Saturday, December 8, 2007
Slate has shat all over it, and with good reason. Both clauses aren't necessarily true.
Freedom requires religion - obviously atheism breaks the truthiness of this statement, but the implication behind such an assertion, IF it were true, are frightening. It feels like Romney is pushing the Christian card a little hard, and such a fervent support of religion seems inappropriate for such an esteemed office.
Religion requires freedom - this sounded right, but you only have to travel a few thousand miles to a dusty holyland to know that this statement is more ideal than real.
While critics have generally trashed his speech, it reveals a frightening vision of the presidency if he were to be elected. Faith alone cannot heal our wounds or fix our problems.
I wonder sometimes if we're all too enamored with the idea of leadership within a single man. Perhaps we should consider voting for teams than candidates - realistically, every candidate has a team behind behind him/her, but so much responsibility is placed on that one person.
But then again, who really wants to share power?
Sunday, November 18, 2007
Everybody else, sorry, your opinion means shit. I'll listen, nod, and smile. But then I'll throw it out like yesterday's Journal. Or I'll forget it because my short-term memory is damn near that poor son of a bitch from Memento. (What a depressing movie. I interpreted the theme as saying the passage of time and making new memories is more than just functioning like a normal; it's about the ability to heal. New memories simulate time which, even more ironically, enables us to forget how awful we felt when something bad really happened. Throw that in your cornflakes. Also, if you haven't read it, a sad and beautiful piece on the power of music.)
But I think it works conversely as well - meaning my opinion only really matters to only five other people. I could propose that buying a shoe factory would be a good investment and they'd strongly consider it. And similarly, the majority of you out there probably take my idea and then flush them down the toilet like a fresh wad of T. Which is fine, because I generally have nutty ideas.
My world is more shallow than it is broad, like the kiddie section of the public pool.
Whatever you do, don't look up 2 girls 1 cup. Just don't. It's just awful.
Sunday, October 28, 2007
If you ever want to see true love, avoid all art. Avoid all the maudlin poems, love stories, romantic comedies, and Meg Ryan movies. These are all stories about love between beautiful people, and we like watching pretty people fall in love because, well, they're pretty.
Instead, watch an ugly couple make out. Watch a two hundred pound, balding fat man with visible underarm sweat stains and his three-hundred pound, pimple-ridden beau. Watch them hold each other's sausage-like hands and compare each other to favorite entrees or meals. Sure, it might be desperation, but true love is desperate, feeling like you’re with the last person in the world who can be with you. In the case of an ugly couple, that could be literally true.
All crassness aside, isn’t this the truest love? Love unemcumbered by lust and jealousy. Love enveloped completely by personality and qualities, those characteristics which sustain and grow, unlike the physical, which degrade and eventually die. Ironic in the nasty example I just gave can you observe true, pure beauty.
Isn't this the love which lives forever?Man, all this talk about fat people makes me hungry. I'm gonna eat some french fries.
Sunday, September 30, 2007
But isn't the real question, does God believe in you? And replace the value-laden term with whatever you like - spirituality, meaning, etc. as I do not want to assume divine existence.
I ask it this way because if you feel that "something" believes in you, then the strong interpretation is that existence is imbued with a purpose, a meaning. That every action is not random or accidental but intentional.
I'd like to think I create my own meaning or purpose, that self-determination is the ultimate goal. We choose our own paths. Like entrepreneurs. Or Barack. Or Neo. Or perhaps it is a mixture of interaction with our environment by which reveals our destiny and potential paths.
But maybe sometimes we need something "more" to point us in the right direction. Perhaps these signs are not so much divine but parts of a grand puzzle by which we must collect and then see put together to understand the entire message. And perhaps this message is not a new one, but one stored in old scrolls, memorized as poems, and argued furiously today as it was centuries ago. Because the basic human need for answers remains unquenched.
I wonder, but not too long. Our lives are finite, that much is certain.
Saturday, September 22, 2007
The key definition is an independent will to survive. That's the only thing which defines a living organism. All life wants to continue. All life does not want to end.
But it makes you wonder about the grand Origin. Where did the first cells come from - recent experiments show how life can evolve almost exponentially in certain situations (e.g. complexity theory) but the start of that life is still undetermined. Some cite God or divinity, but I imagine the truth is a bit more complicated or even simpler than a one-all, be-all answer.
Though I haven't followed outerspace research, I wonder if one day we find organic residue or fossils on other planets. This would be important, not just as evidence of past life on other planets, but also as support for a hypothesis of mine - that perhaps Earth is a successful experiment of life, while the rest of the planets in our solar system are not. Which alternatively makes me wonder how life could begin and then evolve in completely different environments than our own.
Why is this important? Because even if our own existence seems to be a chance development, and that Earth is a beautiful accident, then the question of God or divinity is less relevant. We must see beyond the petty disputes and struggles we face, to defining our role as a species. Our passports too narrowly represent us - it is not so much to be human, but to be a citizen of the universe.
Sunday, September 16, 2007
Deep philosophy by Cameron Crowe, that guy who made that movie about the high school kid who toured with that rock band.
Getting older. Healing slower after a shin hit or ankle sprain in basketball. Unanticipated toe pain after an hour of running. Hamstring soreness after a few hours of biking. My body and mind do not appear to be in sync, though I wonder when my mind catches up.
Wondering. Wondering about God, or the lack thereof. Wondering about the Purpose and the Meaning. Wondering about the present and what it means to the future. Wondering if there's a story behind the chaos, the chaos of today and the chaos of everything, including you.
Faith, hope, and love. If you lose one, do the rest matter?
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
I've often wondered what it would be like to write a similar story, but placed in Irvine, my hometown. Irvine, one of the safest cities in America, where everything shuts down at 10 pm, even though the high school kids are studying till 1 am. But I imagine the stories of SAT classes, poster painting for clubs and student government, and hanging out at the UCI marketplace wouldn't exactly keep eyelids from slipping down their covers.
What a bubble. But I imagine in a few years there will be some crime wave or scandal, because Irvine's one of those cities where it'd be easy to hide something that big. It's always the cities with carefully manicured grass and unassuming residents - they get sleepy, like that fat, wrinkly dog which moves like a sloth. And BAM! Hell comes crashing through that association-approved roof and ruins those lawn figurines just purchased from Home Depot.
I suppose that's why it's easier to write or make movies about the City. At least there, the bad shit is always in front of you, like that damn graffiti or ever-present scent of fresh urine.
Tuesday, September 4, 2007
And so love doesn’t die or end. It lingers like a sweet summer breeze from a bed of wilting flowers. Some live, others rot away, but the fragrance remains.
We’re mortal souls in borrowed bodies. What lies before birth or after death is irrelevant.
Because love, like music, will outlast us all.
I have no idea where this came from. I was writing one of my essays and it just wrote itself. It's really quite maudlin, but it's true, isn't it?
Thursday, August 30, 2007
Each city I went to is a woman:
Berlin: the plump brunette with opals for eyes who alternates between warm friendship and blank despair. She would kiss you and then immediately miss you before you even left. You'd write short, sweet letters to her with silly jokes and subtle compliments.
Prague: the resentful girl with sky sapphire eyes and voluptuous frame who lifts her chin at you in disgust. But it's all a front - take the time and you realize she's just cranky from a past heartbreak. This woman's got trouble written all over her.
Vienna: a red-headed sculptor with soft fingertips which breathe motion into dead clay. She'll flirt and wink, then lose her focus and dismiss you. But it's too late - you're already smitten. And she knows it.
Budapest: a young girl who looks at the ground and blinks like a hummingbird. A pretty girl before she knows she's pretty. It would take weeks to kiss her, but squeeze her hand and she blushes like a fall sunset. Her small mouth forms an uncertain half-smile. She squeezes back.
Have I really described these cities, or are these women real? Imagination is its own curse and master.
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
I had some butter pecan yogurt. It was delicious but light.
Listening to British accents on pretty girls around the terminal. It's like verbal perfume.
Flight delayed about 45 minutes. Blissfully fine.
I think I left my electric shaver at home. But I brought my blade. So I will be clean shaven the next several days.
I must begin practicing English slang: bloke, loo, bloody...actually I'll probably just end up sounding like an Asianized Ethan Hawke without the facial hair. Awkward.
I brought my gym gear with the hopes of staying in shape. Perhaps I'll be able to catch a basketball game near the hotel.
A fine day for short sentences.
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
This is surreal. I need to drink some hot cocoa or eat some spinach to get some perspective.
Wow, this was almost like a regular blog entry.
Sunday, August 5, 2007
I love this shit. The entire world going to hell and only you and three strangers left on earth (with one being a Jessica Biel look-a-like). All static assumptions of modern life blown away like a zombie head shot at point-blank range. I think I like stories where small bands of strangers work together (Lost, Zombie movies, the office) because I romanticize such experiences as opportunities to learn, fight, and triumph. No delays, no bureaucracy, no lines or prices - just pure action and decision.
Maybe I'll go on a safari or join a reality TV show. I might end up as lion chow but it would be awesome.
Wednesday, August 1, 2007
Actually I do keep a journal for short fiction, quick descriptions of city life, and erotic literature involving midgets dressed up like pirates. I find writing to be a release of the storm in my head, which often bounces thoughts and ideas like a pinball machine.
I have this idea of writing a consulting story, where either someone goes missing (a mystery involving a shady client) or a hostage situation (which in turn highlights how business leadership doesn't translate into real leadership). But it's actually very hard to sit down and write out what happens. I have great respect for all writers who devote the time to their craft, even if they lack the talent, because more often than not, diligence and persistence mean something. Okay, I'm getting preachy so I'll stop.
To my readers, I thank ye.
Tuesday, July 31, 2007
This is my second wedding in two months. Perhaps there's something behind this whole commitment and marriage business. Maybe I'll see them less often as they pursue new adventures like antiquing, furniture shopping, worrying about enough time at Bed, Bath, and Beyond.
Sometimes I think the rhythm of my life is this way - party, recovery, nostalgia, repeat. And I'm in the third stage now. I miss our good times - not just the wedding, but when he was just dating, we discussed girls in grand detail, struggled in school against white haired professors and shitty Ithaca weather, and sakebombed our way to our beloved Dryden bars. I know they'll have kids and I'll be an uncle, and there will be new memories yet to be remembered.
Still, I miss my friend. Thinking of all this makes my heart stretch like an overinflated balloon. Despite my self-impression of being toughened by three years of post-colleagiate experience, I'm a softie at heart. At least some things won't change.
What I was listening to while writing this post:
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
One twist might be having students pick their own question. I imagine mine might be: "You and 86 other survivors of a mysterious plane crash now struggle within the confines of an unknown island somewhere in the south Pacific. What do you do now? Do you fight for power against the dominant doctor who's got some serious father-son issues? Do you hit on the spoiled blonde chick without any skills, or prefer the brunette who seems tough - a little too tough. Do you humor the has-been musician? Make fun of the fat Hispanic surfer? Hunt wild boar with the old guy with random knives? Make friends with that really Korean couple?"
Wouldn't answering questions about how'd you fit in along the cast of your favorite TV show reveal much more about your personality than broad philosophical questions? Doesn't your answer about disagreeing with Jack Bauer's use of torture show your values than talking about the time you convinced a client to fire 100 FTE's to save costs?
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
So it was shocking to hear he had been accused for leading a seven million dollar embezzlement from the firm. Some nerdy expense scheme whereby a few extra bucks was taken off the top of everyone who was traveling over a period of seven months. It was like the plot of Superman 3 or officespace, but without the android or Michael Bolton (not the "no-talent assclown").
Turns out that Steven was only accused and not arrested because he went missing two days before the release. And while I should have thought stealing was wrong, he should have been caught, and so forth, part of me was impressed and glad for his little illegal action. It was like he was finishing off some self-assertiveness program and completely misinterpreted the last step to becoming a "self-actualized" individual. But hell, if I were his life coach, I'd give him points for originality. Some men speak louder or risk their lives to prove their toughness; Steven committed white collar crime.
So it was with a half worried smirk when he gave me a call, wanting to meet at the stone fountain in front of Central Park in an hour. I'm sure there was some wise decision I could have made about contacting the police and helping the investigation, but it was a Tuesday at 2 pm and I could use the coffee break.
Sunday, July 15, 2007
But after reading so much detective fiction the past week, I've tried to be more conscious of the unspoken characteristics of the strangers I meet, and if possible, what back story they might be harboring. For example, clothing can meet a lot or a little, but body language speaks volumes: I remember one blond girl wearing a white tanktop, jean shorts, bracelets, and a gaudy necklace - at first glance I thought she was some fun-loving college girl who went to concerts and was likely to harbor a valley girl accent. But her shoulders were hunched, her posture sunken, and she had twitching, scanning eyes, her mind never losing itself in imagination or thought and remaining always alert. Her face conveyed a defeated, angry appearance, as if it were a barren desert facing a recent drought of fond memories and honest smiles. Another older, black woman sat with quiet politeness, her voice responding to a fellow passenger's query with a bright tone, her voice exuding a sense of soft warmth, her hands placed elegantly on one knee crossed over the other, and her face an easy canvas of wide eyes and plentiful smiles.
Summertime, and the living is easy. Oh how it is my friends. How it is.
Thursday, July 12, 2007
But it's goddamn depressing. Descriptions of horrible crimes against children probably inspired by real atrocities, the hopelessness of the uneducated and drugged up poor - Lehane is no judge nor saint: he just writes. And yet you understand you need that all that shit in the world for anything to make sense. And you realize your life hasn't undergone any real trauma like losing a child, going to prison, or being trapped in poverty. Sad shit man.
Movie's coming out too:
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Here's an essay which will be sure to either get me admitted or possibly arrested.
When I first heard about "BetterCons" I was sure it was the copycat of the Bridgespan Group or New Sector alliance, consulting firms providing strategic expertise to a variety of non-profits. But being involved with BetterCons proved to be so much more - instead of reforming criminals and helping them adjust to "normal" life which usually meant distrustful employers, poor wages, and social stigma, BetterCons chose to help current criminals improve their practices to better support themselves. Through a variety of strategic frameworks and best practices designed around specialized industries as money laundering, drug dealing, and armed robbery, we helped these non-law abiding citizens realize higher profits, less (or more, depending on client) violence, and more effective escape routes.
Why, in one case example, we helped turn a generic counterfeit scam into a full fledged racket, with pyramid schemes, bookkeepping, and "enforcement." It wasn't just planning but doing, from finding underage customers for heroin to literally "breaking kneecaps." Sure, sometimes our strategies didn't always work, which would result in the client being arrested, but even then we added value by planting evidence on unsuspecting innocents and bribing key judges and law enforcement personnel. There's really no greater feeling of accomplishment than seeing a guilty, hardened criminal receive a suspended sentence, with the full intent of resuming his illegal activities upon release (I get goosebumps remembering that day in court :-).
When I think back on my experience with BetterCons, I'll know I made a difference. Like their motto says, "If you can't change them, it's too late! :-)"
Sunday, July 8, 2007
It's also what you put on your facebook/myspace page, and also what other people (namely your friends) put up ABOUT you on such social networks. In fact you could argue the most successful social networks will be the ones which have nothing to do with software (like facebook) or monetization (like myspace, to some degree with their $900M google deal), and not even with viral effects which enable fast growth and user engagement, but with helping you understand who you are and who other people are. To that end you might argue facebook has an edge, because after F8 becoming released and the ecosystem of FB apps proliferating, I would say I know more about my friends, and my friends know more about me, than they ever did before. But the important point is that interacting with facebook is primarily a passive activity - it's not necessarily culture producing but culture facilitating. It's an information transmission process which enables people to experience culture based on shared or divergent interests.
I mention all these points because as human culture becomes more advanced and we have more spare time, it seems unlikely we'll find the answer to our identity from enlisting in wars (which was a huge impact on the pre-boomer and boomer generations), through work (which at times seems so unfulfilling depending on your job), education (which tends to end post college or grad school), or other avenues, but really through the content we consume and create, because it's an active, reciprocal process. It becomes a safer, more easily recognized way to express and more importantly, understand one's self.
There's probably a book somewhere in this mess of prose, I just have to find it. Thoughts welcome.
Monday, June 25, 2007
a) dislocated my shoulder, though only partially
b) sprained my ankle enough such that one time I required crutches while another time I visibly limped for a few days
c) been poked in the eye
d) sprained the index finger on one hand and the middle finger on another
e) broken several pairs of glasses (when I wore glasses)
f) suffered numerous scratches, bruises, near fistfights, and occasionally a deflated ego
Moreover, the rationale for playing basketball decreases when one considers:
a) I play no defense
b) I am not that quick
c) I cannot rebound - not for lack of height or trying, but rather lack of instinct. I am the anti-Rodman - I intuitively go to where the ball isn't.
But I continue to endure these injuries and limitations precisely because I have one pretty decent skill - I can score. Generally with a jumpshot with a range up to 3 feet within the three-point line or with a variety of strange looking, unorthodox layups, hook shots, and runners, I can be the offensive anchor of any team (which has a rebounder, defensive presence, and a post player).
However, there is a caveat: not only is my scoring ability consistently inconsistent, it is also EXTREMELY streaky. I have played games where the ball sails through the air like a bullet fired from the rifle of a man with cerebral palsy, bending rim, backboard, air, other players, etc. And I have played games where it was easier for me to sink a shot than to even dribble, where an opposing player could grab both my arms and intentionally foul me, and my cranium would make the shot, soccer style. So basketball for me is better than going to Vegas. I do not know which version of my basketball playing self will show up, and so each time is essentially a new hand of blackjack.
What I also like about basketball is that you cannot lie or hide yourself when you play. Everything about your skill level in a decent game comes out, sometimes your strengths and usually all your weaknesses. While in my youth this may have been a metaphor for improvement and growth, lately I've realized playing basketball helps me accept who I am. I am unlikely to improve drastically (unless of course I enrolled in some sort of program, but I am not that committed to the sport) and so each time I play it is more about understanding my limitations and working with, versus against, them.
If you're in NYC and want to play, I'm usually in Stuyvesant town at 11:30a-noonish on the weekends.
If you challenge me to a game of H-O-R-S-E, I will kick your ass.
Sunday, June 24, 2007
It's been heralded as the modern musical without kitschy tunes and ridiculous dancing; just honest, heartfelt music. A simple story which sits behind the tracks, and in any other context would seem strained or fake, but in this movie, beautifully natural. The director himself describes the film as a video album, and that is the perfect definition. Once is a grown up music video, weathered, cynical, and wiser like its main character.
If you're in the mood for something a bit unconventional, honest, and don't mind beautiful, intermittent music with your movie, check out this film. And buy the soundtrack. Apparently the flick was made on a shoestring budget and has light distribution, so I'm doubting they're seeing big bucks.
On another note. I immediately bought the soundtrack and realized Columbia should have created a bundled promotion whereby a moviegoer or a soundtrack purchaser could either a) buy either a movie ticket or album at a slight discount b) given its indie status, be entitled to purchase or access some special premium content like documentaries, pre-orders for the DVD (which I'm apt to do), and additional tracks.
One annoyance: the CD has no lyrics! What fool forgot this! This is one CD you find yourself singing along to unconsciously.
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
It was a weekend to remember.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
My friend is getting married Saturday. Marriage - that's like the last stop on the train of adulthood. The train basically stops there - the conductor tells you to get off and you're done. That's it. You're at your destination, preparing some perhaps unborn (or about to be conceived) individual who shares some of your DNA to go on another train. We're all subway commuters getting off at different stops, only there are no maps and no transfers.
I should sleep. I'll never grow my readership (and hence, ad revenue) with these strange entries.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Saturday, June 9, 2007
At this point I was thinking, do I pop the shoulder by myself like they do in the movies? But given my relative inexperience in such things, as well as the previously mentioned searing pain, I thought otherwise.
My buddy Ray and a random dude on the court graciously offered to walk me to Beth Israel, but strangely enough my shoulder popped itself back into the socket on the walk over. So I regained some range of motion and the pain went away but now there's still some soreness and I have limited motion. I'll probably see a doctor to check it out and make sure there isn't any ligament damage. If anyone has suffered a similar injury, please share any special treatments/therapies as I'd like to recover as soon as possible.
It's really not as bad as it sounds. Yup, I'm being tough - nothing can stop THE YUJIN.
(Though feel free to lavish me with notes of sympathy and care packages. :-P) Looks like I'm on the injured list for awhile.
Wednesday, June 6, 2007
Sowing the Seeds of Love by Tears for Fears - I first listened to this after winning a tape recorder from a trip to Disneyland (I was like 5 or 7 at the time) and my sister graciously shared one of her favorite tapes, and given that she was in a total 80's mood at the time, which wasn't that weird given that it actually WAS the 80's at the time, that was one of the first pop songs I really liked. It was so different because of all the clashing sounds, the buildups and decrescendos...like being high before you really understood what being high was all about. And it was such an upbeat song - I probably didn't even know what "sowing" meant, but whatever it was, it was cool.
The Luckiest by Ben Folds - I remember a coworker at Bain (Dan Galemba) told me about this song and how he wanted to play this at his wedding. And when I first listened to it, I felt like a million tiny hands reaching into my chest and simultaneously squeezing my heart. It's the kind of song which might derive some of its impact from old movies or lame photos but isn't overly saturated with maudlin lyrics or piano riffs. What's so great about the song is that you simultaneously want to sing it for that special someone, but also want someone to sing it about you. Okay, and now I must make my obligatory "let me stop before I puke" because really, I'm just getting quite mushy.
I will follow you into the Dark by Death Cab for Cutie - This song I initially heard was taken aback. I mean he's obviously saying he's willing to GO TO HELL for the love of his life, and that's supposed to be romantic. But if you really listen to the song, it's actually an atheist/agnostic's creed. He makes fun of heaven and hell by comparing them to cheap motels, he remembers his harsh Catholic upbringing and the hypocrisy it espouses, and describes death in a reassuring, nonchalant manner without regard to consequence. He's not brave for his willingness to go to hell for his love because he doesn't believe in hell or heaven. In fact, his use of the word "dark" implies he believes there's NOTHING after death. And that's why this song is so cool - to pop culture and raving hordes of teenagers it's totally an indie love theme, but to those of us listening, really listening, the song is a gigantic smirk/dig at religion.
Monday, June 4, 2007
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
But this novel got me thinking (and this thinking is also preventing me from sleeping, hence the 2:51am post) of this idea I had for a story. Essentially it's the idea of a first person narrator (for all extensive purposes, me) describing a fellow (for simplicity's sake, let's call this fellow JT) being stalked by his clone. We learn his clone, frighteningly, wants to assume JT's life by eventually assassinating him. But JT is one of those over analytical, indecisive types who's a bit passive aggressive and dislikes confrontation, and by implication so is his clone, so rather than being a thriller where he's trying to protect his life, the story revolves around JT experiencing the annoying existence of really mean and creepy emails/post-its/voicemails left by his clone. But ultimately, just like JT would NOT do, the clone is equally indecisive, passive/aggressive, and would never really kill JT. In fact these notes become so common that JT begins to accept them as part of his life - sort of like brushing your teeth in the morning or having afternoon coffee.
But the funny thing is that one day JT's clone mysteriously STOPS bugging JT about taking over his life. And this freaks out JT completely because he begins to realize how much meaning and worth JT's clone (or at least his weird notes) gave to his life. I mean think about it: if there's someone out there going to all this trouble to take your life, doesn't imply your life is amazing? I mean, think of all the people out there NOT being stalked or fantasized about - their lives probably suck and aren't worth anything. But not JT - he must have the gold standard of living, and so when his clone stops bugging him, well that's the same thing as saying you're not valued anymore. And so this annoys JT to no end.
Hmm. I may have ruined the story already. The flip side I would have is that the narrator (not JT) would actually be pursuing his clone, initially for medicinal reasons but eventually becoming a stalker like JT's clone. But that's beginning to sound too similar. I'll figure something out.
On another note: there's this tag function I have for each post which I haven't really been using. And I assume it's great if there were posts of similar topics you wanted to search for. But so far my topics have been so random I wonder if I'll ever return to the original topic. We'll see.
I also see this problem as a metaphor for life. We're all racing to prevent an eventuality that we sometimes can or cannot beat, but either way we pay for it at the end.
Geez, I meant that last sentence as a joke but it does sort of apply. I think I've depressed myself. Slightly.
Monday, May 28, 2007
So I'm nearly done with Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs and have all these crazy ideas in my heads. In particular, how pop culture really defines who we are and what we're about. But no one's really done this for business yet. How about: is there cultural signficance to Facebook/MySpace? What's about the general progression of past to modern business style? Or implicit meaning behind the iPod's success beyond consumer taste and delving into consumer philosophy. Sure this sounds a little nuts, but this is a blog: what the hell else am I going to write about? What I ate for dinner? (Dammit...never mind).
Let's tackle the first question. Quite recently Facebook announcement a major initiative to allow business/brands/anybody to develop applications on an open platform called F8. MySpace, on the other hand, is clamping down on widget companies to prevent unauthorized use of valuable profile real estate. And it's so weird because Facebook was this Nazish, single style controlled environment while MySpace was the free love, guitar stringing, high-on-'ludes version of your hippie uncle's social network. What we have now is a battle of epic proportions.
But not the one you're thinking of in terms of expanding user base and stealing advertising dollars. Well, that's a brewing conflict too but you can read 30 other blogs which address this issue; last thing I want to be is another industry commentator. No, what we have here is for more subtle yet 10x more significant. The winner of the Facebook vs. MySpace showdown will define the future of "cool."
Think about it. Your profile page in today's world reveals so much about you (and no, I don't mean reveals in the way some stalker would get excited). From hobbies, photos, interests, birthday...and this info and for what reason? To show the world who you are. And to find out about other people, ostensibly your friends and immediate network. It's personalized and customized. People used to chat on the phone for hours, or meet at the mall. Now we meet in cyberspace and "poke" each other. Yes, we've matured so much since the 80's.
But we lack something when we go online, and that is the imbued meaning and learning that stems from creating such connections. As a digital representation of yourself, a static profile page isn't the best representation of who you are. It's passive, non-interactive, and generally requires your input at all times to be interesting.
Now many companies are trying to evolve the use of this data into recommendations: Last.fm radio, ChoiceStream, Aggregate Knowledge...and this is all great and fine because it's about recommended purchases or new content and everyone loves that (including the music industry). But at the end of the day it's a half-there concept because it takes passive data and creates passive analysis.
What would be more interesting (and extremely difficult) would be a dynamic homepage which "understands" the threads and connections between the various stated interested and content available on your profile. The fact that I like the Matrix and Linkin Park currently are two pieces of disparate, independent information with no logical thread and therefore no conclusion. But what if you could deduce that me liking those two elements revealed more about my personality and more importantly, derived some plausible meaning from that combination of preference? Because at the end of the day, all preferences, cultural or not, are driven by some personalized experience and philosophy. And garnering a better understanding of those particular pieces of data would not only help us sell better and more interesting products (beyond those concluded by simple collaborative filtering) but also uncover deep insight into our enigmatic and often irrational psyches. Thus, we shift from "user generated content" whereby users create content as inputs and sharing and exploration, to "generated content for the user" where the profile itself produces insights and analyses of the profile which provide reflection and perspective otherwise unknowing to the regular user.
Is this possible? Unsure. Am I nuts? Possibly. Time will tell.
Sunday, May 27, 2007
For instance, Paris Hilton. EVERYONE dislikes her (Not hate, because that's a word we'd reserve for Al Qaeda or Pat Buchanan). She's described as vapid, shallow, whiny, and she's become this incredible scapegoat to unlodge all our unhappy annoyances with modern society.
But as I mentioned before, it's not really "her" we dislike, but those qualities we associate with her. We don't know the "real" Paris Hilton - we get TV glimpses and AMAZING Carl's Jr commercials showing off her 2%-body-fat-possibly-anorexic-body in a bikini - but very few people "know" her. It's the "idea" of her, of what she represents, that gets everyone's blood boiling. She's essentially that super hot, super bitchy cheerleader in high school whom every guy wanted to bone, in the context that the entire US is sometimes one giant high school. And so it was brilliant when she actually released a music video playing that role (see here).
So maybe what I'm saying is simple more anthropological in that what becomes popular or hated or spread or talked about reveals less about that thing which is popular/hated/spread/talked about and more about what we, as a people, deeply care about. The tricky part, of course, is: what do we care about? and how can we make some money off it?
Well, more importantly, what does it mean to all of us?
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
On the walk home today, though, I think I can describe the inherent tension. First off, some gross simplifications about human thought. If we think about the sum of all human knowledge, we have to consider that as great a value currently is (and currently growing), this value is also finite. One might analogize to the universe; our sum total knowledge is consistently growing but not ever present. There are, to the chagrin of the most brilliant and arrogant members of our species, limits to what we know.
For centuries, when the "space" of human knowledge was relatively small, religion and faith played in both our understanding of the known and unknown. Why does the sun rise? Well it's one of the wheels of Apollo. Why'd you fall in love? Well it's Cupid's arrow. And so forth.
With science and knowledge we began to recognize that we could begin explaining more and more phenomena through experiments, analysis, and concepts. And so the boundary expanded. But not so much where religion and faith couldn't still play a role. Sure, the earth revolves around the sun, explaining the appearance of rising and falling, but something had to create the sun? Ah yes, that must have been the Big G. Why'd you fall in love? Well, that was probably due to hormones and bad parenting (you always did like the boy Daddy wouldn't approve). But still, love as a concept still appears transcendent - the Big G strikes again!
As long as science played in the boundaries, while expanding those boundaries, religion and faith could coexist with it, kind of like that neighborhood kid riding outside your door. He seems harmless enough; sure he's a little loud with the crashing noises he makes but hey, he's only 7 and you deal with it.
But today, with the vitriol between theists and new atheists, the conflict has become somewhat unavoidable - they meet at that boundary. You can't blame the atheists/agnostics: within all the knowledge and learning we've uncovered, there hasn't been one iota of evidence to suggest a higher being or supernatural phenomena. And it must piss off these skeptics when fundamentalists want to REVERSE proven theories like evolution with factless concoctions like intelligent design. We've expanded the boundary so far, we can no longer accept the old myths of virgin births and rising from the dead. Certainly, there is great symbolic and significant value of such stories, but we cannot delude ourselves in believing without evidence such obvious fables (though certainly well written). And the religionists can only run further away, hiding in the shadows outside the boundary (what Dawkins refers to as Gap theory, in that religion exists in the "gaps" of human understanding.)
But here's the rub: as much as we've learned and continue to learn, we're still at a boundary. It's still and always will be finite. I'm not saying we give up our question for knowledge - we must push forward ever diligently to expand our understanding of this universe. There will, however, be things which evade not just understanding, but even our basic attempts at comprehension. These are things like Taoist/Buddhist doctrines, the idea of consciousness and what comes before/after, and which Olson twin is hotter.
While I doubt the existence of a higher being (but not doubt it completely), I admit that there are probably some cosmic phenomena out there which we can see but never truly understand. And at the end of the day, I don't want to yell or shoot or bomb anyone about that. I just want to acknowledge this ignorance, do what I can understand it, but if not, have my own peace of mind.
1. Avvenu: Great interface, but needs an upload monitoring progress bar (which is still slow) and track by track upload functionality
2. Mediamaster: Great upload speed, great interface, cool widget but playback is a little esoteric; limited opportunities to purchase.
3. Tagworld: Doesn't quite work, not sure why; this is more of a social networking site anyway
4. Sideload: interesting desktop sync function but still kind of slow
5. Tunefeed.com/Faces.com: Decent widget but painfully slow upload; a little "too" robust with tons of feature creep.
We're in the early stages of virtual locker for music use only because it takes too long, the interfaces are still clunky, and virtual vs. physical storage distinction isn't that great. But it could change...
What would be interesting? Partnering with last.fm (which does have radio widgets) or slacker to provide recommended tracks for purchase and sharing within one's virtual locker. But that seems obvious. More interesting: adding a tagging function ala delicious or digg for tracks found on the web, which would then be recorded in the virtual locker (again for purchase, no piracy bullshit here). This preference data would then be posted to see which ones are being shared the most.
More interesting, and obviously more complicated, would be identifying top 3-5 song groupings. Because some tracks, like Snow Patrol's Chasing Cars and Death Cab's Someday You Will be Loved, would tend to be together (hypothetically).
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
I'm actually not a huge fan of Anchorman. It's funny but not as great as Old School or Wedding Crashers. Maybe I just don't relate to being a retarded anchorman. The Afternoon delight solo was classic though.
Also, testing something out.
Get your own Box.net widget and share anywhere!
Monday, May 21, 2007
Lots of purchasing behavior lately: Bebo/Yahoo, Photobucket/MySpace, ad firm/search engine. Safe to say Bubble 2.0 is upon us.
How's this for a startup idea? A social network around donuts. Which varieties are best. Local vs. nat'l franchises. Top flavors and toppings. When people eat them, how they eat them. Videos of people eating donuts. Music of donut songs. Donut shaped widgets for your MySpace profile. Interactive donuts.
MyDonut. YouNut. 'NutBook. Along with advertising from donut shops, coffee/pastry/cardiace surgeons would pay high CPM's to obtain coverage. Hell, I could license the numerous songs to be synched with donut-oriented slide shows.
I think a fair value would be $750M. Which would come out to be about $75M per user. At that price I don't think I'd be selling out.
Man, I'm getting hungry. I could use a croissant or something right now.
Sunday, May 20, 2007
Am I showing off? Sure I am. I'm a machine I tell ya, the 6 million dollar man.
Okay, so the new Linkin Park album came out and while some critics are giving it shit, I'm lovin' it. Sure a few tracks are a little strained, but the new styles they're trying out are pretty nifty - a sort of edgier U2/Keane/Snow Patrol direction.
Anyway, given that I'm checking out all these interactive radio sites (some of which are a little TOO interactive) I wanted to share this playlist from FineTune. You have to program a 45 track playlist, with the option of selecting a few and having their AI fill out the rest. I actually programmed every frickin' song (you're welcome). Three of my favorite tracks from the LP album are in the playlist (because it gets played randomly you'll have to wait to actually hear them) but there's a lot of other songs I chose to maintain a mellow feel. Death Cab, Ben Folds, Snow Patrol...yeah I know it's a little mainstream. I'll built out a Shins/Strokes/Coldplay player later (even more mellow...do not operate machinery after listening).
1. He's not a bad writer - quite witty and funny. Wait, I'm witty and funny...sometimes. What if I could capture it for posterity's sake, to prove to my friends that yes, at times I was witty and funny, and not all serious and pseudo-philosophical most of the time? That was a long sentence. Am I supposed to end it with a question mark, because it began really long...
2. He had a unique perspective at an insider's only industry on which most people have an opinion. And I work in the music industry, which we all is is extremely stable. (I should probably add a pseudo lawyer's note that this blog represents only my views on not those of the music label which employs me
3. Imagine if he kept this own blog and, provided the viewership was high enough, he could just get checks rolling in from syndicating ads via Adsense or the rest. Yes - this is my dream. Having enough readers enjoy this so I can get a fat check.
Okay I'll keep it short. My friend who shall remain nameless (EE) recently remarked my entries were way too long. Instead I'll look to write several times in Price Club like sample sizes (seriously, aren't those samples the best thing? Go in the morning and just snack on your shopping trip. Free lunch baby.)
Sunday, March 4, 2007
God has always been a puzzle for Scott Atran. When he was 10 years old, he scrawled a plaintive message on the wall of his bedroom in Baltimore. “God exists,” he wrote in black and orange paint, “or if he doesn’t, we’re in trouble.” Atran has been struggling with questions about religion ever since — why he himself no longer believes in God and why so many other people, everywhere in the world, apparently do.
Call it God; call it superstition; call it, as Atran does, “belief in hope beyond reason” — whatever you call it, there seems an inherent human drive to believe in something transcendent, unfathomable and otherworldly, something beyond the reach or understanding of science. “Why do we cross our fingers during turbulence, even the most atheistic among us?” asked Atran when we spoke at his Upper West Side pied-à-terre in January. Atran, who is 55, is an anthropologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, with joint appointments at the University of Michigan and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. His research interests include cognitive science and evolutionary biology, and sometimes he presents students with a wooden box that he pretends is an African relic. “If you have negative sentiments toward religion,” he tells them, “the box will destroy whatever you put inside it.” Many of his students say they doubt the existence of God, but in this demonstration they act as if they believe in something. Put your pencil into the magic box, he tells them, and the nonbelievers do so blithely. Put in your driver’s license, he says, and most do, but only after significant hesitation. And when he tells them to put in their hands, few will.
If they don’t believe in God, what exactly are they afraid of?
Atran first conducted the magic-box demonstration in the 1980s, when he was at Cambridge University studying the nature of religious belief. He had received a doctorate in anthropology from Columbia University and, in the course of his fieldwork, saw evidence of religion everywhere he looked — at archaeological digs in Israel, among the Mayans in Guatemala, in artifact drawers at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Atran is Darwinian in his approach, which means he tries to explain behavior by how it might once have solved problems of survival and reproduction for our early ancestors. But it was not clear to him what evolutionary problems might have been solved by religious belief. Religion seemed to use up physical and mental resources without an obvious benefit for survival. Why, he wondered, was religion so pervasive, when it was something that seemed so costly from an evolutionary point of view?
The magic-box demonstration helped set Atran on a career studying why humans might have evolved to be religious, something few people were doing back in the ’80s. Today, the effort has gained momentum, as scientists search for an evolutionary explanation for why belief in God exists — not whether God exists, which is a matter for philosophers and theologians, but why the belief does.
This is different from the scientific assault on religion that has been garnering attention recently, in the form of best-selling books from scientific atheists who see religion as a scourge. In “The God Delusion,” published last year and still on best-seller lists, the Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins concludes that religion is nothing more than a useless, and sometimes dangerous, evolutionary accident. “Religious behavior may be a misfiring, an unfortunate byproduct of an underlying psychological propensity which in other circumstances is, or once was, useful,” Dawkins wrote. He is joined by two other best-selling authors — Sam Harris, who wrote “The End of Faith,” and Daniel Dennett, a philosopher at Tufts University who wrote “Breaking the Spell.” The three men differ in their personal styles and whether they are engaged in a battle against religiosity, but their names are often mentioned together. They have been portrayed as an unholy trinity of neo-atheists, promoting their secular world view with a fervor that seems almost evangelical.
Lost in the hullabaloo over the neo-atheists is a quieter and potentially more illuminating debate. It is taking place not between science and religion but within science itself, specifically among the scientists studying the evolution of religion. These scholars tend to agree on one point: that religious belief is an outgrowth of brain architecture that evolved during early human history. What they disagree about is why a tendency to believe evolved, whether it was because belief itself was adaptive or because it was just an evolutionary byproduct, a mere consequence of some other adaptation in the evolution of the human brain.
Which is the better biological explanation for a belief in God — evolutionary adaptation or neurological accident? Is there something about the cognitive functioning of humans that makes us receptive to belief in a supernatural deity? And if scientists are able to explain God, what then? Is explaining religion the same thing as explaining it away? Are the nonbelievers right, and is religion at its core an empty undertaking, a misdirection, a vestigial artifact of a primitive mind? Or are the believers right, and does the fact that we have the mental capacities for discerning God suggest that it was God who put them there?
In short, are we hard-wired to believe in God? And if we are, how and why did that happen?
“All of our raptures and our drynesses, our longings and pantings, our questions and beliefs . . . are equally organically founded,” William James wrote in “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” James, who taught philosophy and experimental psychology at Harvard for more than 30 years, based his book on a 1901 lecture series in which he took some early tentative steps at breaching the science-religion divide.
In the century that followed, a polite convention generally separated science and religion, at least in much of the Western world. Science, as the old trope had it, was assigned the territory that describes how the heavens go; religion, how to go to heaven.
Anthropologists like Atran and psychologists as far back as James had been looking at the roots of religion, but the mutual hands-off policy really began to shift in the 1990s. Religion made incursions into the traditional domain of science with attempts to bring intelligent design into the biology classroom and to choke off human embryonic stem-cell research on religious grounds. Scientists responded with counterincursions. Experts from the hard sciences, like evolutionary biology and cognitive neuroscience, joined anthropologists and psychologists in the study of religion, making God an object of scientific inquiry.
The debate over why belief evolved is between byproduct theorists and adaptationists. You might think that the byproduct theorists would tend to be nonbelievers, looking for a way to explain religion as a fluke, while the adaptationists would be more likely to be believers who can intuit the emotional, spiritual and community advantages that accompany faith. Or you might think they would all be atheists, because what believer would want to subject his own devotion to rationalism’s cold, hard scrutiny? But a scientist’s personal religious view does not always predict which side he will take. And this is just one sign of how complex and surprising this debate has become.
Angels, demons, spirits, wizards, gods and witches have peppered folk religions since mankind first started telling stories. Charles Darwin noted this in “The Descent of Man.” “A belief in all-pervading spiritual agencies,” he wrote, “seems to be universal.” According to anthropologists, religions that share certain supernatural features — belief in a noncorporeal God or gods, belief in the afterlife, belief in the ability of prayer or ritual to change the course of human events — are found in virtually every culture on earth.
This is certainly true in the United States. About 6 in 10 Americans, according to a 2005 Harris Poll, believe in the devil and hell, and about 7 in 10 believe in angels, heaven and the existence of miracles and of life after death. A 2006 survey at Baylor University found that 92 percent of respondents believe in a personal God — that is, a God with a distinct set of character traits ranging from “distant” to “benevolent.”
When a trait is universal, evolutionary biologists look for a genetic explanation and wonder how that gene or genes might enhance survival or reproductive success. In many ways, it’s an exercise in post-hoc hypothesizing: what would have been the advantage, when the human species first evolved, for an individual who happened to have a mutation that led to, say, a smaller jaw, a bigger forehead, a better thumb? How about certain behavioral traits, like a tendency for risk-taking or for kindness?
Atran saw such questions as a puzzle when applied to religion. So many aspects of religious belief involve misattribution and misunderstanding of the real world. Wouldn’t this be a liability in the survival-of-the-fittest competition? To Atran, religious belief requires taking “what is materially false to be true” and “what is materially true to be false.” One example of this is the belief that even after someone dies and the body demonstrably disintegrates, that person will still exist, will still be able to laugh and cry, to feel pain and joy. This confusion “does not appear to be a reasonable evolutionary strategy,” Atran wrote in “In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion” in 2002. “Imagine another animal that took injury for health or big for small or fast for slow or dead for alive. It’s unlikely that such a species could survive.” He began to look for a sideways explanation: if religious belief was not adaptive, perhaps it was associated with something else that was.
Atran intended to study mathematics when he entered Columbia as a precocious 17-year-old. But he was distracted by the radical politics of the late ’60s. One day in his freshman year, he found himself at an antiwar rally listening to Margaret Mead, then perhaps the most famous anthropologist in America. Atran, dressed in a flamboyant Uncle Sam suit, stood up and called her a sellout for saying the protesters should be writing to their congressmen instead of staging demonstrations. “Young man,” the unflappable Mead said, “why don’t you come see me in my office?”
Atran, equally unflappable, did go to see her — and ended up working for Mead, spending much of his time exploring the cabinets of curiosities in her tower office at the American Museum of Natural History. Soon he switched his major to anthropology.
Many of the museum specimens were religious, Atran says. So were the artifacts he dug up on archaeological excursions in Israel in the early ’70s. Wherever he turned, he encountered the passion of religious belief. Why, he wondered, did people work so hard against their preference for logical explanations to maintain two views of the world, the real and the unreal, the intuitive and the counterintuitive?
Maybe cognitive effort was precisely the point. Maybe it took less mental work than Atran realized to hold belief in God in one’s mind. Maybe, in fact, belief was the default position for the human mind, something that took no cognitive effort at all.
While still an undergraduate, Atran decided to explore these questions by organizing a conference on universal aspects of culture and inviting all his intellectual heroes: the linguist Noam Chomsky, the psychologist Jean Piaget, the anthropologists Claude Levi-Strauss and Gregory Bateson (who was also Margaret Mead’s ex-husband), the Nobel Prize-winning biologists Jacques Monod and Francois Jacob. It was 1974, and the only site he could find for the conference was at a location just outside Paris. Atran was a scraggly 22-year-old with a guitar who had learned his French from comic books. To his astonishment, everyone he invited agreed to come.
Atran is a sociable man with sharp hazel eyes, who sparks provocative conversations the way other men pick bar fights. As he traveled in the ’70s and ’80s, he accumulated friends who were thinking about the issues he was: how culture is transmitted among human groups and what evolutionary function it might serve. “I started looking at history, and I wondered why no society ever survived more than three generations without a religious foundation as its raison d’être,” he says. Soon he turned to an emerging subset of evolutionary theory — the evolution of human cognition.
Some cognitive scientists think of brain functioning in terms of modules, a series of interconnected machines, each one responsible for a particular mental trick. They do not tend to talk about a God module per se; they usually consider belief in God a consequence of other mental modules.
Religion, in this view, is “a family of cognitive phenomena that involves the extraordinary use of everyday cognitive processes,” Atran wrote in “In Gods We Trust.” “Religions do not exist apart from the individual minds that constitute them and the environments that constrain them, any more than biological species and varieties exist independently of the individual organisms that compose them and the environments that conform them.”
At around the time “In Gods We Trust” appeared five years ago, a handful of other scientists — Pascal Boyer, now at Washington University; Justin Barrett, now at Oxford; Paul Bloom at Yale — were addressing these same questions. In synchrony they were moving toward the byproduct theory.
Darwinians who study physical evolution distinguish between traits that are themselves adaptive, like having blood cells that can transport oxygen, and traits that are byproducts of adaptations, like the redness of blood. There is no survival advantage to blood’s being red instead of turquoise; it is just a byproduct of the trait that is adaptive, having blood that contains hemoglobin.
Something similar explains aspects of brain evolution, too, say the byproduct theorists. Which brings us to the idea of the spandrel.
Stephen Jay Gould, the famed evolutionary biologist at Harvard who died in 2002, and his colleague Richard Lewontin proposed “spandrel” to describe a trait that has no adaptive value of its own. They borrowed the term from architecture, where it originally referred to the V-shaped structure formed between two rounded arches. The structure is not there for any purpose; it is there because that is what happens when arches align.
In architecture, a spandrel can be neutral or it can be made functional. Building a staircase, for instance, creates a space underneath that is innocuous, just a blank sort of triangle. But if you put a closet there, the under-stairs space takes on a function, unrelated to the staircase’s but useful nonetheless. Either way, functional or nonfunctional, the space under the stairs is a spandrel, an unintended byproduct.
“Natural selection made the human brain big,” Gould wrote, “but most of our mental properties and potentials may be spandrels — that is, nonadaptive side consequences of building a device with such structural complexity.”
The possibility that God could be a spandrel offered Atran a new way of understanding the evolution of religion. But a spandrel of what, exactly?
Hardships of early human life favored the evolution of certain cognitive tools, among them the ability to infer the presence of organisms that might do harm, to come up with causal narratives for natural events and to recognize that other people have minds of their own with their own beliefs, desires and intentions. Psychologists call these tools, respectively, agent detection, causal reasoning and theory of mind.
Agent detection evolved because assuming the presence of an agent — which is jargon for any creature with volitional, independent behavior — is more adaptive than assuming its absence. If you are a caveman on the savannah, you are better off presuming that the motion you detect out of the corner of your eye is an agent and something to run from, even if you are wrong. If it turns out to have been just the rustling of leaves, you are still alive; if what you took to be leaves rustling was really a hyena about to pounce, you are dead.
A classic experiment from the 1940s by the psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel suggested that imputing agency is so automatic that people may do it even for geometric shapes. For the experiment, subjects watched a film of triangles and circles moving around. When asked what they had been watching, the subjects used words like “chase” and “capture.” They did not just see the random movement of shapes on a screen; they saw pursuit, planning, escape.
So if there is motion just out of our line of sight, we presume it is caused by an agent, an animal or person with the ability to move independently. This usually operates in one direction only; lots of people mistake a rock for a bear, but almost no one mistakes a bear for a rock.
What does this mean for belief in the supernatural? It means our brains are primed for it, ready to presume the presence of agents even when such presence confounds logic. “The most central concepts in religions are related to agents,” Justin Barrett, a psychologist, wrote in his 2004 summary of the byproduct theory, “Why Would Anyone Believe in God?” Religious agents are often supernatural, he wrote, “people with superpowers, statues that can answer requests or disembodied minds that can act on us and the world.”
A second mental module that primes us for religion is causal reasoning. The human brain has evolved the capacity to impose a narrative, complete with chronology and cause-and-effect logic, on whatever it encounters, no matter how apparently random. “We automatically, and often unconsciously, look for an explanation of why things happen to us,” Barrett wrote, “and ‘stuff just happens’ is no explanation. Gods, by virtue of their strange physical properties and their mysterious superpowers, make fine candidates for causes of many of these unusual events.” The ancient Greeks believed thunder was the sound of Zeus’s thunderbolt. Similarly, a contemporary woman whose cancer treatment works despite 10-to-1 odds might look for a story to explain her survival. It fits better with her causal-reasoning tool for her recovery to be a miracle, or a reward for prayer, than for it to be just a lucky roll of the dice.
A third cognitive trick is a kind of social intuition known as theory of mind. It’s an odd phrase for something so automatic, since the word “theory” suggests formality and self-consciousness. Other terms have been used for the same concept, like intentional stance and social cognition. One good alternative is the term Atran uses: folkpsychology.
Folkpsychology, as Atran and his colleagues see it, is essential to getting along in the contemporary world, just as it has been since prehistoric times. It allows us to anticipate the actions of others and to lead others to believe what we want them to believe; it is at the heart of everything from marriage to office politics to poker. People without this trait, like those with severe autism, are impaired, unable to imagine themselves in other people’s heads.
The process begins with positing the existence of minds, our own and others’, that we cannot see or feel. This leaves us open, almost instinctively, to belief in the separation of the body (the visible) and the mind (the invisible). If you can posit minds in other people that you cannot verify empirically, suggests Paul Bloom, a psychologist and the author of “Descartes’ Baby,” published in 2004, it is a short step to positing minds that do not have to be anchored to a body. And from there, he said, it is another short step to positing an immaterial soul and a transcendent God.
The traditional psychological view has been that until about age 4, children think that minds are permeable and that everyone knows whatever the child himself knows. To a young child, everyone is infallible. All other people, especially Mother and Father, are thought to have the same sort of insight as an all-knowing God.
But at a certain point in development, this changes. (Some new research suggests this might occur as early as 15 months.) The “false-belief test” is a classic experiment that highlights the boundary. Children watch a puppet show with a simple plot: John comes onstage holding a marble, puts it in Box A and walks off. Mary comes onstage, opens Box A, takes out the marble, puts it in Box B and walks off. John comes back onstage. The children are asked, Where will John look for the marble?
Very young children, or autistic children of any age, say John will look in Box B, since they know that’s where the marble is. But older children give a more sophisticated answer. They know that John never saw Mary move the marble and that as far as he is concerned it is still where he put it, in Box A. Older children have developed a theory of mind; they understand that other people sometimes have false beliefs. Even though they know that the marble is in Box B, they respond that John will look for it in Box A.
The adaptive advantage of folkpsychology is obvious. According to Atran, our ancestors needed it to survive their harsh environment, since folkpsychology allowed them to “rapidly and economically” distinguish good guys from bad guys. But how did folkpsychology — an understanding of ordinary people’s ordinary minds — allow for a belief in supernatural, omniscient minds? And if the byproduct theorists are right and these beliefs were of little use in finding food or leaving more offspring, why did they persist?
Atran ascribes the persistence to evolutionary misdirection, which, he says, happens all the time: “Evolution always produces something that works for what it works for, and then there’s no control for however else it’s used.” On a sunny weekday morning, over breakfast at a French cafe on upper Broadway, he tried to think of an analogy and grinned when he came up with an old standby: women’s breasts. Because they are associated with female hormones, he explained, full breasts indicate a woman is fertile, and the evolution of the male brain’s preference for them was a clever mating strategy. But breasts are now used for purposes unrelated to reproduction, to sell anything from deodorant to beer. “A Martian anthropologist might look at this and say, ‘Oh, yes, so these breasts must have somehow evolved to sell hygienic stuff or food to human beings,’ ” Atran said. But the Martian would, of course, be wrong. Equally wrong would be to make the same mistake about religion, thinking it must have evolved to make people behave a certain way or feel a certain allegiance.
That is what most fascinated Atran. “Why is God in there?” he wondered.
The idea of an infallible God is comfortable and familiar, something children readily accept. You can see this in the experiment Justin Barrett conducted recently — a version of the traditional false-belief test but with a religious twist. Barrett showed young children a box with a picture of crackers on the outside. What do you think is inside this box? he asked, and the children said, “Crackers.” Next he opened it and showed them that the box was filled with rocks. Then he asked two follow-up questions: What would your mother say is inside this box? And what would God say?
As earlier theory-of-mind experiments already showed, 3- and 4-year-olds tended to think Mother was infallible, and since the children knew the right answer, they assumed she would know it, too. They usually responded that Mother would say the box contained rocks. But 5- and 6-year-olds had learned that Mother, like any other person, could hold a false belief in her mind, and they tended to respond that she would be fooled by the packaging and would say, “Crackers.”
And what would God say? No matter what their age, the children, who were all Protestants, told Barrett that God would answer, “Rocks.” This was true even for the older children, who, as Barrett understood it, had developed folkpsychology and had used it when predicting a wrong response for Mother. They had learned that, in certain situations, people could be fooled — but they had also learned that there is no fooling God.
The bottom line, according to byproduct theorists, is that children are born with a tendency to believe in omniscience, invisible minds, immaterial souls — and then they grow up in cultures that fill their minds, hard-wired for belief, with specifics. It is a little like language acquisition, Paul Bloom says, with the essential difference that language is a biological adaptation and religion, in his view, is not. We are born with an innate facility for language but the specific language we learn depends on the environment in which we are raised. In much the same way, he says, we are born with an innate tendency for belief, but the specifics of what we grow up believing — whether there is one God or many, whether the soul goes to heaven or occupies another animal after death — are culturally shaped.
Whatever the specifics, certain beliefs can be found in all religions. Those that prevail, according to the byproduct theorists, are those that fit most comfortably with our mental architecture. Psychologists have shown, for instance, that people attend to, and remember, things that are unfamiliar and strange, but not so strange as to be impossible to assimilate. Ideas about God or other supernatural agents tend to fit these criteria. They are what Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist and psychologist, called “minimally counterintuitive”: weird enough to get your attention and lodge in your memory but not so weird that you reject them altogether. A tree that talks is minimally counterintuitive, and you might believe it as a supernatural agent. A tree that talks and flies and time-travels is maximally counterintuitive, and you are more likely to reject it.
Atran, along with Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia, studied the idea of minimally counterintuitive agents earlier this decade. They presented college students with lists of fantastical creatures and asked them to choose the ones that seemed most “religious.” The convincingly religious agents, the students said, were not the most outlandish — not the turtle that chatters and climbs or the squealing, flowering marble — but those that were just outlandish enough: giggling seaweed, a sobbing oak, a talking horse. Giggling seaweed meets the requirement of being minimally counterintuitive, Atran wrote. So does a God who has a human personality except that he knows everything or a God who has a mind but has no body.
It is not enough for an agent to be minimally counterintuitive for it to earn a spot in people’s belief systems. An emotional component is often needed, too, if belief is to take hold. “If your emotions are involved, then that’s the time when you’re most likely to believe whatever the religion tells you to believe,” Atran says. Religions stir up emotions through their rituals — swaying, singing, bowing in unison during group prayer, sometimes working people up to a state of physical arousal that can border on frenzy. And religions gain strength during the natural heightening of emotions that occurs in times of personal crisis, when the faithful often turn to shamans or priests. The most intense personal crisis, for which religion can offer powerfully comforting answers, is when someone comes face to face with mortality.
In John Updike’s celebrated early short story “Pigeon Feathers,” 14-year-old David spends a lot of time thinking about death. He suspects that adults are lying when they say his spirit will live on after he dies. He keeps catching them in inconsistencies when he asks where exactly his soul will spend eternity. “Don’t you see,” he cries to his mother, “if when we die there’s nothing, all your sun and fields and what not are all, ah, horror? It’s just an ocean of horror.”
The story ends with David’s tiny revelation and his boundless relief. The boy gets a gun for his 15th birthday, which he uses to shoot down some pigeons that have been nesting in his grandmother’s barn. Before he buries them, he studies the dead birds’ feathers. He is amazed by their swirls of color, “designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture.” And suddenly the fears that have plagued him are lifted, and with a “slipping sensation along his nerves that seemed to give the air hands, he was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.”
Fear of death is an undercurrent of belief. The spirits of dead ancestors, ghosts, immortal deities, heaven and hell, the everlasting soul: the notion of spiritual existence after death is at the heart of almost every religion. According to some adaptationists, this is part of religion’s role, to help humans deal with the grim certainty of death. Believing in God and the afterlife, they say, is how we make sense of the brevity of our time on earth, how we give meaning to this brutish and short existence. Religion can offer solace to the bereaved and comfort to the frightened.
But the spandrelists counter that saying these beliefs are consolation does not mean they offered an adaptive advantage to our ancestors. “The human mind does not produce adequate comforting delusions against all situations of stress or fear,” wrote Pascal Boyer, a leading byproduct theorist, in “Religion Explained,” which came out a year before Atran’s book. “Indeed, any organism that was prone to such delusions would not survive long.”
Whether or not it is adaptive, belief in the afterlife gains power in two ways: from the intensity with which people wish it to be true and from the confirmation it seems to get from the real world. This brings us back to folkpsychology. We try to make sense of other people partly by imagining what it is like to be them, an adaptive trait that allowed our ancestors to outwit potential enemies. But when we think about being dead, we run into a cognitive wall. How can we possibly think about not thinking? “Try to fill your consciousness with the representation of no-consciousness, and you will see the impossibility of it,” the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno wrote in “Tragic Sense of Life.” “The effort to comprehend it causes the most tormenting dizziness. We cannot conceive of ourselves as not existing.”
Much easier, then, to imagine that the thinking somehow continues. This is what young children seem to do, as a study at the Florida Atlantic University demonstrated a few years ago. Jesse Bering and David Bjorklund, the psychologists who conducted the study, used finger puppets to act out the story of a mouse, hungry and lost, who is spotted by an alligator. “Well, it looks like Brown Mouse got eaten by Mr. Alligator,” the narrator says at the end. “Brown Mouse is not alive anymore.”
Afterward, Bering and Bjorklund asked their subjects, ages 4 to 12, what it meant for Brown Mouse to be “not alive anymore.” Is he still hungry? Is he still sleepy? Does he still want to go home? Most said the mouse no longer needed to eat or drink. But a large proportion, especially the younger ones, said that he still had thoughts, still loved his mother and still liked cheese. The children understood what it meant for the mouse’s body to cease to function, but many believed that something about the mouse was still alive.
“Our psychological architecture makes us think in particular ways,” says Bering, now at Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. “In this study, it seems, the reason afterlife beliefs are so prevalent is that underlying them is our inability to simulate our nonexistence.”
It might be just as impossible to simulate the nonexistence of loved ones. A large part of any relationship takes place in our minds, Bering said, so it’s natural for it to continue much as before after the other person’s death. It is easy to forget that your sister is dead when you reach for the phone to call her, since your relationship was based so much on memory and imagined conversations even when she was alive. In addition, our agent-detection device sometimes confirms the sensation that the dead are still with us. The wind brushes our cheek, a spectral shape somehow looks familiar and our agent detection goes into overdrive. Dreams, too, have a way of confirming belief in the afterlife, with dead relatives appearing in dreams as if from beyond the grave, seeming very much alive.
Belief is our fallback position, according to Bering; it is our reflexive style of thought. “We have a basic psychological capacity that allows anyone to reason about unexpected natural events, to see deeper meaning where there is none,” he says. “It’s natural; it’s how our minds work.”
Intriguing as the spandrel logic might be, there is another way to think about the evolution of religion: that religion evolved because it offered survival advantages to our distant ancestors. This is where the action is in the science of God debate, with a coterie of adaptationists arguing on behalf of the primary benefits, in terms of survival advantages, of religious belief.
The trick in thinking about adaptation is that even if a trait offers no survival advantage today, it might have had one long ago. This is how Darwinians explain how certain physical characteristics persist even if they do not currently seem adaptive — by asking whether they might have helped our distant ancestors form social groups, feed themselves, find suitable mates or keep from getting killed. A facility for storing calories as fat, for instance, which is a detriment in today’s food-rich society, probably helped our ancestors survive cyclical famines.
So trying to explain the adaptiveness of religion means looking for how it might have helped early humans survive and reproduce. As some adaptationists see it, this could have worked on two levels, individual and group. Religion made people feel better, less tormented by thoughts about death, more focused on the future, more willing to take care of themselves. As William James put it, religion filled people with “a new zest which adds itself like a gift to life . . . an assurance of safety and a temper of peace and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections.”
Such sentiments, some adaptationists say, made the faithful better at finding and storing food, for instance, and helped them attract better mates because of their reputations for morality, obedience and sober living. The advantage might have worked at the group level too, with religious groups outlasting others because they were more cohesive, more likely to contain individuals willing to make sacrifices for the group and more adept at sharing resources and preparing for warfare.
One of the most vocal adaptationists is David Sloan Wilson, an occasional thorn in the side of both Scott Atran and Richard Dawkins. Wilson, an evolutionary biologist at the State University of New York at Binghamton, focuses much of his argument at the group level. “Organisms are a product of natural selection,” he wrote in “Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society,” which came out in 2002, the same year as Atran’s book, and staked out the adaptationist view. “Through countless generations of variation and selection, [organisms] acquire properties that enable them to survive and reproduce in their environments. My purpose is to see if human groups in general, and religious groups in particular, qualify as organismic in this sense.”
Wilson’s father was Sloan Wilson, author of “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” an emblem of mid-’50s suburban anomie that was turned into a film starring Gregory Peck. Sloan Wilson became a celebrity, with young women asking for his autograph, especially after his next novel, “A Summer Place,” became another blockbuster movie. The son grew up wanting to do something to make his famous father proud.
“I knew I couldn’t be a novelist,” said Wilson, who crackled with intensity during a telephone interview, “so I chose something as far as possible from literature — I chose science.” He is disarmingly honest about what motivated him: “I was very ambitious, and I wanted to make a mark.” He chose to study human evolution, he said, in part because he had some of his father’s literary leanings and the field required a novelist’s attention to human motivations, struggles and alliances — as well as a novelist’s flair for narrative.
Wilson eventually chose to study religion not because religion mattered to him personally — he was raised in a secular Protestant household and says he has long been an atheist — but because it was a lens through which to look at and revivify a branch of evolution that had fallen into disrepute. When Wilson was a graduate student at Michigan State University in the 1970s, Darwinians were critical of group selection, the idea that human groups can function as single organisms the way beehives or anthills do. So he decided to become the man who rescued this discredited idea. “I thought, Wow, defending group selection — now, that would be big,” he recalled. It wasn’t until the 1990s, he said, that he realized that “religion offered an opportunity to show that group selection was right after all.”
Dawkins once called Wilson’s defense of group selection “sheer, wanton, head-in-bag perversity.” Atran, too, has been dismissive of this approach, calling it “mind blind” for essentially ignoring the role of the brain’s mental machinery. The adaptationists “cannot in principle distinguish Marxism from monotheism, ideology from religious belief,” Atran wrote. “They cannot explain why people can be more steadfast in their commitment to admittedly counterfactual and counterintuitive beliefs — that Mary is both a mother and a virgin, and God is sentient but bodiless — than to the most politically, economically or scientifically persuasive account of the way things are or should be.”
Still, for all its controversial elements, the narrative Wilson devised about group selection and the evolution of religion is clear, perhaps a legacy of his novelist father. Begin, he says, with an imaginary flock of birds. Some birds serve as sentries, scanning the horizon for predators and calling out warnings. Having a sentry is good for the group but bad for the sentry, which is doubly harmed: by keeping watch, the sentry has less time to gather food, and by issuing a warning call, it is more likely to be spotted by the predator. So in the Darwinian struggle, the birds most likely to pass on their genes are the nonsentries. How, then, could the sentry gene survive for more than a generation or two?
To explain how a self-sacrificing gene can persist, Wilson looks to the level of the group. If there are 10 sentries in one group and none in the other, 3 or 4 of the sentries might be sacrificed. But the flock with sentries will probably outlast the flock that has no early-warning system, so the other 6 or 7 sentries will survive to pass on the genes. In other words, if the whole-group advantage outweighs the cost to any individual bird of being a sentry, then the sentry gene will prevail.
There are costs to any individual of being religious: the time and resources spent on rituals, the psychic energy devoted to following certain injunctions, the pain of some initiation rites. But in terms of intergroup struggle, according to Wilson, the costs can be outweighed by the benefits of being in a cohesive group that out-competes the others.
There is another element here too, unique to humans because it depends on language. A person’s behavior is observed not only by those in his immediate surroundings but also by anyone who can hear about it. There might be clear costs to taking on a role analogous to the sentry bird — a person who stands up to authority, for instance, risks losing his job, going to jail or getting beaten by the police — but in humans, these local costs might be outweighed by long-distance benefits. If a particular selfless trait enhances a person’s reputation, spread through the written and spoken word, it might give him an advantage in many of life’s challenges, like finding a mate. One way that reputation is enhanced is by being ostentatiously religious.
“The study of evolution is largely the study of trade-offs,” Wilson wrote in “Darwin’s Cathedral.” It might seem disadvantageous, in terms of foraging for sustenance and safety, for someone to favor religious over rationalistic explanations that would point to where the food and danger are. But in some circumstances, he wrote, “a symbolic belief system that departs from factual reality fares better.” For the individual, it might be more adaptive to have “highly sophisticated mental modules for acquiring factual knowledge and for building symbolic belief systems” than to have only one or the other, according to Wilson. For the group, it might be that a mixture of hardheaded realists and symbolically minded visionaries is most adaptive and that “what seems to be an adversarial relationship” between theists and atheists within a community is really a division of cognitive labor that “keeps social groups as a whole on an even keel.”
Even if Wilson is right that religion enhances group fitness, the question remains: Where does God come in? Why is a religious group any different from groups for which a fitness argument is never even offered — a group of fraternity brothers, say, or Yankees fans?
Richard Sosis, an anthropologist with positions at the University of Connecticut and Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has suggested a partial answer. Like many adaptationists, Sosis focuses on the way religion might be adaptive at the individual level. But even adaptations that help an individual survive can sometimes play themselves out through the group. Consider religious rituals.
“Religious and secular rituals can both promote cooperation,” Sosis wrote in American Scientist in 2004. But religious rituals “generate greater belief and commitment” because they depend on belief rather than on proof. The rituals are “beyond the possibility of examination,” he wrote, and a commitment to them is therefore emotional rather than logical — a commitment that is, in Sosis’s view, deeper and more long-lasting.
Rituals are a way of signaling a sincere commitment to the religion’s core beliefs, thereby earning loyalty from others in the group. “By donning several layers of clothing and standing out in the midday sun,” Sosis wrote, “ultraorthodox Jewish men are signaling to others: ‘Hey! Look, I’m a haredi’ — or extremely pious — ‘Jew. If you are also a member of this group, you can trust me because why else would I be dressed like this?’ ” These “signaling” rituals can grant the individual a sense of belonging and grant the group some freedom from constant and costly monitoring to ensure that their members are loyal and committed. The rituals are harsh enough to weed out the infidels, and both the group and the individual believers benefit.
In 2003, Sosis and Bradley Ruffle of Ben Gurion University in Israel sought an explanation for why Israel’s religious communes did better on average than secular communes in the wake of the economic crash of most of the country’s kibbutzim. They based their study on a standard economic game that measures cooperation. Individuals from religious communes played the game more cooperatively, while those from secular communes tended to be more selfish. It was the men who attended synagogue daily, not the religious women or the less observant men, who showed the biggest differences. To Sosis, this suggested that what mattered most was the frequent public display of devotion. These rituals, he wrote, led to greater cooperation in the religious communes, which helped them maintain their communal structure during economic hard times.
In 1997, Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay in Natural History that called for a truce between religion and science. “The net of science covers the empirical universe,” he wrote. “The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value.” Gould was emphatic about keeping the domains separate, urging “respectful discourse” and “mutual humility.” He called the demarcation “nonoverlapping magisteria” from the Latin magister, meaning “canon.”
Richard Dawkins had a history of spirited arguments with Gould, with whom he disagreed about almost everything related to the timing and focus of evolution. But he reserved some of his most venomous words for nonoverlapping magisteria. “Gould carried the art of bending over backward to positively supine lengths,” he wrote in “The God Delusion.” “Why shouldn’t we comment on God, as scientists? . . . A universe with a creative superintendent would be a very different kind of universe from one without. Why is that not a scientific matter?”
The separation, other critics said, left untapped the potential richness of letting one worldview inform the other. “Even if Gould was right that there were two domains, what religion does and what science does,” says Daniel Dennett (who, despite his neo-atheist label, is not as bluntly antireligious as Dawkins and Harris are), “that doesn’t mean science can’t study what religion does. It just means science can’t do what religion does.”
The idea that religion can be studied as a natural phenomenon might seem to require an atheistic philosophy as a starting point. Not necessarily. Even some neo-atheists aren’t entirely opposed to religion. Sam Harris practices Buddhist-inspired meditation. Daniel Dennett holds an annual Christmas sing-along, complete with hymns and carols that are not only harmonically lush but explicitly pious.
And one prominent member of the byproduct camp, Justin Barrett, is an observant Christian who believes in “an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good God who brought the universe into being,” as he wrote in an e-mail message. “I believe that the purpose for people is to love God and love each other.”
At first blush, Barrett’s faith might seem confusing. How does his view of God as a byproduct of our mental architecture coexist with his Christianity? Why doesn’t the byproduct theory turn him into a skeptic?
“Christian theology teaches that people were crafted by God to be in a loving relationship with him and other people,” Barrett wrote in his e-mail message. “Why wouldn’t God, then, design us in such a way as to find belief in divinity quite natural?” Having a scientific explanation for mental phenomena does not mean we should stop believing in them, he wrote. “Suppose science produces a convincing account for why I think my wife loves me — should I then stop believing that she does?”
What can be made of atheists, then? If the evolutionary view of religion is true, they have to work hard at being atheists, to resist slipping into intrinsic habits of mind that make it easier to believe than not to believe. Atran says he faces an emotional and intellectual struggle to live without God in a nonatheist world, and he suspects that is where his little superstitions come from, his passing thought about crossing his fingers during turbulence or knocking on wood just in case. It is like an atavistic theism erupting when his guard is down. The comforts and consolations of belief are alluring even to him, he says, and probably will become more so as he gets closer to the end of his life. He fights it because he is a scientist and holds the values of rationalism higher than the values of spiritualism.
This internal push and pull between the spiritual and the rational reflects what used to be called the “God of the gaps” view of religion. The presumption was that as science was able to answer more questions about the natural world, God would be invoked to answer fewer, and religion would eventually recede. Research about the evolution of religion suggests otherwise. No matter how much science can explain, it seems, the real gap that God fills is an emptiness that our big-brained mental architecture interprets as a yearning for the supernatural. The drive to satisfy that yearning, according to both adaptationists and byproduct theorists, might be an inevitable and eternal part of what Atran calls the tragedy of human cognition.
Robin Marantz Henig, a contributing writer, has written recently for the magazine about the neurobiology of lying and about obesity.