Readings: Camera Head, Brain on Metaphors

Here are two excellent reads from this week:

1) “Sir, There’s a Camera in Your Head” [Wall Street Journal] – An Iraqi assistant professor in the photography and imaging department of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Wafaa Bilal, intends to undergo surgery in coming weeks to install a camera on the back of his head. Why? It’s a commission by a museum in Qatar:

For one year, Mr. Bilal’s camera will take still pictures at one-minute intervals, then feed the photos to monitors at the museum. The thumbnail-sized camera will be affixed to his head through a piercing-like attachment.

Mr. Bilal’s camera-based work will be overseen by the Qatar Museums Authority where:

For one year, Mr. Bilal’s camera will take still pictures at one-minute intervals, then feed the photos to monitors at the museum. The thumbnail-sized camera will be affixed to his head through a piercing-like attachment.

It remains to be seen whether this project will see the light of day, as NYU administrators have raised privacy concerns (students being filmed without their consent/knowledge). Of course, Mr. Bilal isn’t new to controversial projects. In a 2008 project, Virtual Jihadi, Mr. Bilal hacked a video game to insert an avatar of himself as a suicide-bomber hunting President George W. Bush. In his 2007 work, Domestic Tension, Mr. Bilal trapped himself in a Chicago museum for a month, inviting the public to go to a website where they could “shoot” the artist remotely by firing a paintball gun at him. His other projects are interesting as well: Mona Lisa (the exploration of that enigmatic smile) and One Chair, based on Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

2) “This is Your Brain on Metaphors” [New York Times] – this is a brilliant piece by Robert Sapolsky, a professor of Biology, Neurology and Neurosurgery at Stanford University. In this piece, Sapolsky explains how human brains are wired to understand metaphors surprisingly well. He explains:

Symbols, metaphors, analogies, parables, synecdoche, figures of speech: we understand them. We understand that a captain wants more than just hands when he orders all of them on deck. We understand that Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” isn’t really about a cockroach. If we are of a certain theological ilk, we see bread and wine intertwined with body and blood. We grasp that the right piece of cloth can represent a nation and its values, and that setting fire to such a flag is a highly charged act.

It’s interesting how our brains can be primed with sensory inputs, such as touch. For instance, I found this remarkable:

Volunteers were asked to evaluate the resumes of supposed job applicants where, as the critical variable, the resume was attached to a clipboard of one of two different weights. Subjects who evaluated the candidate while holding the heavier clipboard tended to judge candidates to be more serious, with the weight of the clipboard having no effect on how congenial the applicant was judged. After all, we say things like “weighty matter” or “gravity of a situation.”

The question is: knowing this information, how can you use it to your advantage in daily life? Next time you want someone to consider your question or idea, perhaps give them a cup of coffee or some item to hold while explaining yourself. Of course, now that you’ve read about this effect, you may be more attuned to it so that it doesn’t play as large a factor in your future decisions (I hope).

Perhaps the most interesting study profiled is that on cleanliness:

Another truly interesting domain in which the brain confuses the literal and metaphorical is cleanliness. In a remarkable study, Chen-Bo Zhong of the University of Toronto and Katie Liljenquist of Northwestern University demonstrated how the brain has trouble distinguishing between being a dirty scoundrel and being in need of a bath. Volunteers were asked to recall either a moral or immoral act in their past. Afterward, as a token of appreciation, Zhong and Liljenquist offered the volunteers a choice between the gift of a pencil or of a package of antiseptic wipes. And the folks who had just wallowed in their ethical failures were more likely to go for the wipes.

Sapolsky’s piece is one of the best short expositions I’ve read explaining how our brains are wired; the references to every day situations are particularly interesting. If you’re into neuroscience and want to learn more about the forces in our lives that shape our decisions, I cannot recommend Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational enough. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.

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Vladimir Nabokov: Invitation to an Interview

Vladimir Nabokov is one of my favorite authors. His command of the English language is rivaled by few other authors.

I’ve read Nabokov’s Lolita, Pale Fire (recently profiled in my newly-created page of classics), The Luzhin Defense, Invitation to a Beheading (read my review), and portions of his autobiographical memoir Speak, Memory. I’ve learned a lot about Nabokov through those books…

But the point of this post is to highlight my incredulity of his personality after reading Nabokov’s interview with Paris Review (#40, Winter-Spring 1967). As I highlight below, Nabokov comes across as pedantic, cynical, snarky, and yes, even arrogant. I knew Nabokov held himself in high regard, but as you’ll see below (and if you read the entire interview), he may be on another level here. The most important bits (in my opinion), I bold.

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On Facebook and Break-Ups

Recently, I’ve seen a number of posts in the blogosphere profiling when people break-up based on Facebook status updates.

Take a look at the graph below.

This is the excerpt from Gizmodo:

You’re very likely to get dumped on Mondays, right before Spring Break, two weeks before Christmas, and at some point before the summer holidays. The good news about the whole mess is that it seems that people feel quite bad about dumping someone right on Christmas Day, so you can breathe a bit easier while unwrapping your presents.

Facebook has quickly become the largest human data set, so yes, it is very interesting to look at the bulk data generated by its users. But from all the sources I’ve read, all of them miss this very important mark:

The data depicted above does not correspond to actual break-up day; rather, the data corresponds to self-reported updates of a break-up made by Facebook users.

Why is this qualification important? Because the way the information is presented above, there are numerous confounding variables. The most notable one is time shift (delay), corresponding to how long it would take for a Facebook user to update their status on Facebook after a break-up.

Here are two scenarios I can think of when time delay is pivotal:

  • Monday Break-ups. Suppose someone gets dumped on Friday. He or she may not come to terms with the break-up that Friday, and perhaps try to reconcile the relationship throughout the weekend. So, in fact, most break-ups may occur on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday; but the status update would come on Monday (when the user couldn’t reconcile things over the weekend, say; or perhaps, coming back to school or work the following Monday morning, Facebook is more accessible, so it’s fitting time to make the status update).
  • Christmas Day Break-ups. While it does appear that there are the least number of break-ups occurring on Christmas Day, perhaps it’s because a lot of people are away from computers (and thus Facebook) to update their status. Alternatively, it may be really embarrassing to announce your break-up on Christmas Day, so the user would wait a day or two to make the Facebook update.

That said, I think the data is useful, but it is much more interesting when looking at general trends (more break-ups occur as Spring Break and Christmas approach) rather than pinpointing break-ups on specific days of the week or holidays.

Still unconvinced? Imagine if the data set instead showed specific dates on when Facebook users entered a relationship (girlfriend/boyfriend, engagement, marriage). Would you really believe that if someone changed their status update to “Married” on a Monday morning, they actually got married on Monday? Of course not (unless they’re this couple)!

Bottom line: while the general data presented above is interesting, it’s important not to discount numerous confounding factors (time delay being the most notable one, but also: people untruthfully reporting a break-up).

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References:

1) “Amazing Facts about Facebook and Breakups”

2) For a superb take on the importance of confounding factors, especially on Twitter, I highly recommend reading “The Confounding Variable of the Retweet.”

Writing Advice from Stephen King

Love him or hate him, Stephen King is a prolific writer. But he’s a damn good writer.

I recently posted a link on Twitter to his advice on writing, which he gave in 1986. And even though the advice seems dated, it is still perfectly applicable today. I encourage you to read the entire entry, but I highlight the most important parts below.

Stephen King makes a great point about giving advice (and who listens to it):

I am going to tell you these things again because often people will only listen – really listen – to someone who makes a lot of money doing the thing he’s talking about.

King writes that talent is absolutely essential to write well. But I like how he factors the importance of rejection into the mix:

If you’re not talented, you won’t succeed. And if you’re not succeeding, you should know when to quit. When is that? I don’t know. It’s different for each writer. Not after six rejection slips, certainly, nor after sixty. But after six hundred? Maybe. After six thousand? My friend, after six thousand pinks, it’s time you tried painting or computer programming.

Don’t rely on reference book(s) when doing the first draft:

You want to write a story? Fine. Put away your dictionary, your encyclopedias, your World Almanac, and your thesaurus. Better yet, throw your thesaurus into the wastebasket. The only things creepier than a thesaurus are those little paperbacks college students too lazy to read the assigned novels buy around exam time.

In this day, just substitute the World Almanac and encyclopedias for Wikipedia, and you’ve essentially got the same advice.

This is the kicker for me:

Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word.

Don’t be afraid to kill things if they’re bad:

When it comes to people, mercy killing is against the law. When it comes to fiction, it is the law.

You can read the entire piece in ten minutes (which is Stephen King’s intention). Highly, highly recommended.