballardian president, flaunting his ill-gotten wealth and his “dark triad” personality traits of narcissism, machiavellianism, and psychopathy, aggressively provoking confrontation seemingly just for the hell of it. It’s a performance enjoyed by the master showman, his routine choreographed and scripted and staged as an opioid-glazed spectacle for entertaining the inert masses. Fake news mingles with real news; all of it gets weaponized. High-Rise again:

A group of residents, all from the 14th and 15th floors, leapt out and hurled themselves into the mêlée. They were led by Richard Wilder, cine-camera gripped like a battle standard in one hand. Royal assumed that Wilder was filming an episode of the documentary he had been talking about for so long, and had set up the entire scene. But wilder was in the thick of the fray, aggressively wielding the cine-camera as he urged on his new allies against his former neighbors.

Nowadays Wilder might be renamed Fox. But he’s not the only one…

‘They’re all making their own films down there,’ Anne told him, clearly fascinated by her heady experience of the lower orders at work and play. ‘Every time someone gets beaten up about ten cameras start shooting away.’

‘They’re showing them in the projection theatre,’ Jane confirmed. ‘Crammed in there together seeing each other’s rushes.’

‘Except for Wilder. He’s waiting for something really gruesome.’

Like I said, I’m not sure I’d want to hitch my anarcho-collectivist wagon to an alliance of applied Ballardian writers… unless, secretly and unbeknownst even to myself, it’s what I crave.

 

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Getting Out the Trump Vote Again

Canvassing doesn’t work in wooing uncommitted voters — here’s the evidence.

It does seem though that systematic efforts to get out the vote have some impact. That’s partly what happened in the 2016 presidential election: Republicans were persuaded to vote for Trump, even if they didn’t much like him, in order to prevent Clinton from winning. Meanwhile Clinton generated only tepid enthusiasm and turnout among Democrats.

Trump seems particularly vulnerable as the 2020 campaign gets underway, losing support from the swing states and the suburbanites who made the difference last time around, and not even factoring in the Mueller reveal that’s yet to come. You’d have to think that a lot of the people who voted Trump’s way last time are going to sit this one out.

So what can Republicans do to jack up the turnout? The traditional hot-button issues are still in play  — abortion, drugs, illegal immigrants, Obamacare. Terrorism? Trump himself just pulled that plug by declaring victory over ISIS and amping up negotiations with the Taliban, but maybe he’ll juice the anti-Iran sentiment.

What seems likely is that the Republicans will spotlight the new wave of left-wing Democrats, even if they lose the nomination to a more moderate candidate. The Democratic tent harbors radical leftists, increasingly strident and influential, who are pushing America inexorably toward socialism and infanticide while opening our borders to roving hordes of Mexicans who kill us with their drugs, rape our women, and take our jobs. Sure Trump is an asshole, but you already knew that when you voted him in last time and — thank God — prevented Hillary from ruining our country. Buck up and get yourself out to the polls!

 

 

 

 

De-Turing Test

Let’s invoke the boilerplate frontispiece disclaimer:

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

In my story, a big high-tech company has developed a self-learning AI system that can carry on natural-language conversations online, by text or by voice, spanning a wide array of topics. Would the AI pass the Turing Test? The tech company arranges for a number of university professors to enroll the company’s AI in their online classes. At the beginning of the semester each participating professor announces to the students that one among them is an AI and that it’s their task, individually and collectively, to identify the android in their midst.

Already within the first week several students have come forward, confessing to their classmates that they are the androids. Pranksters no doubt, budding philosophers playing with the idea that humans aren’t all that different from machines. But what if the self-confessed androids are telling the truth? Maybe it’s a ruse, the AI system deploying reverse psychology in order to throw the humans off their scent. So now the Turing Test gets turned around: can an intelligent entity prove that it’s not an android?

 

 

From the Frying Pan into the Future

A month or so ago I received a jury duty summons in the mail. Only once before had I been called — it was while we were living in Boulder — but one of the attorneys eliminated me during voir dire. A lot of people try to avoid jury duty, but I’d been looking forward to it. A couple of years earlier my wife Anne had been seated on a jury for a horrific alleged crime, and while finding it stressful to sit through the testimony and presentation of evidence Anne had been fascinated by the trial proceedings and the jury deliberation. When it was over she felt that she had contributed something to the greater civic good, and had received something meaningful in return. I’d wanted in, and was disappointed when they gave me the boot.

The summons, issued by the Office of the Sheriff, instructed me to report for duty in the Jury Assembly Room at the Durham County Courthouse at 8:30 this morning. However, the letter further informed me that “sometimes jurors may no longer be needed by the date for which you are summoned.” I was told to call a number after 5:30 on the evening before my service date to see if they still wanted me to come in. I called, and they didn’t. “You don’t need to report for jury service,” the recorded woman’s voice informed me. “The court’s juror requirements have been met. By being available you have fulfilled your service. Thank you.” Well, a little bit of a letdown. Maybe I’m not the only one who’s felt disappointed. I’d been available for future service, which would have become present service today. But the recorded message informed me that I had already fulfilled my service in the past merely by being available. Now I suppose I can hold my head high: I fulfilled my civic duty, received my honorable discharge, no need to thank me for my service, I count it a privilege. I wonder if the Courthouse sells “I Served” t-shirts. My Badge Number and Juror Number are printed in the upper-left heading of my summons– the t-shirt could leave blank lines where the purchaser can write in his own numbers.

With time on my hands and blueberries and buttermilk in the fridge I decided to make pancakes for breakfast. I cracked the egg and slid it into the bowl — two yolks! According to the Egg Industry this is a one-in-a-thousand occurrence. The dual-yolk eggs used to be pulled from the production lines during candling because they tended to freak out the cooks, presaging either good luck or pregnancy or twins or death. I guess when you’re making pancakes you don’t want to look much further ahead than breakfast. Nowadays though the double-yolk eggs just pass on through — it’s probably just a cost-effectiveness thing, though superstition seems to have lost potency to shape destinies over recent decades. In any event, the pancakes turned out nicely — I’d like to thank that hen for her service. Now we’ll see what the rest of the day holds in store.

Writing this stuff down it starts feeling like the beginning of a novel…

“You have fulfilled your service.”

John hung up the phone. He’d already mapped out the route and planned what to bring along to keep himself occupied while waiting to be called. Though he’d never entertained any inclination to study the law, though he had found himself gravely disappointed in his only brush with the system, small claims court having meted out its lazy injustice on what he deemed arbitrary and capricious grounds, not to mention the outright lying of his duplicitous adversary, John had long been intrigued by the legal process, by the all-rises and the swearing-ins, by the evidence bags and the depositions, by crime scene photos and forensic expert testimony, by the contrasting narratives spun by prosecution and defense, stories that to the jury would sound clear and convincing beyond a shadow of a doubt…

Mind-Body-Mind

Here’s a summary of a couple of recent experiments demonstrating deep placebo/nocebo effect. It’s not too surprising that, when told that their DNA test results reveal a particular genetic predisposition, study participants demonstrated attitudes, feelings, and behaviors consistent with that genetic marker, even when the DNA results are fake news. But the participants also underwent physiological changes consistent with the fake genetic news.

This work comes out of the Stanford Mind & Body Lab, which “focuses on how subjective mindsets (e.g., thoughts, beliefs, and expectations) can alter objective reality through behavioral, psychological, and physiological mechanisms.” They’re tracing a causal cascade that runs opposite from but complementary to that of contemporary neuroscience, which explores how brain physiology shapes subjective mindsets. Then there’s this earlier study from Harvard demonstrating that placebo responsiveness might itself be genetic.

These sorts of findings tend to stimulate extravagant inferences.

MSU by 4

Las Vegas oddsmakers have made Michigan State a 2½-point favorite over Purdue in this afternoon’s basketball game. How did they come up with that spread? Mostly it’s an algorithmic simulation, a multivariate statistical equation built up from analyzing massive amounts of data collected about all the teams’ past performances in all of their games. But the bookmakers make their money not by betting on the games but by collecting the vig — the house’s cut on each bet placed, typically 10% of the amount bet.

Suppose Purdue, in a mild upset, wins the game. Vegas will pay off on bets that went under the predicted 2½-point MSU margin of victory. But they’ll also collect from bets that went over the spread. As long as the total amount of money bet on the “under” doesn’t greatly exceed the “over,” Vegas breaks even on the betting money while still making a 10 percent profit on the vig.

The point-spread algorithm isn’t deterministic, cranking out a single prediction of which team will win and by how much. It’s probabilistic, generating a Bell curve’s worth of possible outcomes of varying degrees of likelihood. Each of the factors going into the oddsmaking algorithm has a plus-or-minus confidence interval associated with it.

E.g., in the 18 games it’s played so far this year MSU has scored an average of 83.8 points, while Purdue has yielded to its opponents an average of 68.2 points. So you’re first best guess might be that MSU will score halfway between its average score and Purdue’s average points allowed: (83.8 + 68.2)/2 = 76 points. But there’s also the variability to take into consideration: MSU has scored between 106 and 63 points, while Purdue has allowed between 89 and 46 points.

The same idea holds for pace of play, rebounding margin, shooting percentage, and all of the other relevant variables: an average score is surrounded by a plus-or-minus halo of variation. These probabilistic variables are combined and differentially weighted in an equation that, like its components, generates a probabilistic average and a range of variation.

Only one actual game between MSU and Purdue will be played this afternoon; when the buzzer sounds only one actual final score will be posted on the scoreboard; some betters will have won while others have lost. But from the algorithm’s standpoint the game that’s played this afternoon is only one of an infinite number of MSU-Purdue games that could be played — a practical application of multiverse theory. The algorithm runs a series of simulations on maybe a thousand hypothetical games, systematically tweaking the plus-or-minus variabilities in the model to generate what-if scenarios, then cranking out a final score for each simulated game. In some simulations MSU wins by a dozen; in others MSU loses by a dozen. What Vegas wants to know is the midpoint, where half of the simulated game results fall on left tail of the distribution, the other half on the right tail. That’s where Vegas wants to set the point spread.

But not so fast. Just because the algo cranked out the average point spread for its simulated games, that doesn’t mean that the betters are going to fall 50-50 on either side of that spread. People who bet on games might have a system and do analyses; they might even have an algorithm of their own that they’ve built or a service they’ve bought into to help them beat Vegas at its own game. But betters also play hunches, follow instincts, play favorites.

MSU has won 21 straight Big Ten games: aren’t they about due for a loss? And MSU has beat the Vegas point spread in 8 straight times: surely things are due to even out. That sort of thinking is called the gambler’s fallacy — that the longer somebody has been on a lucky streak, the greater the likelihood that the streak will come to an end. Still, just because it’s a fallacy from an empirical standpoint doesn’t mean that bettors stop believing it.

So there’s still a seat in the back room for the guy with the green eyeshade smoking a cigarette. Let’s say that the algo runs a thousand simulations of the game and the average prediction is MSU by 5 points. The savvy bookmaker might have reason to expect that gambler’s fallacy will play a role in the betting and consequently nudge the spread down a little bit. But the bookmaker needn’t rely solely on intuition and experience. There’s plenty of historic betting data to be mined; simulated bets can be placed online or in focus groups days before the actual odds are to be posted. Almost surely Vegas relies now on a self-learning AI to predict human betting patterns for each game, using its findings in tandem with those of the point-spread prediction algorithm.

The open-access college basketball algorithm website I pay attention to is Kenpom. According to that algo, MSU is about 9 points better than Purdue. However, the game is being played on Purdue’s home court, and according to Kenpom’s analysis the home court advantage is worth on average about 3½ points. So MSU should be expected to win by 9 – 3½ = 5½, covering the Las Vegas spread of 2½.

I have rooting interests in MSU, having graduated from there. On the other hand, I do tend to think that MSU has been playing over their heads lately and are due for a bit of a comeuppance. However, I acknowledge that there’s a certain amount of gambler’s fallacy bias creeping in there. So I’ll split the difference between Las Vegas and Kenpom.

My prediction: Michigan State by 4 — I’m taking the over.

——

UPDATE… Final score: Purdue 73, Michigan State 63. One of those wrong futures showed up in the present. Good thing I didn’t put my money where my mouth was.

 

Knowledge-Resistant Strains of Belief

According to recent research findings, people who are strongly opposed to genetically modified organisms tend to know the least about food science, but believe that they know the most about it. And their negative opinions about GMO safety aren’t influenced by exposure to relevant research findings. One of the principle investigators in the study hypothesized that “people might feel extremely about genetically modified food because it’s very unnatural in a way they find almost morally upsetting.” The article cites a 2001 psych research study that concludes:

Beliefs tend to persevere even after evidence for their initial formulation has been invalidated by new evidence… People spontaneously generate explanations for events as a way of understanding events, including their own beliefs. If an explanation is generated, this explanation becomes a reason for holding an explained belief, even if the belief is eventually undercut by new evidence.

I find these sorts of findings disturbing. It’s not that I know a lot about GMO safety, because I don’t (and I admit it). I’m disturbed by the resistance of belief to knowledge. What I believe about some aspect of the world is never the same as the world itself, any more than your belief about what I’m presently drinking is the same as the drink itself. But if you believe that I’m drinking a gin and tonic, I’d expect you to hold that belief loosely in your hand, ready to set it down and to pick up another depending on what I tell you I’m drinking, what you see in my glass, what it tastes like when you take a sip.

For what it’s worth, I’m less concerned about GMO safety than about corporate monopolistic control over food production by patenting their engineered organisms. But Big Ag has for a long time been patenting hybrid organisms developed the old-fashioned way, through systematic cross-pollination rather than genetic engineering.

Time for a refill.