Subgenres of weird real science

io9 has published a list, titled: 11 Emerging Scientific Fields That Everyone Should Know About, which is, like, crazy interesting.  My favorite one was number 7:

7. Recombinant Memetics

This one's quite speculative, and it's technically speaking still in the proto-science phase. But it'll only be a matter of time before scientists get a better handle on the human noosphere (the collective body of all human information) and how the proliferation of information within it impacts upon virtually all aspects of human life.

Similar to recombinant DNA (in which different genetic sequences are brought together to create something new), recombinant memetics is the study of how memes (ideas that spread from person to person) can be adjusted and merged with other memes and memeplexes (a cohesive collection of memes, like a religion) for beneficial or ‘socially therapeutic' purposes (such as combating the spread of radical and violent ideologies). This is similar to the idea of 'memetic engineering' — which philosopher Daniel Dennett suggested could be used to maintain cultural health. Or what DARPA is currently doing via their ‘narrative control' program.

Slate's Spoiler Rules

I love reading rules for spoilers.  Working out an etiquette for when, and where, and how much it's okay to talk about art that came out recently, or art that isn't too popular, isn't the biggest ethical debate on the internet.  It's not the biggest problem posed by the changes in media over the last ten or twenty years.  But, maybe for that reason, I think it's the most fun. Slate is tackling this question specifically as it relates to the new Netflix original series, House of Cards. House of Cards was released all at once, today.  There are 13 episodes, apparently 1 hour each.  It seems to me that makes this show, as far as consumption etiquette is concerned, more like a book than a TV show or a movie.

Sam Adams, the author of the article, draws a distinction between "Push" and "Pull" messaging that I hadn't thought much about before, and that I really like.  Posting on Twitter or putting a spoiler in a headline is a push.  writing in the middle of an article or deep in a comment thread is a pull.  I feel I was intuitively aware of this difference, but it's nice to see it spelled out.

The usual discussion of expiration dates turns up in the form of "by next Thursday, it’s fair to expect that those who care most about not having any detail of House of Cards revealed in advance will have worked their way through the entire thing."

The other two bits are just basic rules about life and art:  Don't be a jerk, awesome advice, and great art can't be spoiled.  Or, great art can't be ruined by spoiling.  It might lose a little bit, but experiencing a good story is worth it even if you know how it ends.  Nobody watches a show just waiting to find out what the last plot point is.

Relatedly, Slate is starting a podcast explicitly about spoiling movies for the purposes of discussion.  Now, they're doing Warm Bodies.  If you've seen it, check it out.

Video games get proper recognition as art

The Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) is installing 14 video games as exhibits, meaning you can go to the museum and play these games.  Starting with the most important note:  Yes, Tetris is one of the first fourteen games going in, so they can be reasonably trusted to have some clue how to figure out what games are important.  (Tetris is the best game.) As far as I know, reasonable people no longer defend the premise that video games aren't an art form, but it's cool that some of the best games are getting the formal recognition they deserve within the larger art community, rather than only among the gamer community.

From Slate:

How will the video games, which necessitate personal human interaction to be fully experienced, be exhibited for the masses? MoMA says that visitors will be able to play the entirety of short games and experience “interactive demonstrations” or emulations of longer and older games. As for the complex universes of games like Dwarf Fortress andEVE Online, MoMA claims it will provide “guided tours of these alternate worlds.”

MoMA is defining the medium that games take place in as the code -- which seems to me to be a good way to categorize it.  They consider the playability of a game to be its essential component, the thing that distinguishes video games, not just as an art form, but as their own art form.  Slate points out that this differs from arguments that video games are art in that they consist of narratives.  It also differs from the point made by Penny Arcade that the collected works of art that go into creating a video game are what make it art ("If a hundred artists create art for five years, how could the result not be art?) -- so, pixel art isn't what earns the video game its status.

Boing Boing posted a list of the 14 games going in to begin with, alongside their years of publication -- the starting number for a collection aiming at 40 games:

  • Pac-Man (1980)
  • Tetris (1984)
  • Another World (1991)
  • Myst (1993)
  • SimCity 2000 (1994)
  • vib-ribbon (1999)
  • The Sims (2000)
  • Katamari Damacy (2004)
  • EVE Online (2003)
  • Dwarf Fortress (2006)
  • Portal (2007)
  • flOw (2006)
  • Passage (2008)
  • Canabalt (2009)

Emphases mine.  Bold=games I've never played.  Italics=games I've never heard of.  I think I've got some reading up to do.

And congratulations to MoMA for making the right decision and including Tetris in the initial selection.

I'm more conflicted than I thought

Yesterday I wrote that I wasn't sure whether analyzing Paul Ryan's suit was frivolous. It turns out, that conflict runs a lot deeper than I realized:  This article started out with the headline, "I'm NOT conflicted about whether this is important," and featured two articles that popped up on my Google newsfeed this morning:

Don't get me wrong, these publications' coverage is horrible, in the case of the E! Online article, it's super fracking[1. BTW, does anyone else feel like it's sort of perfect that the main curse word from Battlestar Galactica is being used to describe a natural gas extraction process that causes air pollution, radioactive water, and earthquakes?] creepy.  But the basic premise, that the style decisions of the super-scrutinized are worthy of analysis, is the same.

There are three major areas of conflict, in my mind:

  • These are all people asking for our attention.  Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates, to prove they're capable of doing a massive job at the top of our government; super-celebrities, to make themselves sufficiently marketable that their mere name is enough of an asset to any creative work with which they're involved that they get bigger paychecks.  In both cases, it's awful that this is our relationship to those roles in society.  But in both cases, it's also a feature of our society.
  • The style decisions of the super-scrutinized have resonating influences throughout the whole of our culture.  By this point, the amount of attention we pay to them is good and important, though it's also self-reinforcing.  These people are building the narratives of our culture, and their stylistic choices establish the costumes of those narratives.
  • Directly adjacent to that point, the way we pay attention to the style decisions of the super-scrutinized reinforces the harmful cultural norms of our society.  The Paul Ryan and Robert Pattinson articles are about sexiness and relatability, stemming from their conformity to the norm, and the Miley Cyrus article is about the remarkable fact that at least one person is standing up for a super-scrutinized person trying to resist that norm.

The first bullet-point reminds me of an article I read yesterday about rape culture, called The missing stair.  While I wrote that bullet point, I felt the end of that article itching at me:

This isn't just about individuals, either.  Everyone who says "I don't want to be a victim-blamer, but girls should know frat parties aren't safe places" is treating rape culture like a missing stair.  Everyone who says "it's an ugly fact, but only women who don't make trouble make it in this business" is treating sexual harassment like a missing stair.  Everyone who says "I don't like it either, but that's the way things are," and makes no move to question the way things are, is jumping over a missing stair somewhere. [Emphasis mine.]

And while I wrote the last one, I remembered a Ze Frank video, in his 2006 series, "The Show."

We need these narratives, and these people giving us touchstones to build these narratives.  Life, it turns out, is way too big and complicated for anyone to handle working out entirely from scratch.  But it also seriously hurts a lot of people when we don't question them, or think about whether the narratives we're using tell the truth about the people who fit into them.

This was always a problem for the people moving within the narratives, but I think it didn't used to be such a problem for the people setting the trends -- those people where characters in books, plays, poems and mythologies.  We don't have to worry, for example, about how Romeo feels that everyone on earth imagines him as a hopeless romantic, or whether it hurts Darth Vader's feelings that people only ever see him as the bad guy.

As every child star grows up this generation, it seems like they have to face the impression that their transition from child to teenager to adult is a symbolic struggle on behalf of all culture, whether between innocence and corruption, or childhood and maturity, or stagnation and fluidity.

I know very little about Miley Cyrus and Robert Pattinson, so I can't speak to the nature of their struggles.  But I will say that I'm not 100% certain that it's not important, and shouldn't be noticed.

Boing Boing guide to sifting out bad theories

As a science-enthusiast, non-scientist, one of the main skills I need to develop (and one of the main areas in which I'm likely to be deficient) is telling good science from bad.  The way these things are sorted out in the scientific community are complicated, and without years of training and experience, it's hard to tell whether a claim does or doesn't have the right ingredients. Fortunately, there are guides out there, to help people like me.  Skeptic Magazine editor Michael Shermer has the Baloney Detection Kit, a video explaining many of the ways you can find hints towards the credibility of the claim.  Now, at Boing Boing, science editor Maggie Koerth-Baker offers Crackpots, Geniuses, and how to tell the difference.

The article provides a lot of good hints, but this is my favorite one:

1) If it makes a really nice story, ask for the details. (Good science usually makes a bigger deal out of the evidence than it makes out of the story. In fact, that's actually a problem many legit scientists have—they're better at talking about the details and data then they are at telling stories. But most of us respond to stories better than we respond to details and data.)

She's right -- people are naturally inclined to believe stories, but that just isn't how science works.  Science is, in fact, somewhat inherently anti-story, or, at least, anti-good-story.  Pleasing stories have suspense, tension, and resonant, one might say just, conclusions.  The ideal science-story is: the plot is laid out boringly from the beginning, the central conflict is the experiment, and the conclusion is presented (without regard to justice or irony) in a series of numbers.  Good stories are about building worldviews.  Science is, sort of, about breaking them.