06/13/14

When good people do bad things in groups


Mob MentalityThe headline is taken from a piece on Science Daily on a study about how groups change personal behaviour and morality. The study is reported on the MIT website. I’ve seen that change myself, many times over the years, and most recently locally. The study adds intelligence on the neurology of how such group activity changed people.

The report itself is called “Reduced self-referential neural response during intergroup competition predicts competitor harm,” which of course would have most people’s eyes glazing over. But the authors of the report start by asking a salient question:

Why do interactions become more hostile when social relations shift from “me versus you” to “us versus them”? 

Why, indeed? Why do people who seem rational and even friendly individually become angry bullies in a group?The authors themselves offer a hypothesis:

One possibility is that acting with a group can reduce spontaneous self-referential processing in the moral domain and, in turn, facilitate competitor harm. We tested this hypothesis in an fMRI experiment in which (i) participants performed a competitive task once alone and once with a group; (ii) spontaneous self-referential processing during competition was indexed unobtrusively by activation in an independently localized region of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) associated with self-reference; and (iii) we assessed participants’ willingness to harm competitors versus teammates. As predicted, participants who showed reduced mPFC activation in response to descriptions of their own moral behaviors while competing in a group were more willing to harm competitors. These results suggest that intergroup competition (above and beyond inter-personal competition) can reduce self-referential processing of moral information, enabling harmful behaviors towards members of a competitive group.

That’s fairly technical and likely not eyebrow-raising for us non-techies. Is this relevant to you and me, to our neighbours and friends and our daily lives? Yes, and very much so.

It means that our personal moral compass may not work, may be disabled when we interact in groups that identify an us-them dichotomy, or see outsiders as competitors. It explains why groups can become uncivil, nasty, aggressive, even violent although their individual members may not be.

It also suggests that to break away from group dominance, one needs to become introspective about our own values and ethics, and one must work hard to recover that moral compass.

We only need read the stories of the brave but estranged family members the late Fred Phelps, leader of the hate-filled Westboro Baptist Church, who broke away from his control. Twenty-three-year-old Zach Phelps-Roper broke from the church recently, and spoke to the Topeka Capital-Journal about his decision:

Empathy and unconditional love, he said, are the keys to solving the world’s problems — a lesson he has learned contrasting his time inside the WBC compound and the past nearly 11 weeks outside it.
“I feel like I have unconditional love for every person around the world,” Phelps-Roper said Friday. “The Westboro Baptist Church sees things differently than I do now.”
The church he grew up in was too busy pointing out problems to look for solutions, he said. He has been able to spend the past two months investigating the second part of that equation.
His conclusion: “Most problems come from a lack of understanding of how we affect other people and things around us. I feel like I have found the holy grail, the overarching solution to solving all of our society’s problems, and I want to learn more. I want to do more.”

What is interesting to me is that Zach, although he broke from the abusive church and its leader, and rediscovered his own moral compass, he also retains considerable religious faith – even a fundamentalist view I would have expected him to abandon. So one can break free of a group’s dominance yet retain shared core beliefs., just behave differently – more normally, more civilly.

That was eye-opening. It certainly isn’t the experience of all Westboro members who have freed themselves of its grip (read this piece about another family member’s struggle; Libby Phelps-Alvarez), although most have said in the interviews I’ve read they are kinder, gentler, more empathetic and humane since leaving the church. I expect most people who break free of any group’s control feel that way.

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06/12/14

The Hollow Crown: Henry V


Battle of AgincourtAs I started to watch the last film in the Hollow Crown series, I wasn’t sure whether Tom Hiddleston was up to playing the iconic role in Shakespeare’s most patriotic (and jingoistic) play.

I thought Hiddleston’s Prince Hal in Henry IV had just a little too much of Loki – and maybe the bully – in it for me to see him as a majestic king. But I was quickly won over. Whether the movie itself was good Shakespeare is another question.

First a note on the lighting and sets: in Richard II, it was all light, bright and colour (until the end, where Richard’s fall is marked by darker sets and shadows). Henry IV P1 and P2 were both shot in muted tones: greys, blacks, dark browns, with shadowy sets and little colour outstanding. Henry V is a mix of the two, more conventionally lit.

The play contains the story of Henry’s challenge to France – claiming he is the true king of France and demanding King Charles hand the crown over. When the French say no, Henry invades with an army of roughly 12,000. He has some initial successes, including the siege of Harfleur. Then the campaign becomes a weary march to safety where soldiers suffered more from illness and dysentery than from the enemy. Henry’s men set out for Calais – at that time an English-held city – with only 9,000 of his original besieging force (some sources say he had fewer men – 7,000). More would be lost on the march.

The campaign culminates in the remarkable victory at Agincourt, where a bedraggled and dispirited English force defeated a much larger French one. It is the highlight of the play. Or should be.

Who can forget Kenneth Branagh making the famous and inspirational  “band of brothers” speech to the army on the eve of the battle? Yet in the Hollow Crown, Henry makes it privately to his captains, not the massed army:

Hiddleston’s quiet speech is, to me, the more emotional and personal compared to Branagh’s loud and histrionic rendering. But how does this rouse the army’s spirits? Well, maybe Henry isn’t concerned about the soldiers: it’s the nobles he’s courting here, the leaders he needs to rally the men when they are hard pressed.

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06/11/14

The Hunting of the Snark


Hunting of the SnarkI’ve always wondered why Lewis Carroll’s wonderful poem, The Hunting of the Snark - an Agony in Eight Fits - has never been redone, rewritten in a modern version, with modern references and people. It seems to lend itself to revision, at least to my eyes.

Perhaps it’s because this sort of whimsical, satirical poem is not popular these days (it was written between 1874 and 76, a decade after Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and three decades after Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense).

Perhaps it’s because it’s a long poem, and reworking it all would be a considerable effort. After all, it’s roughly 4,400 words and you need to make it both scan and rhyme.

Perhaps it’s because of the language: a combination of formal and nonsense writing. Wikipedia reminds us Carroll borrowed from himself with eight portmanteau words he coined earlier:

Eight nonsense words from “Jabberwocky” appear in The Hunting of the Snark: bandersnatch, beamish, frumious, galumphing, jubjub, mimsiest (which previously appeared as mimsy in “Jabberwocky”), outgrabe and uffish.

The Jabberwocky, from Through The Looking Glass, was equally brilliant, perhaps more so because of its brevity. Who can forget those wildly imaginative immortal opening lines:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Perhaps it’s because Carroll was just too brilliant to imitate that these works have not been widely imitated or mimicked. Who, today, could out-Carroll Lewis Carroll with similar language and fancy?

Snark has been replicated in various – sometimes odd – ways, such as Mike Batt’s 1986 concept album, released as a musical on DVD in 2010. But these are tributes, not reinventions.

And what did Carroll himself mean by the poem? Is it just entertaining nonsense, or was it an allegory? Late in his life, Carroll “agreed with one interpretation of the poem as an allegory for the search for happiness.” Others have suggested it was:

  • an allegory for tuberculosis,
  • a mockery of the Tichborne case,
  • a satire of the controversies between religion and science,
  • the repression of Carroll’s sexuality, and
  • a piece against vivisection
  • a “voyage of life”,
  • “a tragedy of frustration and bafflement,”
  • Carroll’s comic rendition of his fears of disorder and chaos
  • comedy serving as a psychological defense against the devastating idea of personal annihilation,
  • “attempts to create a sense of order and meaning out of chaos.”
  • dealing with existential angst
  • Carroll’s satire of himself.

So it’s pretty much open to interpretation. Reads always have to answer for themselves what or who the Snark represents - and what a Boojum really is.

Hunting of The Snark
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06/11/14

E-readers: worth the investment?


BookshelfI have a passionate, somewhat obsessive, relationship with books. Real books: paper, ink and glue. Not digital books. I have a lot of books and I treasure each one like an old friend. I love reading – I read books at least an hour every day, and usually much more. The feel of a book in my hands is a comfort and a delight.

I worked in book publishing – a dream job for anyone with a passion for reading.

I’ve never been seduced by an e-reader – even though at heart I’m a techie geek who likes hardware and gadgets almost as much as books. E-readers always seemed to cater to the pop-fiction crowd and I don’t read much contemporary fiction (mostly non-fiction: science, history, politics fill my shelves). However, I do read fiction: mostly the classics.

I also resist buying a digital book if I can’t share it, can’t keep it on a shelf to re-open later, can’t write my name on the inside, can’t clip it into a pocket or a knapsack. I like to have a small, unruly stack of books beside my bed so I can read chapters from several titles before I sleep. And books on the dining room table. Books on the toilet tank lid. Books on the floor. On the coffee table beside the couch.

An e-reader just seems so tidy.

But I suppose it’s not really very different from buying a computer game or DLC on Steam or buying vehicles on World of Tanks (which I’ve done without any philosophical pondering). They’re digital downloads, too, not actual purchases, like e-books.

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06/10/14

The Hollow Crown


Wikipedia image

Richard II, the first English king of whom we have a real portrait, not just a stylized one.

I’ve watched three of the four productions in the 2012 TV series, The Hollow Crown, this past week, and am greatly impressed by the productions and the acting. Wonderful, rich stuff.

The series consists of the second Shakespeare tetralogy, the Henriad: Richard II; Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V, each roughly two hours long.  I expect to see the last remaining one this week. (N.B. A new production of the first tetralogy, The Hollow Crown II, is in the works this year).

There’s a bit of an irony in the tetralogy’s name: Henriad, because Henry doesn’t appear at all in Richard II: he is only mentioned in a offside mention by Henry Bolingbroke, his father and newly-crowned king, at the end of the play. He’s  a major but not the main character in Henry IV P1 and P2 – rather Prince Hal shares the stage with Falstaff, Hotspur,his father, and in Part 2, his brother John of Lancaster. Plus the various rebels have their time on stage. It isn’t until the final play that he comes into his own.

One can never get too much Shakespeare in one’s life, and this series feeds my need for film versions that of late has been sadly lacking.* Of course I read the plays frequently – at least one a year, as well as books about the plays and the Bard – but a good film production can be so much more powerful, more engaging. And who, really, doesn’t love Shakespeare?

Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is a part of an Englishman’s constitution. No doubt one is familiar with Shakespeare in a degree, from one’s earliest years. His celebrated passages are quoted by every body; they are in half the books we open and we all talk Shakespeare, use his similes, and describe with his descriptions.
Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, 1814

Every production of the Bard is, by necessity, both an interpretation and a compromise. Few of the plays fit comfortably within the time constraints imposed by TV (and dwindling viewer attention spans), so they are often abbreviated to fit the usual two-hour comfort zone for movies. That means some dialogue, some scenes, some subplots must be cut. Visual effects often replace dialogue or at least embellish a scene so less verbiage is needed, especially in action scenes.

And then there are the many ways a director chooses to portray the characters, the scenery, the secondary characters. Is the lead a villain or misunderstood hero? Was the line said in anger or in jest? Is it irony or ignorance? Is the audience expected to be sympathetic or angry at the character? Is the king strong or infirm? Is he bold or indecisive? Often the characters lend themselves to a range of portrayals.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Each production is in itself a work of art that has a unique relationship to Shakespeare. So it is with The Hollow Crown; the story of the beginning of the War of the Roses when the Plantagenets split into the competing houses of York and Lancaster, which vied for power and the throne.

At least that’s Shakespeare’s view and if modern historians disagree, his version at least makes for great drama. The result, however, is incontestably one of the greatest collections of Shakespeare on film.

If there is any flaw, it lies in the audio, which is sometimes less than clear, especially in crowd scenes (and the often thick accents – likely authentic to Shakespeare’s audience, but ahistorical for the era – may obfuscate some dialogue for the non-native viewer). Still, the stories are rich, the characters deep and well-fleshed, and the sets make the audience feel as if they were there, not in some stylized set pieces.

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06/6/14

Talking to water, yelling at rice


Hidden MessagesDr. Masaru Emoto thinks you can hurt water’s feelings by shouting at it. No, really. Stop laughing. He’s written a bestselling book about it – The Hidden Messages in Water – and he’s convinced a whole lot of people that he’s right. But of course, the sheer numbers of believers doesn’t mean he is.

Dr. Emoto has a degree in “alternative medicine”* from the Open University of Mumbai. According to CSICOP, “the only requirement for this degree are one year of study and completion of one research project.” Other sites call it a “diploma mill.” Well, that’s at least a year’s more education than most of the people selling “alternative medicine” appear to have. But it’s not comparable to a degree in science or medicine.

Dr. Emoto believes water has feelings and you can affect it by using positive and negative words, and even music. You can make it happy or sad.

Really: stop laughing. You won’t get this piece finished if you don’t.

Some folks gush over Emoto’s work and babble on about it in distinctly New Agey-pseudoscience manner, with hot-button words like Chi, Reiki, crystals and angels tossed higgledy-piggledy into the text to make the New Agers’ eyes glaze over in delight:

Could water respond directly to people’s consciousness? Apparently yes. Crystals reflected the panic during an earthquake and also the recovery period three months later. Tap water of Tokyo, which was formless, responded to the transmission of “Chi, Soul and Spirit” of 500 people to give a distinctive crystal. And, certain specially gifted individuals could make the most polluted, formless water respond to the “Chi of love” or to prayer, to give remarkable symmetries of perfection. The Reverend Kato Hoki, chief priest of Jyuhouin Temple, Omiya city, was able to change the six-fold symmetry of the ice crystal to a previously unknown, seven-fold symmetry. “Water is the mirror of the mind”.

He’s the darling of the spa set, too, awarded a “Special Prize” as an “outstanding example of a professional who lives the Spa philosophy, or a person who has made an extraordinary contribution to cultivating and promoting the Spa philosophy.”

(Until today, I didn’t even know there was a Spa Philosophy. I must have had my nose too deep into the writings of the Epicureans and missed this major philosophical movement. It is described on the award site as, “Holistic Spa concepts translate our age-old bond with water into applications that, in the best case, leave us with a sense of purity and authenticity. This absolute harmony between body, mind and soul is the purest experience.” Sadly, Dr. Emoto lost first prize to 3 LAB Perfect Cleansing Scrub. Must have been quite a stiff competition…)

And taking from Emoto’s beliefs, some folks are selling “emotionally charged” water - magically transformed from ordinary water by “positive emotional intentions.”  Others are selling “blessings” to turn your water into “liquid prayers.” Who thinks this stuff up?

The codswallop meter is in the red zone on this one. Water woo, it’s called. Woo hoo, I say.

New Age Retailler magazine called his work “pioneering” in a lengthy interview with Emoto, who in turn was described as a “New Age rock star.”

In The True Power of Water, Emoto explores the power of the lessons of the first book as they apply to healing. In particular, Emoto describes working with hado, the subtle energy or vibration inherent in all things, drawing upon his experiences as a practicing doctor of alternative medicine. He also emphasizes humankind’s stewardship role in protecting pure water sources — and making pure water available to all.
“If you speak negative words, that leads to destructive matters, and if you speak positive words, then some positive and beautiful thing will occur.” — Dr. Masaru Emoto
Emoto’s first two books both reached The New York Times’ extended bestseller list. The Secret Life of Water, a fall 2005 release, emphasizes the power of prayer and facilitating the flow of hado.

Hado? Sounds suspiciously like Obi Wan Kenobi talking about The Force. Emoto himself describes it:

Hado is a vibration that cannot be seen, because it is so small. It is so subtle that it cannot even be measured. I believe that we should move toward vibrational medicine. The starting point of that is people’s hearts. When you have a stressed or damaged heart, then your body becomes damaged, as well. I believe that how the God, or something great, created this world is with love and gratitude. Love is an active energy, and gratitude is a passive energy. I believe when you deviate from this law, this balance of love and gratitude, a person is destined to have illness.

Just use The Force, Luke…  I wouldn’t want anyone who believes this to be my doctor, but then I’m a skeptic about this sort of balderdash, so my hado’s probably pretty mixed up anyway.

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