My God, it’s full of stars!

  • Dave Bowman gets his first glimpse into the monolith in 2001.
  • The non-famous relative of a film producer walks into an A-list Hollywood party.
  • Incredulous world-record book reader realizes how heavily caveated his favorite athlete’s accomplishments actually were.
  • Virtually impossible bowl of Lucky Charms.
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Technology moves so quickly these days that each generation is defined by the gizmos it cannot use. The home espresso machine collects dust. Smartphones go uncustomized. Appliance digital clocks eternally blink 12:00. Technological sophistication as a youth does not inoculate you. The retired heart surgeon is defeated by his voice mail. An engineer who helped land men on the moon in the 1960s will stare blank-eyed at a TiVo menu. Even a veteran of punch-card Fortran programming back in the day might find himself quizzing his children as to where exactly on his PC the Internet resides.

Those of us who are technologically adept and still young watch this and ask ourselves: will that someday be me? At some point a few decades from now will some ubiquitous piece of technology utterly confound us? The inevitability of physical decay is something we’re reconciled to. That one day the music popular among teenagers will strike us as inane seems fitting and right. But consumer electronics? Doesn’t today’s sophisticated user possess the kind of meta-knowledge that will allow them to avoid tomorrow’s pitfalls? Sure there will be new user interfaces to navigate, but they will be just other metaphors, no more challenging than conceiving of a TV monitor as a “desktop”. There will be new feats of manual dexterity, but so what: we learned to text, right?

Don’t be so sure. Complacency is how they get you. All the smartphone sophistication you possess today merely ensures that the next big thing to come down the pike will be not at all smartphone-like. So what will it be? What is the thing thirty years hence that will be like an iPod to a steam engine? It’s a fool’s game to try and answer, but I’ll give it a shot anyway: transcranial controllers.

The future will see vast improvements in the ability to process electronic signals originating in the brain. What today can be crudely sensed by an array of electrodes glued to the skull will tomorrow be subtly discerned a sensor from across the living room. Actual mind-reading will remain impossible, but machines will be able to detect certain broad, intentional thoughts loud and clear. Basically your head will become a remote control. Instead of mashing a button on a plastic box in order to play music, unlock a car, or open a garage door (there will still be garage doors), you will simply think “Turn on”, “Open”, or “Louder” and, as long as you’re within fifteen feet or so of a TC receptor, an attached machine will do your bidding.

However, you must make the electronic profile of the triggering thought clear and unambiguous.  How do you do that? Well, you just sort of–do it. Sometimes you’ll be sitting there in front of the TV thinking “Louder…Louder!” and nothing will happen because you’re failing to mentally sculpt a command the receptor recognizes. The skill is akin to certain aspects of athletics or music–the ability to try without really trying. But that makes it sound more mystical than it is. The real trick is to be fifteen years old and have been using TC devices since you were a toddler so that they are completely second nature. The effortless ability of kids who weren’t even born in the simpler days of iPhones and email will infuriate you, and their inability to explain how they do it will infuriate you even more.

–You’re getting upset. It doesn’t work when you’re upset.
–I’m upset because it doesn’t work!

Eventually you’ll be stuck with an older generation of consumer goods because the newer ones won’t even have goddam buttons on them. You’ll grudgingly master TCing open your front door and turning on the house lights, but never quite master the stove. And as for the literally mind-boggling array of multimedia entertainment options–forget about it. There’s nothing but a bunch of junk on anyway. You’ll take up gardening. There’s no escaping. Age will get you too.

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The Design of Everyday Deposit Slips

I was depositing a check the other day. The deposit slip looked like this.

Bank deposit slip

Reading down the right hand column I paused in confusion. “What kind of check is a ‘List’ check?” I wondered. “Is that what I have?”

What happened is that I parsed the first line as [NP [A Total] [N Cash]]. The second line is actually an imperative–[VP [V List] [N Checks]]–but I blithely assigned it the same analysis as “Total Cash” and so was flummoxed by the mysterious adjective “List”. This isn’t strictly speaking a garden path, but it is an interesting case of priming.

If I were redesigning this slip, I would write “Checks” instead of “List Checks” because then the right hand column of the slip would contain nothing but noun phrases, and it’s reasonable for a reader to make an assumption of default parallelism and expect that text appearing in visually similar environments would have the similar structure.1 Now in defense of the current layout, this parallelism may already be violated. “Deposit to Savings” and “Deposit to Checking” read as much like instructions to the teller as they do descriptions of deposits while “Payment to Loan/Other”, on the other hand, can’t be anything but noun phrases.2 Maybe, but as a communicative move, adhering to a default is clearer than flouting it, and anyway, who reads past the first two lines of the deposit slip? I didn’t until I started to write this paragraph.

1 I’d also move the “$”s for the two additional checks from the gray boxes into the white to make them line up with the others.

2 For that matter, the “Total” in “Total Cash” could also be a verb–e.g. “The hostess totalled up the night’s receipts”–but that’s not the reading I leap to.

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Rewatched Eddie Murphy’s concert film Delirious last night. He opens with three minutes of his faggot material, so there’s that right out of the gate. In Murphy’s defense, it feels more crude than venomous, and the bit about Mr. T. getting fucked up the ass (it’s 1983!) is legitimately funny, but he still says “faggot” one too many times and you just squirm. It is possible for straight comedians spin gay-sex-is-gross frisson into true and funny observations about how sex in general is gross instead of how gay people are gross. Louis C.K. and Patton Oswalt do that now (e.g. Oswalt’s deliciously specific, “That’s gayer than eight guys blowing nine guys”) but they have the advantage of three decades of moral improvement in American culture.

Eddie Murphy on stage wearing a red shirt.

Mr. T. is just the beginning though. The first half of the set is pretty much all impressions: James Brown, Luther Vandross, of course Stevie Wonder. Aside from Wonder, you don’t really think of Murphy as an impressionist–the joke of Saturday Night Live characters like Mr. Robinson, Buckwheat, and Gumby was that they were so surreally different from their nominal sources–but here’s just one spot-on late 20th century cultural figure after another, and the audience eats it up. (Sadly though, Delirious does not contain Murphy’s version of a Richard Pryor set, which is simultaneously brilliant impersonation, loving homage, and shameless ripoff.) It’s too square and reductionist to call Murphy “the black Rich Little”, but his most striking technical chops lie in mimicry.

The climax is a reenactment of a family cookout from his childhood, the “Goonie Goo-Goo” bit. It’s very accomplished: Murphy’s not afraid to let it spread out, telling a whole story while switching back and forth between about four characters, but it left me cold. It felt like a Richard Pryor recital, Murphy showing that he could do deep character work too. And he can: “Goonie Goo-Goo” is as solid as anything Pryor did, but it can’t get out from under Pryor’s shadow. Standup comedy being like all other art forms, only more so, makes it painfully apparent how comedians are creations of their eras. Pryor was a titan who at the time of Delirious had only just slipped past his prime: his influence was inescapable. If you were a black standup in 1983 you lived in the house Richard built whether you liked it or not. No point in trying to fight it. Just have a Coke and a smile and shut the fuck up.

The best part of Delirious is the James Brown impersonation. (The joke being that even his band can’t understand what James Brown is saying.) Plenty of comedians impersonate singers: what sets Murphy apart is that he impersonates their singing. Because this is always done in the service of the joke, it’s easy to overlook the fact that he’s actually got a good voice. His 1985 single “Party all the Time” seemed like a vanity project, but I wonder if it was closer to Murphy’s heart that we realized. Of course all comedy is about timing, but there are moments where his rhythmic skill doesn’t feel exclusively speech-like. The punch line to the black-people-in-The-Amityville-Horror bit (“Too bad we can’t stay!”) lands like a well-placed snare hit. Eddie Murphy is a secret musician.

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Tall, Smart, Funny

I am a smart guy. I have degrees in technical subjects from institutions you have heard of. Philosophy is my hobby. I have gone through periods when reading whole pages of text unbroken by mathematical equations made me antsy. I like classical music and jazz. My standardized test scores are outstanding. Every job I’ve had since high school has been at either a science lab, university department, or software firm. Every woman who has been attracted to me was drawn in no small part to my intelligence. That which you trade for money and sex is what you are. I am a smart guy.

I say this not just to brag, but to establish my bona fides in the area of intelligence. I may not know what intelligence is, but I know it when I see it because I spend so much time around it. And I’m not just talking about myself–I’m talking about my immediate social circle. Years ago a friend said to me: “If you want to meet beautiful people, hang out with beautiful people, because they flock.” Ditto smart people. A significant proportion of my friends, acquaintances, and co-workers either think of themselves as smart or aspire to be smart. It is an axis along which we orient ourselves.

The conventional wisdom is that intelligence is a single inborn quantity that can used to order people in a line from dumbest to smartest. It can be measured in IQ points the same way that height can be measured in inches. What exactly it is that’s being measured isn’t clear, but it is a capacity for doing a certain kind of work. For example: writing, math, public speaking. Symbolic manipulation is an important component, whereas physical strength is not. This kind of work is admirable because not everyone can do it, and because it often results in the production of novel artifacts. Creativity matters.

It is an article of faith among those of us who derive money and status from our intelligence that it is something real. It is not an arbitrary social construct, a racket cooked up by universities in order to sell people degrees. Somehow beneath all these disparate activities–writing poetry, programming computers, being an effective trial attorney–there is a single unifying trait that lies in us innately. You don’t want to push too hard on the innate intelligence angle because that road leads inevitably to the swap of racist pseudoscience, but intellect is nevertheless an objective thing. You figure that (presumably smart) scientists could invent a scanner that would measure when the brain was engaged in intelligent activity, and if they did it would show that some people were habitually more engaged in that activity than others.

If scientists were to turn their brain scanner on me when I was doing my paid computer programming job, I can believe that they would see a signature of intellectual activity. It feels that way to me. But in who else would we see the most similar signature? A poet, a historian, a modern dancer? Maybe, but my money is on auto mechanic. Based on my own fitful car repair tutelage under my father, talking to people who can do it for real, and general sense of what is involved, my sense is that my closest professional cognitive cousin fixes cars. Physically the activity is very different—you contort yourself into awkward positions and get your hands filthy—but mentally…there is a complicated piece of machinery that doesn’t quite work right and it’s up to you, by some combination of experience, deduction, and intuition, to restore to it working order. I bet you it shows up indistinguishable on the scanner.

Officially computer programmers are white collar and auto mechanics are blue collar, so I might enjoy a tad higher social status, but I’m not shedding any tears for mechanics because they make good money and their jobs cannot be outsourced to India. The poet likewise envies the middle manager’s salary, and if you have a certain disposition this seems like an injustice, but why? Forget the snobbiness in the valuation of intellectual labor over physical labor peculiar to this moment in history: what is intellectual labor anyway? The computer programmer is an intellectual and the auto mechanic is not. The actor with an instinctively attuned sense of human yearning is but the used car salesman with the same is not. The classical violinist who channels gusts of pure emotion: yes. The rapper who churns out one dense slab of rhyming wordplay after another: no. Sure it’s snobby, but even more than that it’s complicated. It’s not that the notion of intelligence makes no sense—if it didn’t it wouldn’t exist—but rather that it’s so contingent that the thought that people could be stack-ranked according to a single number like IQ is absurd.

Some people are funnier than other people. Richard Pryor was an objectively funnier person than the guy at the office who asks if you’re working hard or hardly working. In some strict sense of the word objective this isn’t true, since what is funny is a matter of opinion, but there’s such a broad consensus that Richard Pryor was a hilarious guy, and such a sophisticated marshaling of cultural nuances that went into creating that consensus that it may as well be objective. And if you think otherwise, then fine, buddy, you go out and be as funny as Pryor. Bob Hope was an objectively funny guy too. I can watch footage of him doing standup during World War Two and see that it was great, even though it doesn’t make me laugh. I recognize that Bob Hope was a funny guy–I was just born too late to appreciate him. Subjective properties are real, but they’re not simple.

Being smart isn’t like being tall. It’s like being funny.

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My #YesAllWomen Anecdote

A couple years back I was walking by myself around seven in the evening in my neighborhood in Seattle. It was early, but completely dark, and in a crowded part of town, but those few blocks were deserted. Two guys fell into step with me. They were both clearly drunk, and the one was really drunk. I didn’t get a particular read of threat from them, and so only felt the background edge of concern when you’re outnumbered on an empty city street.

The drunker of the two started talking to me. “You’re so beautiful. You’re so good-looking.” My impression was that this could be taken at face value. It did not, for example, trip any alarm bells as a set up for me getting gay-bashed. It felt like the guy was just expressing his physical attraction in an inappropriate manner. But so inappropriate that it went beyond being hit on, an interaction for which there are tacit rules of decorum and face-saving ways for all parties to back out. He was drunk and persistent. I ignored him, but he and his friend kept following me so that he could keep chiming in, “No, really, you’re so good looking.” After a block and a half it got unnerving. This wasn’t about me, it was about him, and he wasn’t letting up.

Once it became clear that the usually reliable tactic of ignore-the-drunk wasn’t going to work I reluctantly started to deal with the situation. I looked at the guy with what I intended to be a neutrally confident gaze but I’ll bet came off as more just “Please give me a break and fuck off.” I began running the threat assessment. These couple blocks were empty, but past them was a crowded street. The guys were drunk and I wasn’t. We all looked to be about the same size, but there were two of them and one of me. The less drunk friend was silent, and I took comfort in the fact that he seemed mortified, but really you have no idea what is going to happen in that situation. I wasn’t scared, but I was getting ready to get scared.

What happened was nothing. I kept ignoring the guy, the two eventually peeled off, and I got where I was going. The anxiety wore off instantly, and in subsequent years I’ve come to like the guy who followed me for those couple blocks. Poor sorry drunk son-of-a-bitch: he probably felt humiliated the next day assuming he remembered anything at all. I’ve never told anyone about this until now, not because I felt any sense of shame, but simply because it’s not much of a story. In fact, the only remotely interesting thing about it is that it happened at all. For starters, there are way fewer gay men than straight men, so this particular combination of orientations on an empty block is statistically unlikely. The background threat of gay bashing is going to keep many men from being so forward, and even in Seattle’s sexually up-for-grabs gay neighborhood most of them will behave decently just because most people usually do.

But what really made that situation manageable for me is that there’s no pervasive social convention of gay men lashing out at straight men who reject their advances. No set behaviors, no stock phrases to fall back on. A man in that situation could shout after the woman who ignored him, “Fuck you, bitch, you think you’re too good for me?” That could come out of his mouth automatically, and its impact would immediately register because it’s understood that this is one of the things men sometimes do in this situation. The guy who followed me could have done that too, but it would have been weird. It is possible for some icky cocktail of lust and resentment to motivate gay men to attack straight men–I’m sure it happens from time to time–but it’s not a social norm. If the guy who followed me wanted to channel his sexual rejection into anger he would have had to do so under his own initiative, digging into his own individual courage. It wouldn’t have been him acting as a man, but just him acting as him. I bet he wouldn’t have had the heart, and I’ll bet most men who harass women on the street don’t have it either.

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A Plea for the Restoration of Traditional Marriage

Marriage exists for one reason and one reason only: to raise children. If you don’t want to have children, don’t get married. If you do, recognize that the state has a compelling interest in seeing that they are properly cared for. To this end, a child’s parents should be considered married the moment he or she is born, legally bound by a set of rights and obligations to both each other and to the child that only ends when the child reaches the age of eighteen. There is nothing new here. It is just the codification of a long-standing social arrangement.

Childrearing is one of the most rewarding tasks a person can perform, but it must not be undertaken lightly. For instance, it is wishful thinking to believe that one person is capable of raising a family all on their own. Though possible, single parenthood is not in the best interests of the child. Equally naive is the belief that a child’s biological parents can raise it all by themselves. Dual parenthood (the so-called “nuclear” model) is no less a pipe dream than single parenthood. From midnight feedings to playdates, soccer practice to college applications, it is simply too much work for two people to manage. Childrearing is a task best handled in small groups. The biological parents, of course, bear the bulk of the responsibility, but they should share it with extended family members, friends, neighbors, and professional nannies. It may not take a village to raise a child, but about ten people is the bare minimum. The legal institution of marriage should do what it can to accommodate this proven model.

(Why then, you may ask, does the law only make provisions for two parents? Because there are more childrearing arrangements out there than can be anticipated, and an attempt to codify them all would result in fruitless micromanagement. Better to let human biology draw a bright line at two adults and accept that not all good things need to be legally recognized as such.)

Traditionally, marriages were not “love matches” but were rather arranged by two families with everyone’s interests–not just those of the bride and groom–in mind. Since having a child entails a lifelong commitment between all these parties, the wisdom of the traditional arrangement is self-evident and all that remains is to find the best way to to carry it forward into the modern era. Social media, for example, can be a great help. Once a young person has reached a point in life when he or she can think about starting a family, that person can create an online profile detailing personal history, education, profession, religious and moral beliefs, desired number of children, and other information relevant to a prospective spouse. The young person may even delegate the initial search for a mate to their parents, who will look through the profiles and select an initial rough cut of candidates. This saves the young person some work, but is also an acknowledgement that a marriage is between families, not individuals. If the parents have a conviction that, say, their daughter should only marry a college-educated man, or their son should only marry another Jew, this is their opportunity to make those wishes known. However, these days we place a greater value on individual liberty (particularly the individual liberty of women) than in generations past, so the final decision must lie with the pair to be married. There is a difference between respect for tradition and slavish adherence to it.

The fact that marriage is a fundamentally social compact is the main reason why the “love match” model does not work. Marriage is not something a pair of young people should indulge in for their own sakes, because they crave the importance they think having a child will give them, or the unconditional love they imagine it will provide. People who are unprepared for the task should not get married hoping things will just “work out” because they are “in love”. In fact, being in love has nothing to do with being married. Love is certainly an essential component, but the notion that a single pair of people should be parents, and co-habitants, and lovers, and best friends, and furthermore should pursue this arrangement to the exclusion of equally deep or deeper relationships with all other people for the duration of their entire lives is preposterous on its face. It would be laughable if the disappointment and resentment this fantasy engendered were not harmful to the child whose needs, as always, must come first.

Parents standing beside children on bicycles

Should parents live under the same roof as their children and in the same town as their extended family? Preferably. Should childrearing tasks be divided up in ways that best suits each individual family member without regard to received notions about what the “proper” roles are for different genders? Clearly, since the child is best served by cheerful and efficient parenting. Would the same laws apply to adoptive parents regardless of their sexual orientations? Of course. Should people in long term relationships enter into legal agreements with each other about shared property, inheritance, medical decisions and the like? This is prudent, but it doesn’t make sense to call these agreements “marriage” because they have nothing to do with parenthood. Should married people be monogamous? Absolutely not! Imagine all the prime childbearing years squandered by young people who put off marriage because it means the end of romantic adventure, or the harm inflicted by parents who use sexual dissatisfaction as an excuse to walk out on their offspring. Love and sex have a role to play in marriage, but to make it their only avenue of expression is a recipe for disaster. Nevertheless, will many people as they age lose interest in serial “love matches” and settle down with the person they were married to? In many cases yes, because parenting creates a bond between two people in a way that nothing else can.

But should the law have anything to say about these clearly desirable outcomes? No. That is the thing about us traditionalists–we are confident. We don’t write laws to badger people into doing what is best because we believe people already know what is best. The law’s job is merely to ease their way.

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