August 23, 2006

My sweet little Toxoplasma bag

I was born into a household that had two cats with indoor litter boxes, and there's only been maybe one year of my life when we haven't had a cat (or more). So what if they make you more emotionally unstable? -- don't they also calm you down just by resting their head on your hand, curling up into a ball next to your leg, or looking up at you with their big eyes after throwing their weight against your leg in a hug? Not many things are such reliable stress-relievers, certainly not other human beings.

August 22, 2006

High rents: Thank Christ for illegal immigration and yuppie transplants

Wondering what the ten most expensive cities are in the US for renters? No surprise that 6 of the 10 are in California, nor that Boston and New York are there, but I was surprised that DC made the list while Chicago didn't, and that Fort Lauderdale made the list while Miami didn't. This is one reason I still live at home -- DC (and the metro area around it) is ridiculously overpriced, plus it's a stinkhole. What city do you think of when someone says "hip, cool place to live" or "it's worth the exorbitant prices"? Not DC. For those who've never been to the area, here is a rough geography of the District of Columbia:

So, unlike New York or San Francisco with their panoply of edgy, expensive neighborhoods populated by the nation's cultural movers & shakers, DC is mostly a wasteland with a small pocket of safe but boring urban nabes. This is in contrast to the typical gentrification pattern where some run-down or dangerous area in an overall rich & powerful metro area is first colonized by gay men and made safer & hipper, only to be taken over by obscenely expensive apartment buildings and boutiques. When I was 14-16 (so, 1994-96), I remember going to Dupont Circle occasionally, and it still had that edgy gay village vibe. Ditto for M Street in Georgetown -- it amazes many, but in the '80s the richest, most elite neighborhood was punk & hardcore central, mostly due to the interest of Georgetown University students in the scene, much like Ivy League hippies of days of yore. Almost all the staple record & punk fashion stores there have been gone for at least 5 years or so, except for Smash!, where I used to buy my purple hair dye in 8th grade.

Now, however, the more gentrified look to these areas is not what the pattern in the East Village (or what have you) would lead you to expect: in reality, it looks like they grafted a hunk of some affluent Long Island mall onto the place -- Aldo shoe stores, Club Monaco boutiques, that kind of thing. The one exception, where there really has been a transition to beyond-the-mall high-end stores is Cady's Alley just off of M St in Georgetown, which features pricey interior design stores. This reversal of expectation is easily explained, again, by who settles DC: lawyers, wannabe politicians, and businessmen with Federal Gummint contracts. The rich in New York or San Francisco, by contrast, do more innovative work than here, so they'd likely score higher on the personality trait Openness to Experience, and so desire a more cultured atmosphere.

But high rents aren't just the result of yuppies who move in fresh from graduating college, cushioned by the more than $1000 per month their parents dole out for rent. And it's also not entirely due to geographical barriers to new construction, like the Pacific & Atlantic Oceans that impede development in the West & East Coasts. Massive illegal immigration drives up rents wherever it's tolerated (solution: don't tolerate it!). See here for Steve Sailer's discussion of "affordable family formation." Partly that's due to many more people living in a house or apartment than it's designed to accomodate (recently, my ho-hum Maryland suburb has seen an increase in the 20-person house phenomenon). But partly it's due to everyone else willing to spend more money to get away from the inchoate illegal immigrant ghettos. Right-thinking people who celebrate diversity are not flocking to Southeast DC or the outerlying suburbs where illegals pour in. This also drives up housing prices, as parents move to neighborhoods with "good schools" and -- surprise -- no illegal immigration problem. They'd be in for a rude awakening if they condescended to slum it in an illegal immigrant 'burb or nabe: the greasy leers from the young males, the auditory Chinese water torture of young males' car alarms, the visual assault of garishly souped up Toyota Camrys belonging to the young males, and the incessant weekend boom of awful Reggaeton blasting from the home stereo systems or tricked out car stereos belonging to -- yup -- the young males. As with all ethnic groups, the old-timers and younger females don't really cause much trouble, but even if it's just "a few bad apples" representing adolescent males, that's enough to cause public nuisance, and not all groups have equal proportions of "bad apples."

In short, living at home is the best financially, even if not in terms of quality of life, and I'll probably only be here another year until grad school. I don't care if it means girls won't be interested in me, as I'm fairly unsocialized and resistent to social pressures. And it's not that I'm against paying rent until I have a safe, comfy job: when I lived in Barcelona, I made hardly any money teaching English, but I paid my rent since getting a room in the equivalent of Greenwich Village (or whatever) only cost 350-400 euros a month maximum (though if you wanted luxury, that might go up to 600 -- still chump change compared to here). The metro system there was also excellent, obviating a car & gas / maintenance costs: in 2005, a 10-trip metro card cost about 5 or 6 euros, and each 50 or 60-cent trip could take you as far as you wanted one-way. Groceries were cheaper & much, much higher in quality than here. And within a block's radius from any point, there's an affordable butcher / specialty grocer, hair salon, interior design store, and cafe / bar. And then there's the human environment as well -- I was sure that when I heard my ESL students were to include businessmen, I'd be in for yuppie hell, but they were actually pretty cool by US standards. And that's not even to mention the girls -- good lord! You can't buy that kind of environment here. If only I felt my lifetime research prospects would be as fruitful working in a Spanish university as in an American university, there wouldn't be any contest in my mind. It'd be a fucking slaughter.

In the meantime, though, I see two ways to improve things: 1) the most obvious, enforce laws against illegal immigration, and restrict legal immigration to only "brain drain" folks from whichever countries and legitimate refugees (e.g., fleeing for their lives). And 2) enact legislation to curb "daddy's boy / girl" yuppies living in high-priced housing. If they've got smart, rich parents, maybe someday too they'll be rich -- but until that happens, I don't want them inflating rents during their 20s and early-mid 30s with unearned money. If I can manage with life outside the Beltway, so can they. Or they can live at home with their rich parents. I'm no free market disciple: if some policy violates the sanctity of the free market but enhances median quality of life without grossly violating individual rights, than full steam ahead.

August 19, 2006

What drug is your personality like?

Quiz here. Via Terra Sigillata.

Your Personality Is Like Cocaine

You're dynamic, brilliant, and alluring to those who don't know you.
Hyper and full of energy, you're usually the last one to leave a party.
Sometimes your sharp mind gets the better of you... you're a bit paranoid!

It's a pretty coarse quiz -- just 5 questions -- but I knew I would get cocaine. I think this must be a combination (in Big Five terms) of very low Extraversion (= high cortical arousal), very low Agreeableness (= antagonistic & suspicious of others' motives), and very high Neuroticism (= emotionally unstable / easily worked up).

August 17, 2006

The beauty of A-symmetry

That's right, the beauty of what is not symmetrical! Chris of MixingMemory has a good series on neuroaesthetics here and here, summarizing and commenting on the work mostly of MIT neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran. One of the principles of what appears beautiful to humans is symmetry, which is also thought to play a key role in what makes a person attractive to other humans. The rationale for its role in physical attractiveness is that symmetry (say, of the face) is easily disturbed during development (whether by pathogens or what-have-you), so a highly symmetrical face is an honest signal of good health. There are (at least) two hypotheses for why we humans care about these health indicators: 1) the "good genes" hypothesis suggests that we are looking to mate with someone with genes good enough to have proven their robustness against the slings and arrows of developmental disturbances; while 2) the "parasite avoidance" hypothesis suggests that we use health cues to determine whether someone's been infected by lots of bugs -- if so, then we'd better not get too close to them, lest we become infected as well. Or, both could be operating.

But aside from that, what I'm looking at here is what we find beautiful in works of art. There hasn't been as extensive of an investigation of this as there has been to determine what about a physical human body appeals to us, yet the available evidence suggests that symmetry is not very appealing in works of art. This has lead psychometricians of creativity -- and damn few they are! -- to devise the Barron-Welsh Scale of Art, which tests how well the individual likes or dislikes forms that are symmetrical vs asymmetrical, and simple vs complex. They've found that more creative individuals (presumably, the pool from which artists emerge) favor more asymmetrical and more complex drawings. Sidenote: this test is just a measurement instrument -- there is a theoretical background the creators have (mostly Freudian), but that is independent of its worth as a valid test. Similarly, you may believe that differences in intelligence are mostly caused by working memory differences, while someone else believes them to be caused by differences in sensory discrimination -- at the end of the day, both of you agree that IQ tests like the Wechsler are valid testing instruments.

To demonstrate the surprising obviousness of what sounds counterintuitive, let me (a non-artist) draw a nice picture in which both the figure is symmetrical and its placing among the background is symmetrical. Pretty boring, eh? Notice how if I make the figure asymmetrical and maintain its position, or maintain the figure but move its position so that there's a "disturbance" of equilibrium, it looks a bit more interesting. It looks even cooler when I do both (I've made this fourth picture more "complex" as well, just to shorten expository space).

Now, I just improvised those doodles, so don't read too much into them. But there are also parallels from the history of art; for example, ancient sculpture. The Egyptian practice was to pose the bodies in rigid stance, such that they were symmetrical left-to-right when viewed from the front or back. This continued in ancient Greek sculpture, although at one point the kouroi were positioned so that one foot stood in front of the other -- creating at least a smidgen of asymmetry. In the ancient Greek or Roman sculpture you're used to seeing, though, the bodies are positioned in a contrapposto stance, where the weight is on one foot. These sculptures are no longer symmetrical (or even close) from any viewpoint, as the shoulder and hip axes are tilted, among other things. Despite the asymmetrical image they project onto our retinas, they appear more "natural" than the stiff Egyptian and early Greek statues that project more symmetrical images.

This preference for asymmetry could result from two other of Ramachandran's principles -- namely, the avoidance of coincidences and the joy of perceptual problem-solving. Human forms that would project symmetrical images on our retinas would have to be highly contrived, as if the person were ordered to pose bolt upright. The other explanation -- that we just happened to look at this person when they were posed in the highly unlikely symmetrical-favoring stance -- requires a big coincidence, so we opt for "they were made to stand that way," which calls too much attention to the work itself. It has much the same effect as if actors were to always position themselves symmetrically with respect to the audience or camera -- it would have a jarring effect. Great for the alienating toolbox of a Berthold Brecht, perhaps, but not for expressing beauty. Or, it could be that we enjoy the asymmetrical posture because we are interested in how symmetrical it might be if we just oriented it properly, but this requires us to mentally rotate the figure into a canonical "poster in a doctor's office" stance. Just as people get fun out of playing Tetris, so we might get a kick out of this mental rotation as a means of inspecting its "true" symmetry.

I favor a third, not mutually exclusive explanation: that asymmetry suggests movement, and as most moving figures we encountered throughout the course of our evolution were living things, a preference for asymmetry could be parasitic off of our interest in isolating biological things within our visual environment, similar to what our motion detectors are for. True, some inanimate things move, but aren't we more likely to anthropomorphize inanimate matter when it moves rather than when it remains still? (I just committed this error -- it should read: "when it is moved by some external force.") An angry avalanche of rocks hurtling toward their target. A bustling rapid with no free time to spare. Autumn leaves dancing in a rapturous wind. Whereas a mountain, a still pond, and a heap of leaves don't intuitively suggest signs of life (if anything, anthropomorphizing these latter would require us to use metaphors suggesting the ending or exhaustion of life or vital energy, such as a sulking mountain or a shallow grave of leaf-corpses). In fact, compare my fourth doodle to this one, which is just as complex but symmetrical. Which one looks like it's moving? And which like it's more likely a biological form?
With contrapposto statues, asymmetry is probably favored due to Ramachandran's principles of coincidence avoidance and perceptual problem-solving, as the figures are at rest rather than moving. But take the well known Laocoon -- the complex asymmetry is probably favored here due to its suggestion of motion, in particular the desperate writhing of the main figure. Suggesting motion in a static sculpture like this also conveys the energy or force required to produce the motion, in this case that of the main figure as he struggles. Thus, asymmetry can be used to produce a sort of dramatic tension, as we undestand what forces cause this motion (character struggling), rather than the awkward tension produced by bolt upright statues, where the force is the artist's intervention due to lack of ability to portray the figures in a natural posture. (Though again, in the hands of an artist intent on disturbing the audience, these bolt upright postures could create a "wait, what's going on here?" uncanny atmosphere.)

Project Runway miscarriage of justice

Now, don't get me wrong: I love Michael Kors' and Nina Garcia's observations when they judge the work of contestants on fashion design reality show Project Runway, and god knows I get weak in the knees every time I hear Nina's deep, feminine greetings while looking at her adorable Iberian bunny facial features. But last night, they made an inexcusable decision to boot off Alison rather than Vincent. Suspicious, I went back through the first five episodes to see how well each of them did. Here's a rough breakdown, where I assign -1 point if they were in the "bottom" in the episode, 0 points if they were among neither the best nor the worst, and +1 point if they were among the "top." To be extra-fair to Vincent, I assigned both him and Alison a 0 for the work they did in the INC team episode (#4) -- neither was team leader, so I won't count it against Vincent that he was on a trouble team, while Alison's team was a contender for the win. If I were harsher, then episode 4 would have Vincent receiving -1 and Alison +1.

5: V -1, A 0
4: V 0, A 0
3: V 0, A +1
2: V -1, A 0
1: V -1, A 0

So, in the fairest way possible, going into last night's episode (#6) Vincent's cumulative score was -3, while Alison's was +1 (and from a harsher viewpoint, -4 and +2, respectively). Now, the judges don't officially tally cumulative scores, but it's clear that they do so unofficially, as Kayne's design last night was utterly atrocious, but he was spared since he'd shown promise, having won one competition and come in a close 2nd in another. That makes sense: even the good don't always win, and you want to consider as many data points as possible to get a better understanding of what you're dealing with.

In 4 of the 5 episodes leading up to last night, Vincent was in the bottom three, defending his awful creations, while Alison never was in the bottom. Previously, the judges have praised Alison's visionary work, while they have never done so for Vincent. Last night, both Vincent and Alison were in the bottom three, so it appeared Vincent would be out, right? Wrong. Since he was in the bottom yet again, let's assign him another -1, bringing his cumulative score down to -4. If Alison's score were +1 before this episode, then for her to lose out to Vincent last night, in the judges' minds, her single mis-step was so unpardonably dreadful that it was comparable to six failed competitions, bringing her down to -5, below Vincent.

Read Tim Gunn's blog and podcast for episode 6 to see why Alison's wasn't that bad, and why Vincent's was a non-starter garment. So Alison made the model look somewhat plumper than she is -- who cares? At least she could walk, and at least the construction was complex and asymmetrical in a good way, akin to what Issey Miyake might have done under similar constraints, according to Tim Gunn. It's tempting to lash out and make Vincent the scapegoat because he's an easy target, but in the end the blame clearly falls on the judges. This goes to show that, just as the good designers don't always win, astute judges occasionally make what should be an easy call into a complete blunder. Yet who will judge the judges?

Low-rise jeans and belly shirts

OK, I've been busy studying a lot recently, so to make up for lost time, lots of posts at once. First rant, and I know I'm not the only one who's said this, but -- if you keep tugging down your belly shirt so that it manages to conceal the flesh between it and your low-rise jeans... then why not just wear normal-rise jeans and a shirt that naturally goes below the waist of the jeans? Consider 50,000 college girls' primary sartorial engineering problem solved.

August 2, 2006

I was not a happy teenager

Haha, just found this old thing when I was rummaging through the storage closet. I remember making that the summer... I think after 9th grade, or maybe 8th grade. I was always bored out of my mind during the summer, so I cooked up a little project. It's a triangular prism, with the sides & top shown at the bottom. The materials: acrylic paint on pizza boxes -- to, um, signify the dormant transfigurative potentiality of.... well, maybe I just didn't know what the hell else to make it out of. Hey, I was just 14 or 15. I recall not trusting my hand with any sort of paintbrush, so I made a clean cut with a box-cutter or exacto knife wherever you see a line, painted the piece without worry, then replaced it & taped up the inside so it stayed put.

The eyes are kind of cool -- I had one of those flimsy 7" records that came as a promo in some magazine, and there was a strip of vinyl on the other side of the magazine fold (like how paper ads have those annoying bits on the other side), and it was see-through, so I taped that over the eye-holes. On the inside there's a squat, fat tube (pizza box material curled into a cylinder) with a sock stapled around the bottom -- to rest on my head. My head's pretty big, but not that big. But hey, you know what they say about guys with big heads... they must have big brains.

On Halloween, I'd dress up with that thing, play some spooky Residents music, and give the kids a delicious scare. They loved it! Not many kids trick-or-treated then, and almost zero do now. Everyone trick-or-treated when I was little (mid-late '80s), when the crime rate was higher than it's been recently!