The Rules

There is one sexually explicit photo of me in existence. San Francisco. Luxury suite in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. A settee. Face clearly visible, and as X-rated as you could want. Actually, I’m not sure if it is still in existence, because it was taken on a digital camera, and a lot of that data got lost during the great smartphone migration. Still, it is possible that this picture might surface on the internet where malice or a reverse image search could tie it to my name, so that henceforth “W.P. McNeill” would no longer connote insightful short essays on the intersection of linguistics and artificial intelligence leavened with the occasional McSweeneyish joke list, but just common porn.

I would not be humiliated if this photo were to become public. Maybe I’m fooling myself, but the hypothetical scenario evokes feelings ranging from mild embarrassment to sneaky pride. I imagine acquaintances who stumbled across the picture by accident making exaggeratedly comic shows of shielding their eyes. I’d like to imagine those to whom I’m attracted then stealing a second glance. I cannot imagine anyone who has ever been in a position of power over me either failing to immediately grasp the circumstances or actually caring. I can imagine a bit of razzing, easily laughed off. Of course someone who had it in for me could use a sexually explicit photo to create an embarrassing situation, but they’d have to do more than just show the thing around. They’d have to work at it, and likely would come off looking worse than me.

Hotel room interior

I am immune to this particular form of humiliation because I am male. The celebrity victims of the latest round of hacked private photo accounts have all been female, as have been the non-celebrity victims of the ongoing phenomenon of revenge porn. This latest round has seen second-order outrage directed at people–mostly male–who recommend that women who don’t want to risk nude pictures of themselves being distributed simply not take nude pictures of themselves. I agree that this is a simplistic blame-the-victim mentality. Life is inherently risky, and you are entitled to feel upset when some extra risk you take on comes back to bite you. But the outrage isn’t over the risk/reward ratios inherent in easily reproduced boudoir snaps. Instead it’s the cavalier way some men shrug off a thing many women feel is a form of sexual assault.

The men who do so are showing a lack of empathy. Literally. They are failing to imagine what it feels like to be in a woman’s place, but I find this lack more comprehensible than other forms of gender blindness. We all know that the rules can be arbitrarily different for women and men, but in the case of the power of a nude photo, the arbitrary difference is all there is. By contrast, at the same time the celebrity photo scandal was breaking, pop culture commentator Anita Sarkeesian has been subject to vicious anonymous attacks for having written about misogyny in computer games. No one says, oh just shrug it off when someone is making public threats to kill you and your family. Likewise, the recent #YesAllWomen Twitter campaign drew attention to the phenomenon of street harassment, which is scary to be on the receiving end of regardless of your gender. The feminist issue in these cases is not harassment per se but rather the fact that there are certain kinds of harassment that women face disproportionately.

In the case of nude picture distribution, however, the act itself, a particularly strident form of sexual objectification, has a different meaning depending on the gender of the person in the picture. The rules in our society state that when men objectify women it is a hostile act, but when women objectify men it is either odd or flattering. By convention, a man is supposed to be bemused by a leaked nude selfie, and a woman is supposed to be devastated. These are the rules regardless of the relative shyness of individual men and women, and regardless of the fact that all of us at one time or another want to be treated like sexual objects by people of our choosing. By their ubiquity these rules exhibit a powerful force, even on those of us who believe that they are senseless and leave women at an unfair disadvantage.

That is why the men who say about revenge porn just shrug it off–even though they are failing to comprehend the full hostility of the act–are still onto something. The damage comes not from the images themselves, but the conventions surrounding them. Because even if you’re a cheerfully un-slut-shamable woman (or an actress who does nude scenes in films) you can still be rankled by your awareness of the army of mouth-breathing cowards out there who benefit from the consensus that they have taken something from you by viewing your particular aureolae out of the sea of aureolae available online. But it is possible to imagine a new consensus that declares they haven’t. Viewed from a different angle, revenge porn is just a way of proclaiming to the world, “Hey look, another woman who won’t be having sex with me!” A generation from now I suspect it won’t exist.

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Two Feet of Air

I can swim. We also say that I know how to swim, but that is misleading because it makes the whole business sound more intellectualized than it is. How it actually works is this: put me in water and I will begin to do the crawl. I will propel myself from one side of the pool purposefully. My body knows what to do and I do not drown.

If you handcuff me before throwing me in the water, I would not be able to swim. But I would not have lost the capacity to swim. My body would still know how. It would just have been prevented by circumstance. You may be a sadist for applying handcuffs, but I am still a swimmer.

Monkey in purple shirt seated in front of a typewriter

Linguists rely on the handcuffed swimmer analogy to illustrate the sometimes elusive difference between competence and performance. I have a capacity for speaking English, yet there are any number of ways I may fail to speak English: I may slur, stumble over a word, or try unsuccessfully to shout over a jackhammer. None of them detracts from my status as an English speaker. They are accidental impediments. Handcuffs.

To linguists, the capacity is the thing. It is what we call competence and is what we study. Performance effects are the accidental noise that must be stripped away, like a physicist strips away the effect of friction to get at the pure laws of motion. In language and other human activities there appears to be a strong correspondence between competence/performance and inside/outside. My capacity to swim or to speak is something internal to me. Impediments are external. They may matter in practice, but they are not me.

This can be a difficult concept to convey, despite the fact that it is something we all want to believe. I am my potential. What I actually do is just a pale refraction of the real thing, what I could do. The true me, my authentic self, is the homunculus inside my skull, directing my body through an imperfect world.

However, very few of us are ever thrown into a pool handcuffed. If you encounter a non-swimmer, it is probably because that person never learned to swim. Their body does not know what to do. No amount of academic study can grant you the internal capacity to swim, only time in the pool can do that. To be a swimmer you must have actually swum in water at some point in your life. Multiple times. Successfully. To count as an English speaker, you must communicate with other English speakers in English on a regular basis. Likewise, the mensch must also exhibit actual, felt kindness, and the the casanova must unmistakably seduce.

Properties that we would like to attribute to the internal homunculus–swimmer, Anglophone, mensch–have meaning only in our interaction with others. Our true selves don’t live inside our heads. They live in the two feet of air around our heads, where the world impinges.

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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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