bow down before the one you serve

When I wrote last Friday about where my desires come from, I used the example of Laughing Cow cheese. My desire for this cheese went from non-existent (before I tried it) to compulsory (after). I thought that was pretty extraordinary.

Some folks, commenting on my LiveJournal, observed that the manufacturers of Laughing Cow cheese didn’t literally create my desire out of nothing. I had to have some predisposition for soft, sweet cheeses before I tried it. It’s not, as commenter phanatic put it, as if they handed me a ball of roofing tar and I lapped it right up. And I have been presented with free samples in the past – mango-kiwi juices, pre-packaged cookies, tequila shots served by women in cut-off tees – that have not compelled me to buy. So clearly these new experiences tap into some extant disposition in order to create a desire.

That makes sense but doesn’t satisfy. We run into the same problem here that we do with the Cartesian theater. Okay, so desire is created when a new stimulus taps into some extant disposition. Where did the disposition come from? “Evolution” answers some of that – I’m a mammal; I like salt and calories – but not all of it. The human race is similar enough to interbreed but different enough that menus have to warn people about spicy food.

So our predispositions have to come from somewhere. Did they arise in a similar fashion – a combination of exterior stimuli and even earlier predisposition? Let’s go with that for now, as I’m not sure what the alternative would be (god or aliens or ancestor spirits, perhaps) and it makes sense. We enter the world as creatures of pure instinct, survive on mothering until we start collating our experiences, and turn into complex calculating libraries. Makes sense.

Ultimately, then, every desire I have – and thus every action I take – comes from either biology or experience. What does this mean for the notion of free will?

“Free will” is one of those subjects that requires a lot of brush-clearing before two people can even start screaming at each other. No two people mean the same thing by it. So let me lay out what I mean when I talk about free will first.

In my head, it certainly feels like I have free will. Every action I take is either to fulfill some desire, which seems to arise as if from nowhere, or to respond to some instinct. I’m either closing the blinds to keep the light out of my eyes or I’m jumping in fear because something in the movie startled me. Instinct I can write off as subconscious reflex, but the choices feel free and uncoerced.

And yet we established a few weeks ago that the brain is an organ, and a hungry one at that. We also theorized last week that there is no mini-self sitting in our brain pulling levers – no central ego, soul or homonculus that’s the true core. So when I say “it feels like I have free will,” that might not be a useful statement, as “I” might not be a qualified judge. Who is the “I” saying what it feels like in “my” head? Which part of my decision-making process is the “I” evaluating?

Is there such a thing as a decision that doesn’t come from the brain? For purposes of my discussion, no. If I’m sleeping with someone and I kick them to stop them from snoring, that’s different than if I’m sleeping with someone and I kick them because my legs jerked in a dream. So everything that I intend to do, consciously, has to pass through the brain at some point.

Is there any part of the brain that does not have organic components? No. We can debate souls or homonculi if you like, but if you’ve followed the series so far you’ll know I place little weight on them.

Therefore, is there any decision that does not originate from an organic component? It would seem not.

Does this mean there’s no such thing as free will? It depends on what you mean by “free will.” If you mean that there’s an Aristotelian “unmoved mover” sitting in the brain that makes decisions for us, then yes, your notion of free will is in trouble. But if you mean that there’s a difference between consciousness and instinct – that there’s a worthwhile distinction to draw between kicking someone for snoring and kicking someone by leg spasms – then yes, “free will” makes sense.

But is the difference one of degree or one of type? Is consciousness a different process from instinct, or is it just a really complicated nest of instincts?

And if what I call “free will” is just an instinct, then what internal instincts and external stimuli are driving me to ask so many questions about it?


you told me again you preferred handsome men

And Who Are You Supposed To Be?
How good was this past Sunday’s episode of Mad Men (“The Hobo and the Gypsy”)? So good that I don’t know if I want to go as Don Draper for Halloween anymore. That’s how good it was.

I probably will, anyway, as I’ve reached that point in my life where I pick Halloween costumes by cheapness and the breathability of the fabric. I already own an appropriate suit: I just need to shave my sideburns, slick my hair into the part I wore for the first quarter century of my life, get a pocket square and walk around with half a glass of scotch. And I already do half of that the other three-hundred and sixty-four days of the year. You know I’m all about the pocket squares.

“The Gypsy and The Hobo” put me in such a mood that I not only questioned whether I want to adopt this fictional protagonist as a costume, but what I’m doing with my life. But that’s what happens whenever I watch a good TV show, or a well-framed movie or a really moving song. Good art has the power to throw me in profound and unexpected moods. I’m a blank slate on which media gets to draw.

Which is ironic, because not only is that what Don Draper’s about (advertising and shaping the popular consciousness), but that’s what “what Don Draper’s about” is about. Jon Hamm’s character is popular because he looks like an alpha male who gets to drink all the time, screw around, dismiss his underlings with casual contempt, and luck his way into the halls of power. Every guy wants to be That Guy. Don Draper is selling an image. Matthew Weiner, producer of Mad Men, is selling Don Draper. So I applaud this fictional character’s ability to sell because I myself have been so thoroughly sold.

All that aside, dressing as a tormented ad executive for the company Halloween party would be too meta to pass up.


I’m Not Here to Tell You About Jesus
I got my opportunity to play Don Draper at an on-site meeting for TVClient in New York yesterday. Our travel arrangements required that I be up by 5:00 to catch the Acela Express from South Station by 6:00. I’ve taken Amtrak several times in the last few years, but never the Acela Express, with its unfolding business class tables and spacious cafe car. The four of us did some rehearsing for the work presentation, then shared war stories for the rest of the ride.

My role doesn’t put me in regular contact with the clients; I’m more akin to Ken or Peggy than Don. But I still speak in meetings, and yesterday I spoke to a conference room full of website developers on how we could work better with them. I fielded some technical questions, improvised my way through some new slides, and avoided stammering. Things to work on: eye contact, not clearing my throat.

Our cabbie from TVClient to Penn Station murmured something under his breath the entire time he drove us. Every ten seconds, he would click a handheld counter that he cupped in his palm. Prayers? Pedestrians he refrained from killing? We’ll never know.

The Acela Express seats aren’t quite tall enough to support my head and don’t recline far enough to let me slump. I slept with a stiff neck on the train ride back. When I got back to Davis, the sky was as dark as when I’d left.

I’ve got something to tell you far outside the black and white

Sylvia called me up on Sunday and asked if I wanted to watch Helvetica, the 2007 documentary about fonts. “Do I ever!”, I exclaimed.

Helvetica is a very dry documentary about a very fascinating subject: the role that typeset has in introducing us to products or concepts. It covers this larger theme by recounting the story of the design of the Haas Neue Grotesk font, which we today call “Helvetica”: the most common typeset in the world of Roman characters in the 20th century. Every street sign in New York, most forms of U.S. government paperwork, and practically every corporation uses it.


The film raises the question of why Helvetica has become so ubiquitous. Does everyone use it because elements of its design seem so appealing: the firmness of the lines, the encapsulation and separation of white space? Or does Helvetica appeal to us because everyone uses it? This debate intrigued me, having started a conversation on Friday over whether mind/body unification means outside forces create our desires, or our desires look for outside forces to fulfill them. Which came first – the crossbar or the em?

The documentary as a film: good. The conversation, as I said, gets a little dry at times, with the individual words fading into the background like the strokes of a character fade into the word-picture it creates. Then you get a character like Erik Spiekermann, who compares the most common font in the world to McDonald’s, and you perk back up. Worth the 90 minutes of your time.

don’t throw stones; you don’t know

On Friday I had the neighbors, Ryan and Erin, over for wine and cheese. We sifted through each other’s movie piles to find good films to laugh over. Neither Erin nor Ryan had seen Road House, so we put that in first.

If marginal utility theory means anything, then I should get more value out of most purchases than I spend on them. But sometimes the ratio skyrockets so far out of whack that I give thanks to the healing power of capitalism. My Dickies messenger bag, for example: I spent $50 on it three years ago and it has easily brought a thousand dollars of convenience into my life. Or my copy of Mind Performance Hacks. Or the Bed of Ages: a Simmons model that the company no longer makes, that I dropped just over a grand on (including frame and headboard) five years ago. I spent enough on the Bed that it’s a close thing, but I still come out black.

Road House has vastly exceeded the $8 I paid for it in the Target discount bin. In the two years I’ve owned it, I’ve watched it at least six times. Maybe one of those times I watched it alone. Every other time, I’ve had friends over, cracked some beers and introduced them to Patrick Swayze’s magnum opus.

Why does Road House work on every level? The fight scenes are fun, as I’ve said before. The hayseed, outdated setting allows for some ironic laughs – particularly when the locals gawk over Swayze’s tanned bod. “He looks like he’s from a coast!”, Erin commented.

But what makes Road House so oddly great is that it’s a well-paced film on a picayune subject. You can almost watch the hero’s status rising and falling on screen, as if on a stock ticker. Anyone who wants to write an action movie should own this on DVD and watch it until it breaks. I am not kidding in any way.

Afterward, we watched Demolition Man, which has a similarly tight plot even if the setting makes us snicker. Stallone, Bullock and Snipes each have one setting (smart-aleck, perky and cocky, respectively), and the movie suffers whenever it asks them to deviate. The story shepherds our heroes from setpiece to setpiece, even if we have to swallow some improbable coincidences to get them there. Perhaps that’s one of the benchmarks for a good action movie: how easily we can believe the transition between car chase and shootout.

there’s someone in my head, but it’s not me

While visiting Chicago, waiting for a bus at Addison with my man Hawver, two street hawkers approached us. “Would you like to try some Laughing Cow light swiss?”

“Sure,” I said, being hungry. One handed me a sample pack of swiss cheese, about the size of my thumb; the other, a pack of crackers the size of a matchbox. I also got a coupon for $1.00 off a pack of said cheese.

It was tasty enough that I bought a pack the next time I went grocery shopping, to see how well it would complement my lunch. And that went so well that I’ve bought Laughing Cow several times since, even without a coupon.

I had next to zero consciousness of Laughing Cow cheese before this, my primary exposure being the yellow Vache Qui Rit bowl Fraley kept in our cupboard when we lived together. A free sample and a coupon converted me from agnostic to believer in about a week. Four months ago I had no desire for this product; now I have a modest desire. A corporation paid some marketers to sit around a conference table and instill in me a desire where none existed.

As a marketer myself, I find the process curious. As an amateur student of autoepistemology, I find it absolutely fascinating.

This desire for Laughing Cow cheese was created in me by someone else. I can track the steps that it took to happen. Which other desires of mine originated in someone else’s mind? What about my preference for Coke Zero over Diet Coke? My taste in beer? My willingness to drive a rusting import rather than trade up for a newer car? My desire to live in Cambridge? My impulse to live alone? My need to write? My preferred self-image? My religious beliefs, or lack thereof? Who put these thoughts in my head?

Really radical progressives blame modern capitalism for about half of the above. “The consumerist market,” one might say, “encourages people to buy things they don’t need. It touts conspicuous consumption as a way to distinguish yourself from your neighbors, or to alleviate the stress of your job. Consumerism obscures your true desires.”

The funny thing is: I’d agree with them. Up until the last sentence.

Most of us believe in some notion of an ego, or a soul, or some inviolate core that makes decisions. It sits inside our body, either in the center of our brain or in our (metaphorical) heart, and “watches” what happens to us, as if on a screen. When we make a decision, the ego or soul sends instructions to the limbs to move. Descartes didn’t invent this theory of consciousness, but, with the whole cogito ergo sum thing, he made it most popular.

The problem is: (1) the idea of an ego/soul that’s separate from the body it inhabits has no empirical grounding, and (2) it’s not even a satisfactory explanation.

I’m paraphrasing Daniel Dennett here: suppose there is an ego/soul, sitting inside our body, responsible for making our decisions. The answer to the question, “What’s going on in my head?” is “a mini-self is pulling the levers.” That doesn’t answer the mystery of consciousness, though. It merely raises another question: “okay, how does the mini-self make decisions? what’s going on in its head?”

Dennett offers an alternative: there is no one “seat of consciousness” within the brain:

The book puts forward a “multiple drafts” model of consciousness, suggesting that there is no single central place (a “Cartesian Theater”) where conscious experience occurs; instead there are “various events of content-fixation occurring in various places at various times in the brain”. The brain consists of a “bundle of semi-independent agencies”; when “content-fixation” takes place in one of these, its effects may propagate so that it leads to the utterance of one of the sentences that make up the story in which the central character is one’s “self”. Dennett’s view of consciousness is that it is the apparently serial account for the brain’s underlying parallelism.

“Interesting stuff, Professor,” you’re saying, “but what does this have to do with cheese?”

If what we call “consciousness” is really the body carrying out the instructions of different agencies of the brain at different times, then there is no central ego/soul. If that’s the case, then there’s no distinction between the “true desires” of the self and the “false desires” implanted in us by corporations, politicians, churches, peer groups, etc. They’re all equally legitimate inputs. My desire for Laughing Cow cheese, which I was barely conscious of six months ago, is no more artificial than my desire to hang out with a new friend, whom I hadn’t met six months ago.

I’m still not settled on what this means for my decision-making process, except that it makes my job as a marketer easier to swallow.

when you laugh and run free with the thought, pull the line in and try to see what you caught

When I’m not reading books or watching movies about Hating America by America Haters that promise to teach me How to Hate America Better*, I’m getting some writing done.

In an ideal week, I stick to the following:

  • Write one hour a night, two nights a week. This produces between 1500-2000 words each night.
  • Write one or two nights a week, 1000 words each time. I can usually bang this out in 40 minutes.
I do this as many nights as I need to to produce 5000 words a week. If I gave up jiu-jitsu, a job with health insurance and a social life** I could probably do more. But I think this is a fair pace.

My initial goal was to write a 60,000-word manuscript. I just wrote my 20,000th word tonight, though, and the story feels, at most, a quarter done. So I may clock in at closer to 80,000. Considering I’ll probably need to lop 5000 to 10,000 words off the top to make it saleable, that’s a good target to aim for.

As with all my writing projects, this one requires some interesting research and speculation. Asked and answered so far:

  • What sort of court records could a person find just by walking in and asking at a city courthouse?
  • What’s a half-assed but survivable way to disarm someone who’s waving a knife at you and shoving you with his free hand?
  • What sort of clue could someone plausibly find if they only had thirty seconds to ransack an office?
  • If you have injuries that require stitches but are conscious and lucid, will the paramedics immobilize you before carting you off to a hospital?
  • Hell, would they even put you in an ambulance, or would they say, “Drive yourself; you’re fine”?
  • Where would a middling Boston attorney (in practice on his own) take his family on summer vacation?
  • What sort of information would cops withhold from the press about a murder in order to validate a legit confession?
  • What does a photographer for a city paper do most of the day?
  • What’s a survivable but incapacitating form of gunshot wound to the head?
  • What does it taste like when you bite someone’s ear hard enough to tear it?
I came up with answers good enough for a rough draft. But if you have theories of your own, please shout them out.

* They all begin the same way: “Step 1: Subscribe to The Guardian.” Couldn’t make that up.
** Because heaven forfend I give up this vital weblog.

and they brought prosperity down at the armoury

The Dispossessed: One of those novels I wish I’d found sooner. Le Guin has a beautiful economy of language not often found in fantasy writers: making the terse but poetic choice, rather than bombarding a scene. The Dispossessed feels like an epic, though it comes out fairly slim.

And like all good science-fiction, the story focuses less on a naturalistic depiction of how a What-If would come to pass than what such a What-If would mean. Le Guin rejects the notion of a true utopia, depicting the lunar colony of Anarres as an anarchist state slowly ossifying into a socialist oligarchy. Anarres is poor, while its neighbor Urras is rich. But it’s the richness of cloying food and it makes the protagonist – Shevek, an Anarrean physicist visiting Urras, the first person to do so in over a century – literally ill.

Le Guin has always excelled at making the alien seem truly alien, and her depiction of how a true anarchist would react to a capitalist society reads very true. She doesn’t use Shevek as a platform for anti-capitalist polemics: people on Urras are wealthy, happy and comfortable with their station in life. But to someone who doesn’t want property, life on Urras is mystifying and weird. Adequately conveying the stilted weirdness of a capitalist society is no mean feat – considering that Le Guin, her audience, and the publishers who made such a novel possible spent their whole lives in one.

(As an economist, I always read anarchist fables looking for solutions to the calculation problem. The Dispossessed doesn’t provide one, although a good portion of the book deals with a famine on Anarres. Maybe it’s implied)

Why We Fight: A meticulous recounting of the history of American presence in the Middle East would be enough. Start with the Iranian coup against Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953; continue through the U.S.’s efforts in training, arming and bankrolling the Taliban in the 70s, our installation of Saddam Hussein in the 80s and the troops in Saudi Arabia in the 90s. Why We Fight accomplishes all that.

Documenting the growth of the defense industry in the United States since the Eisenhower era would be enough. Begin at the end of the second World War; continue through Korea, the Philippines, Okinawa, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Chile, Honduras, Colombia, etc. Add the nature of American representative politics and the inextricable link between defense contracts, jobs and votes which guarantees escalations in defense spending.

Taking a look at the aftermath of the September 11th attacks would be enough. The world went from universally supporting America (there were marches of solidarity with the U.S. in Tehran and Pakistan in the days after the attacks) to distrusting and fearing America. What changed in that time?

A movie that did all that would be enough.

Where Why We Fight triumphs is twofold. First, the documentarians interview several prominent conservative voices to answer these questions. And not in an attempt to bait them. And not cherry-picked fringe cases either: William Kristol, Richard Perle and John McCain are among them, as well as several Naval pilots. The movie’s prejudices are obvious, but these speakers don’t get the sneering dismissal that (say) Michael Moore would give them.

Second, the way the movie manages to weave together disparate threads into a single story. The narrative begins with a retired NYPD cop who lost his son in the September 11th attacks. A Vietnam veteran, he decides that an appropriate tribute might be to get his son’s name written on a piece of munition – like an aerial bomb – to be used in Operation Iraqi Freedom. This story weaves in and out with several others, like the story of a Boeing weapons technician who helped invent the “bunker buster.” Only later in the film do we hear that this technician, Anh Duong, fled Saigon near the end of the Vietnam War – a war that the retired NYPD Officer fought in. And only much later do we learn that the bomb with his son’s name on it – like all bombs dropped in the first 60 days of OIF – missed its primary target.

Why We Fight was the name of a series of propaganda films made by Frank Capra during World War II. The U.S. has established a military presence in over 130 countries around the globe since that time, and fought a variety of police actions, covert operations and wars in that time. This documentary seeks to answer the same question Capra’s films did, albeit with a more critical tone. And it finds no definitive answer. The documentarians interview an eager young recruit, two Naval stealth bomber pilots, a retired Lt. Colonel from Pentagon intelligence, Dwight Eisenhower’s son, Gore Vidal, a few military historians and a CIA consultant to get an answer and finds nothing. It’s no one person’s fault – certainly not President Bush’s. But when you combine a perpetually growing defense industry, a global military presence, a first-in-class hunger for resources and a doctrine of pre-emptive warfare, the question becomes not why we fight, but why wouldn’t we.

“It is nowhere written that the American Empire goes on forever.” – Chalmers Johnson