SPOILER ALERT: If you’re one of those people who are just starting to watch Breaking Bad now, don’t read this entry, and don’t watch the video embedded below! You’ll hate me.
Though at this point in time, if you’re just starting in on the show, avoiding spoilers is sort of like trying to avoid learning who won the 2008 presidential election.
Like millions of others I am freaking out over the end of Breaking Bad tonight. But I’m a belated fan; I only got into it very late in the game. And the weird thing is, what piqued my interest wasn’t the show itself, but an absolutely fascinating Youtube clip: The jcham979 video “Breaking Bad Finale Theory — A Case For Walt Poisoning Brock”.
This was a video that appeared in the fourth season, when everyone was arguing about who and what, precisely, was making Brock sick. In his/her/its video (the identity of jcham979 has never been made public, near as I can tell), Jcham979 assembled a six-minute-long video argument arguing that Walt had poisoned the boy. It’s worth rewatching again, now, because not only was jcham979 obviously correct, but the method was such a great example of modern talmudic video-parsing via Tivo and Youtube. At a pivotal moment at the 3:30 point, jcham979 seals the argument that “Walt did it” by throwing down a spectacular frame-by-frame analysis of Jesse being patted down. The whole video below is worth watching, but check out that 3:30 moment specifically:
The extra-meta-fun part of this video is that it neartly presages Jesse’s own epiphany earlier this season, when, while looking for his cigarettes, he has a Proustian flashback to precisely this moment — with the same “aha”.
I so heavily dug jcham979’s video that I put it in my book (which you can buy! right now! here!), in a chapter where I discuss how people are developing new literacies in media like video, photography, and even data. We’re in the very early stages of video becoming a plastic as text became under the word processor; as I wrote:
Until recently, of course, it wasn’t possible to do this with the moving image. In the decades leading up to the twenty-first century, it was difficult to impossible to parse in such detail anything that appeared in movies or on TV. You couldn’t easily rewatch it. And you certainly couldn’t cut and paste together your own video as a method of argument.
After posting about Wired Love last night — the novel about two telegraph officers who strike up a remote relationship — I got an email from the artist Silvia Ruzanka. It turns out she’s create a couple of pieces based on the novel! The one above is an installation called “Sounder and Relay”, which Silvia describes thusly:
Sounder and Relay is a meditation on online romance in the age of the telegraph. Two video projections show computer-generated figures in Victorian interiors. As the two tap messages on their telegraphs, the signals are transmitted across the room through physical antique telegraph equipment. The text is composed of dialogue excerpts from the novel Wired Love: A Romance in Dots and Dashes.
I wish I knew Morse code so I could figure out what passages of the book they’re transmitting in this piece!
I saw this in a used-book sale in the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
In the Victorian era, telegraph operators were the first people to live with virtual reality.
Here’s how the 1880 novel Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes — the story of Nattie Rogers, a young telegraph operator — begins:
Miss Nattie Rogers, telegraph operator, lived, as it were, in two worlds. The one her office, dingy and curtailed as to proportions, but from whence she could wander away through the medium of that slender telegraph wire, on a sort of electric wings, to distant cities and towns; where, although alone all day, she did not lack social intercourse, and where she could amuse herself if she chose, by listening to and speculating upon the many messages of joy or of sorrow, of business and of pleasure, constantly going over the wire. But the other world in which Miss Rogers lived was very different; the world bounded by the four walls of a back room at Miss Betsey Kling’s. It must be confessed that there are more pleasing views than sheds in greater or less degrees of dilapidation, a sickly grape-vine, a line of flapping sheets, an overflowing ash barrel; sweeter sounds than the dulcet notes of old rag-men, the serenades of musical cats, or the strains of a cornet played upon at intervals from nine P. M. to twelve, with the evident purpose of exhausting superfluous air in the performer’s lungs.
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. People, you have no idea how much fun this book is. And it’s free to read! Right here!
I don’t want to give too much of the plot away — I save my spoilers for below the jump. But the story, in brief, is that Nattie is at work one day when a telegraph operator in another city, who calls himself “C”, begins chatting her up. They engage in a virtual courtship, things get funny and romantic, until suddenly things take a most puzzling and mysterious turn.
It’s all quite nuttily modern. Wired Love anticipates everything we live with in today’s online, Iphoned courtship: Assessing whether someone you’ve met online is what they say they are; the misunderstandings of tone and substance that come from communicating in rapid-fire, conversational bursts of text; or even the fact that you might not really be sure of the gender/nationality/species of the person you’re flirting with.
As it turns out, Nattie quickly figures out that “C” is, indeed, a man. But the conversations she and her friends have about her online courtship are utterly wild to read: They have the arch elocutions of Victorian-era America, mixed with concepts that are so thoroughly modern that book feels like it was written this year, by someone merely emulating the language of 1880. Dig this passage, which begins with Nattie talking:
“You remember my speaking about ‘C’ and wondering whether a gentleman or lady?”
“Oh, yes!” Quimby remembered, and fidgeted on his chair.
“He proved to be a gentleman.”
“Oh, yes; exactly, you know!” responded Quimby, looking anything but elated.
“It must be very romantic and fascinating to talk with some one so far away, a mysterious stranger too, that one has never seen,” Miss Archer said, her black eyes sparkling. “I should get up a nice little sentimental affair immediately, I know I should, there is something so nice about anything with a mystery to it.”
“Yes, telegraphy has its romantic side—it would be dreadfully dull if it did not,” Nattie answered.
“But—now really,” said Quimby, who sat on the extreme edge of the chair, with his feet some two yards apart from each other; “really, you know, now suppose—just suppose, your mysterious invisible shouldn’t be—just what you think, you know. You see, I remember one or two young men in telegraph offices, whose collars and cuffs are always soiled, you know!”
“I have great faith in my ‘C,’” laughed Nattie.
“It would be dreadfully unromantic to fall in love with a soiled invisible, wouldn’t it,” said Miss Archer, with an expressive shrug of her shoulders.
A “soiled invisible”? I want to see an entry for that in the Urban Dictionary by tomorrow.
I’m not going to spoil the book any more, because frankly you all should go and read it right now. It’s short, a blast, and you can rip through it in an evening. (Copies in various formats are all free here via Project Gutenberg; you can see a typeset copy via Google Books. I was reminded of Wired Love just now because I read a smart article pointing out how Google Books has rekindled an interest in 19th century literature, because it’s all out of copyright, scanned, and suddenly super-accessible. I’ve read a ton of 19th century lit in the last few years for precisely that reason.)
Okay, now for some spoilers. A few of the absolutely surreal moments in this book include …
By now, it’s pretty obvious that there is lots of fakery in online reviews. Most of the time, I assume the faking skews positive: i.e. a manufacturer Turks a bunch of people to write glowing assessments of their widget on Amazon; an author goes all sprezzatura and pens delirious self-praise via a network of sock puppets.
But it turns out there are also faked bad reviews — people who trashtalk a product even though they haven’t actually used it or bought it themselves.
Better yet — it’s possible to recognize faked bad reviews. According to a fascinating study recently released, faked bad reviews carry several linguistic markers of their fakeitude: They’re vaguely worded, longer than other reviews, and have lots of exclamation points!!!!
If you’re in a hurry and wanna read the bullet-pointed takeaways, skip down to the middle of this entry.
But for those of you awesome people who love to read about clever data-collection protocols, here’s some background on the study. It opens with an interesting question: How do you analyze faked bad reviews?
Well, for starters, you have to collect a bunch of them. In other words, you have to gather up a bunch of negative reviews written by people who you know didn’t buy the product. Eric Anderson of Northwestern University and Duncan Simester of MIT hit upon an elegant way to accomplish this. They got the co-operation of an online brand (unnamed) that sells its products direct to customers — via stores and online — and, what’s more, only sells them direct; it doesn’t sell via any other channels, like big chains. With this brand, either you buy from them directly or you don’t buy it at all.
Now, this brand also carefully tracks its online customers. You need to register to purchase something from the web site, so the brand knows precisely what every online customer has and hasn’t bought. Crucially, the brand also links its customers’ in-store purchases to their online purchasing identities, so the company knows what each customer has bought both in meatspace and on the intertubes. What’s more, to review something on the site you have to be signed in — there are no anonymous reviews. The brand knows precisely who wrote what.
With this info, the researchers could isolate the “faked” bad reviews on the site — i.e. the situations in which a customer reviewed a product that they manifestly had bought neither online nor (with reasonable certainty) offline. Anderson and Simester found 15,759 such reviews. Interestingly, these reviews were not written by drive-by cranks who signed up for the site just to post trash talk. No, the fake bad reviews were written by avid customers — people who had, in the past, bought plenty of items from the brand. But in this case they’d for some reason reviewed an item without having bought it.
When the researchers analyzed the language traits of these faked negative reviews, several trends things emerged. The differences between faked and non-faked bad reviews aren’t huge, but they’re consistent. Here’s my redaction of the big ones the researchers found:
- They’re long. “Perhaps the strongest cue associated with deception is the number of words: deceptive messages tend to be longer” — about 36%, on average. Fake ones were on average 70.13 words long; authentic negative reviews were only 52 words. Why is this? Because, as psychologists have long documented, it’s harder to craft a lie than to tell the truth.
- They’re vague. Since the reviewers here are assessing goods they haven’t actually touched or felt, “these reviews are significantly less likely to include descriptions of the fit or feel of the garments, which can generally only be evaluated through physical inspection.”
- They contain irrelevant details. Fake reviewers were more likely to fill up their prose with seemingly off-point discussions of stuff not germane to the product — such as mentions of their family. “They are also more likely to contain details unrelated to the product (‘I also remember when everything was made in America’) and these details often mention the reviewer’s family (‘My dad used to take me when we were young to the original store down the hill’).”
- And my personal favorite mark of inauthenticity: “multiple exclamation points.”
Now, there are plenty of caveats with this study. It’s possible that some of the reviews weren’t actually fake. Maybe the reviewer got ahold of the product in some fashion outside the detectable stream of purchases, such as in a gift or Ebay; or maybe the brand’s system of tying the physical-store purchases to online purchases isn’t complete enough. The researchers claim they’ve ruled these out as best as possible, and while they were clearly quite careful, there’s always room for error. It’s not published and peer-reviewed work.
Nonetheless, if you grant the force of this analysis, it leads to a fun question Why do customers write fake negative reviews?
Again, these aren’t just a bunch of randos who hate the brand and are just doing it for the lulz. On the contrary, they’re loyal customers: Anderson and Simester found that writers of fake negative reviews continue to buy lots of products from the brand — indeed, slightly moreso than people who don’t write fake negative reviews. The researchers offer a different hypothesis:
The explanation that is most consistent with the data is that these are loyal customers acting as self-appointed brand managers. The review process provides a convenient mechanism for them to give feedback to the firm … They are loyal to the brand and want an avenue to provide feedback to the company about how to improve its products. They will even do so on products they have not purchased.
Evidence of this? Fake reviews are three times more likely than non-fake reviews to use language that indicates they’re talking to the company directly. In a “real” review, the author writes phrases like “if you are looking,” “if you need,” or “if you want”. In other words, they’re addressing other customers. But the faked reviews used phrases like “bring back,” “offer more,” or “carry more”. They were writing for an audience of the company — using the negative review to hector/lecture the brand directly.
It’s pretty fascinating stuff. It’s going to get me to look twice at negative reviews now.
The full paper — “Deceptive Reviews: The Influential Tail” — is here.
Remember the wreck of the Costa Concordia? The captain ran the ship aground off the Italian island of Giglio, and then was accused of abandoning the vessel before ensuring his passengers got off safely. (They didn’t; tragically, 32 died.) I was recently reading a story in the New York Times about the captain’s court trial and saw photos of the ship, which is still sitting there, lying on its side in the shallow waters off Giglio.
I remember, back when the catastrophe first occurred, being struck by how uncanny — how almost CGI-like — the pictures of the ship appeared. It looks so wrong, lying there sideways in the shallow waters, that I had a sort of odd, disassociative moment that occurs to me with uncomfortable regularity these days: The picture looks like something I’ve seen in a some dystopic video game, a sort of bleak matte-painting backdrop of the world gone wrong. (In the typically bifurcated moral nature of media, you could regard this either as a condemnation of video games — i.e. they’ve trained me to view real-life tragedy as unreal — or an example of their imaginative force: They’re a place you regularly encounter depictions of the terrible.) At any rate, I think what triggers this is the sheer immensity of the ship; it’s totally out of scale, as in that photo above, taken by Luca Di Ciaccio.
But the huge size of the ship made me wonder something else. Is the accident this enormous visible on Google Maps?
Sure enough, it is. Here’s the ship as seen in satellite view:
Click here and it’ll take you directly to the precise location on Google Maps. Zoom in and out and check it out. It’s an even more uncanny feeling. One is accustomed to seeing manmade objects via the satellite view in Google Maps; heck, I’ve seen my own house. But one isn’t as accustomed to seeing things that are manmade but aren’t supposed to be there — or at least not in such a wounded, collapsed condition. When I first started looking for the wreck I didn’t know exactly where I was, so I found the town of Giglio, moved over to the water, zoomed in pretty tightly, and began scrolling up the coast. I worried I wasn’t zoomed in close enough to find the ship; it’s difficult to judge precisely how close you are to the ground when you’re doing satellite view. But it turned out I was plenty close, because when I finally found the ship the nose jutted into view so enormously it almost filled my entire screen, and I actually yelped in surprise.
Now I’m wondering: What other accidents are visible in satellite view? Are there any similar catastrophes — collapses, capsizings, etc. — that are out there? Since Google updates its satellite view with some regularity, and since most of these really big accidents take months or years to clean up, there must be tons.
(That terrific photo above is, as noted, by Luca Di Ciaccio and licensed under Creative Commons.)
That radio above is the Cambridge Soundworks HD Radio 820HD, a high-end clock-radio from 2007. Today, I got an email from James Grimmer, a reader who responded to my column on the fixer movement with a great story of fixing his 820HD. The manufacturer had abandoned the device, it hadn’t been designed to be disassembled in the first place — but when Grimmer got the radio open, all it needed were some a few cheap fixes.
If devices like this were designed to be easily opened, it’d be a lot easier to fix them. Forthwith:
Amen to your article on The Fixer’s Movement. When I was a kid, my dad taught me how to fix just about anything. His motto was, “It’s already broken, so you have nothing to lose because a repair shop will charge you more than it’s worth to fix it.” I’ve been fixing my friends’ and our electronics, appliances, plumbing, wiring, (to be fair, I should admit I apprenticed as a plumber and worked with skilled electricians and carpenters who taught me a lot) for a long time now, and have rarely been stymied, although I had one experience that sums up much of what you said in the article. A few years ago, I bought the highly touted Cambridge HD820 radio. It had great sound for such a small box, and HD radio doubled the kind of programming I liked. After two years, it failed—weak signal and constant buzzing regardless of volume level. I guessed power supply and possibly antenna, but was completely stymied on how to get the radio disassembled—it was entirely sealed with no discernible entry points. I called Cambridge, and they answered that they had no repair service nor any service manual, and that they had discontinued the model (that had been jobbed out to a Korean manufacturer). They simply offered no help or advice at all. I found the manufacturer and got nearly the same story there, but the operator who answered remembered that the disassembly bolts were concealed underneath the metal grills (that were glued to the face of the speakers.) She said I’d have to destroy the grills to get inside the cabinet. It turned out I didn’t have to—I took my long Rapala filet knife and carefully sliced underneath the grills’ covers. Got to what turned out to be 18 disassembly bolts and screws. Once I could see the boards, it was obvious that everything had been hot-glued into place, so it took another hour to free up the boards without cracking them. Then I could see the bad connection on the antenna—easy fix. I could also see where the buzz came from—two visibly expanding capacitors in the power supply—another easy fix. Now it works great, and it has been assembled far more sensibly for repair. Why couldn’t they have designed it that way in the first place? How much do I desire to deal with Cambridge again (no hope for service two years after purchase)?
I’d add that those capacitors have been a haunting feature of about half the items I’ve repaired for people lately, especially in cheap DVD players and boom boxes. More than a few of those blown capacitors were 16 volt in circuits that called for 35 volt capacitors. I can’t believe an EE would mistakenly do that, so either the marketing people OK’d the slightly cheaper 16 volters to increase profits by 5 cents, or the EE’s were instructed to use capacitors that would kill the player within two years.
Another bugaboo is cheap switches and relays on appliances. Our dryer failed, and a repair shop quoted over $100 for a fix. I just took my VOM and ran through the circuit, found a faulty microswitch, learned that the manufacturer wanted $40 for it on its website, and then found the same switch in an online parts bin for $7. They had also, interestingly, installed the switch with machine screws from the back side of the drum, so it took a small offset Phillips screwdriver to get them out. When I reinstalled the switch, I drilled the threads out of the hole and installed small bolts and nuts to make further replacements easy. Was someone at the manufacturer deliberately making that switch so hard to get at (unless one happens to have small offset screwdriver) that most people would think a repairman was necessary?
On a larger, older scale, our house was built in 1957. The main plumbing stack cleanout in the basement was done with a straight Tee facing a wall that was very near the wall. Opening that cleanout and getting a big snake through it was a real knuckle-busting, acrobatic act. That design made sense in no way whatsoever. Not even our sewer guy liked dealing with that location. First, why not locate it facing out? Second, why not a sanitary Tee? Third, how did inspectors let that pass? (This was the same crew, I should add, who allowed cast iron to be connected to clay pipe with mortar. Guess how long it took for roots to break through that mortar? Our whole neighborhood has been dug up to correct that deficiency. I took out the stack, replaced it with ABS, and installed a sanitary Tee cleanout—not an easy fix.
Would legislation help? I don’t know. It may be that consumer magazines like yours and consumer websites and rating services have more influence without the time, expense, and corruption of a set of laws that manufacturers would figure out how to avoid. These companies do, however, have a terrible time finding their way around criticisms in popular media.
In Brooklyn where I live, the mosquitos are brutal in the summer. I’ve tried everything to fight them: Mosquito-repellent candles, bug zappers, those vaguely snake-oilian machines that use propane to try and trap insects. None of it worked. I’d resigned myself to simply never sitting in my backyard or front stoop for the months of July or August.
Then I read a clever solution in yesterday’s New York Times: An oscillating fan.
If you set an oscillating fan near where you’re sitting, it prevents mosquitos from clustering. Why? An incredibly simple reason: They’re not strong enough to fight against the wind. The author of the article, William Broad, discovered this nifty hack while visiting with some friends. They set out a fan, nobody got bit, and Broad, amazed, asked them: Where had the idea come from?
As we left, I asked our hosts about the fan idea; they credited a mutual friend at the barbecue. He, in turn, paid tribute to a friend of his: Frank Swift, president of Swift Food Equipment Inc. in Philadelphia.
So I reached out to Mr. Swift, who replied by e-mail. “The solution came from trying to think like a bug,” he explained, “and realizing I don’t like flying into a 15 m.p.h. wind.”
I love it: He imagined himself in the position of the mosquito. This is not something we’re often told to do when brainstorming a solution to a problem. Sure, we’re frequently told that it’s important to empathize with the humans; they’re the reason the problem is being solved, right? But we’re rarely told that a crucial imaginative task, a critical bit of cognition, is to put ourselves in the position of a nonhuman thing, and see the world from that perspective.
Yet the thing is, the world is awfully interesting when you view it from the perspective of inanimate objects. Albert Einstein began developing his deep insights into the nature of space and time when, at the age of 16, he imagined himself riding a beam of light: Seeing the world from the viewpoint of light, as it were. In 1905, when wrestling with the apparent paradoxes of physics that are introduced by the speed of light being constant and unsurpassable, he looked up at the clock tower in Bern and again imagined the perspective of light racing away from the tower. Boom: In a flash, he envisioned the answer. He realized the clock would appear stopped, because the light from the tower could never catch up to a beam of light that was racing away from it. As Michio Kaku writes:
Then suddenly it hit him, the key to the entire problem. Einstein recalled, “A storm broke loose in my mind.” The answer was simple and elegant: time can beat at different rates throughout the universe, depending on how fast you moved.
Think like light, think like a mosquito. This idea — how does our world appear to things around us — isn’t an entirely new idea, obviously; it’s part of Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory. My personal favorite exploration of it is Ian Bogost’s fun, recent book Alien Phenomenology, Or What It’s Like To Be a Thing.
Anyway, now I vow to start approaching problems by imagining the mental state of the inanimate objects involved.
(As Broad notes, apparently the mosquito-fan idea is a venerable piece of folk wisdom, so I guess people have been successfully thinking like bugs for some time.)
Every once in a while I realize probably one third of what my kids say to me is just them doing complex a/b testing of my responses.— Clive Thompson (@pomeranian99) June 28, 2013
There’s a fascinating relationship emerging between graffiti and social media. Graffiti artists have always wrestled with their peculiar ephemerality of their form — as soon as a work goes up, you’re waiting for the authorities to take it down. It’s art made for a gallery that is often antagonistic to the artist. As a result, the explosion of cameraphones and picture-sharing online is producing a robust secondary audience: You can erase it the day it goes up, but the art lives on in the aether.
In Egypt, street art has flourished ever since Mubarak was toppled in 2011. Last month’s issue of Smithsonian included a short essay about the renaissance, and what caught my eye was how the Egyptian graffiti artists work to carefully document and promote their work online, intentionally blurring the line between which audience — online? offline? — the graffiti is for:
The graffiti has become a self-perpetuating movement. The images provoke the government, which responds with acts of cruelty that only increase the resolve of the artists. Much of the street art is covered over or defaced after it is created. That’s what prompted Soraya Morayef, a Cairo-based journalist, to photograph and document the images on her blog, “Suzee in the City.” She is an art critic as astute as those who survey the genteel galleries in New York and Paris.
“There are so many artists and styles,” Morayef says. “You can tell when someone has been influenced by Banksy or hip-hop fonts, but there are also a lot of individual styles using Arabic calligraphy and that have been inspired by Egyptian pop culture. There is Alaa Awad, who paints pharaonic temples and murals but with a modern twist to them. Then you have El Zeft and Nazeer, who plan their graffiti like social campaigns, where they pick a strategic location and write about it on social media and make short videos.”
Drop what you’re doing right now and go look at Morayef’s blog, by the way. She’s captured a spectacular range of street art in Egypt, and a lot of it is spellbinding in its beauty, political power, and, in the case of that fantastic chess-board piece I put up above, both. Obviously, the Egyptian postrevolutionary political situation is unbelievably messy right now, but that image — a fleet of pawns confronting the king — still fills the heart. The sheer range of styles in the Egyptian street-art scene is fascinating: It careens from Banksy-style stencil work to newspaper/op-ed cartoons to ancient Egyptian forms to traditional Bronx bubble lettering and back again.
Of course, the feedback loop between graffiti and street art isn’t necessarily so positive in all situations. Two weeks ago the New York Times wrote a piece about how graffiti tags are appearing in US national parks — including in remote, out-of-the way places like on cactuses out in the desert, which not only defaces the natural environment but can injure the plants, some of which are 150 years old. Why are people putting graffiti in such odd places? So they can post pictures on social media for bragging rights, the park officials argue. (They don’t offer any proof this is actually happening, but it seems like a reasonable explanation.)
In the case of Egypt, though, the feedback loop is powerful and useful. There’s no simple offramp to the political morass in the country, but art is a crucial way a culture thinks out through the problem, out loud.
(Oh, and: Desert cactuses can live to be 150 years old? Rad.)
Why do we play video games, when they cause us such pain?
This is the question that Jesper Juul wrestles with in his terrific new book, The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games. It’s an absolutely fun romp through the philosophical oddness of games, and what they do — and don’t — have in common with other forms of painful art. Juul opens the book by talking about his experience of playing two games that had radically different levels of difficulty. The first one, Patapon, was pretty challenging, so Juul kept on failing, putting the game away in frustration, but then returning to it again and again. In contrast, the second game — Meteos 2 — was so chill he finished the whole thing in one sitting.
Which game made him really angry? It wasn’t the hard one; it as the easy one. This is, of course, a common reaction amongst gamers: Hating something for not being difficult enough. And this leads Juul into a lovely statement of the weirdness at hand:
I dislike failing in games, but I dislike not failing even more. There are numerous ways to explain this contradiction, and I will discuss many of them in this book. But let us first consider the strangeness of the situation: every day, hundreds of millions of people around the world play video games, and most of them will experience failure while playing. It is safe to say that humans have a fundamental desire to succeed and feel competent, but game players have chosen to engage in an activity in which they are almost certain to fail and feel incompetent, at least some of the time. In fact, we know that players prefer games in which they fail. This is the paradox of failure in games. It can be stated like this:
1. We generally avoid failure.
2. We experience failure when playing games.
3. We seek out games, although we will experience something that we normally avoid.
This paradox of failure is parallel to the paradox of why we consume tragic theater, novels, or cinema even though they make us feel sadness, fear, or even disgust. If these at first do not sound like actual paradoxes, it is simply because we are so used to their existence that we sometimes forget that they are paradoxes of all. The shared conundrum is that we generally try to avoid the unpleasant emotions that we get from hearing about a sad event, or from failing at a task. Yet we actively seek out these emotions and stories, art, and games.
The paradox of tragedy is commonly explained with reference to Aristotle’s term catharsis, arguing that we in our general lives experience unpleasant emotions, but that by experiencing pity and fear in a fictional tragedy, these emotions are eventually purged from us. However, this does not ring true for games—when we experience as a leading defeat we really are filled with emotions of humiliation and inadequacy. Games do not purge these emotions from us — they produce the emotions in the first place.
Juul tackles a lot of explanations for the paradox. The easy one, he points out, is simply to say that we enjoy failure inside games because “they’re just games”, without any serious stakes in life. That’s true to a point, but as he notes, it belies the incredibly deep emotions that we feel over video games: The epic cursing, the Xbox controllers hurled across the room. Juul tours through oodles of philosophy and art theory as he offers ways to explain the game paradox, but the one that rang most true to my personal experience is that games are a sort of existential measuring device we use to figure out how resilient we are. To perform this sort of calibration you something that a) feels deeply meaningful but b) isn’t going to ruin your actual life when you inevitably, and serially, screw up — hence games. As Juul puts it:
This is what games do: they promise us that we can repair of personal inadequacy — and inadequacy that they produce in us in the first place … Video games are for me a space of reflection, a constant measuring of my abilities, a mirror in which I can see my everyday behavior reflected, amplified, distorted, and revealed, a place where I deal with failure and learn how to rise to a challenge.
(This pretty much squares with how I feel about Robotron 2084; it’s less a game than a set of calipers for my soul.)
Another note I dug: At one point, Juul likens the failure paradox to film theorist Noel Carroll’s idea about why we submit ourselves to horror movies — “… when watching a horror movie, we genuinely dislike being horrified, but this unpleasantness is outweighed by the cognitive joy of learning more about the enigmatic monster at the center of the story. The experience of horror is simply a price we are willing to pay in order to reach the enjoyment of learning about the monster.”
The paradox of failure in games also helps explain why “gamification” so rarely works when corporations try to use it to motivate employees. If we grant the force of Juul’s argument — that failure is central to why we play games — then it’s clear that you can’t easily make a game out of something where failure is just straightforwardly bad, like your job. The sheer philosophical strangeness of what makes games games ought to have been a warning sign; you can’t make a dreary white-collar job delightful by simply bolting a game mechanic onto its wireframe, when game mechanics themselves are based on emotional clockworks so convoluted they wouldn’t be out of place in Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus”.
What games do you like to fail at?
Do you have one of these sig-file apologies at the end of your phone mail?
You probably should. A recent study suggests that it’ll improve your image — because when recipients see that you wrote the email on your phone, they’re more likely to forgive your crappy grammar and spelling. And therein lies some fascinating psychology of our machine age!
In the experiment, Caleb T. Carr and Chad Stefaniak took 111 undergraduates and had them assess an email that was purportedly written by the “HR director of a large accounting firm”. The students were split randomly into four groups, and each group was shown a slightly different version of the message. One group saw a version of the message with correct spelling, punctuation and grammar, and it looked like it came from someone who’d written it on a computer: i.e. the signature line just listed the HR person’s name and organization. The second group saw the same message, but with several sloppy errors introduced. (It’s below.) The third group and fourth groups saw the same respective messages — one correct, one incorrect — except this time the signature included the line ‘‘Sent from my iPhone’’.
After reading the message, the students in each group were asked to rate how credible they found the sender, on a scale of 1 to 5, from low to high.
The results? When the message had correct spelling, grammar and punctuation, the sender was rated as being very credible — and there was little difference between whether the email seemed to have been composed on a computer or a phone. But when the message had errors in it, things changed: Students attributed higher credibility to the person who’d written the lousy message on a phone. They were more forgiving of errors, as this chart of the results shows:
Now, note that Y axis on that chart has been truncated to emphasize the spread, so it’s not as dramatic as it seems. But it’s still a pretty significant effect.
In one sense, this finding confirms what I’d already expected: We’re aware that our machines introduce quirks in how others communicate with us, and we account for them. This is an old behavior, of course. We engage in linguistic code-switching all the time, accepting as natural that our friends will use language more casual or even coarse when we’re hanging out alone as compared to when we’re with their parents or employers. But it’s intriguing to see evidence that we’re now intuiting the code-shift brokered by this particular machine environment: A tiny glass screen with an intangible keyboard, upon which it’s super easy to make mistakes. (I wonder what we’d have found if we’d done this research back in the 19th century, when manual typewriters were the hot new tech?)
As the authors note, one could sneakily hack this effect to appear more credible … even while at the computer:
Unfortunately, less scrupulous professionals could go so far as to alter their desktop’s e-mail client to automatically include a signature block imitating a mobile device to take strategic advantage of the error forgiveness that accompanies mobile e-mail.
I’m also wondering how autocorrect plays into this. I’d be interested to see this study repeated not with errors of punctuation, spelling and grammar, but errors of substitution — i.e. sentences where a wrong word has been inserted into an otherwise correct sentence. When it comes to our compositional style on mobile phones, the main algorithmic error du jour is autocorrect: The machine mistakenly predicting which word we’re intending to type. I bet that autocorrect errors are now so common, and their source so well understood, that we’re similarly forgiving of mobile messages that contain weird, misplaced words.
Indeed, the existence of pop-culture sites like Damn You Autocorrect! indicate that we’re developing a pretty good literacy, and sense of humor, about this particular form of inadvertent cyborg utterance. Given the fact that the majority of stuff on Damn You Autocorrect revolves around Iphones accidentally creating sexually inappropriate substitutions of absolutely epic dimensions, you could say that autocorrect is the Freudian slip of the digital psyche. Of course, a lot of the particularly racy errors submitted to Damn You Autocorrect are probably faked, but frankly that might make them even more awesome: We’re sufficiently aware of autocorrect problems that we’ve created a literary form out of them.
(The full paper — “Sent from My iPhone: The Medium and Message as Cues of Sender Professionalism in Mobile Telephony” — is here, but alas is paywalled. It was so awesome I wanted to write about it anyway.)
This month I wrote my Wired column about how we need to go past the “maker” movement — and begin a “fixer” movement. The idea had been rattling around in my head for a while, because I was getting increasingly appalled by the amount of toxic electronic stuff that was breaking around me; I’d also been reading The Waste Makers, the fabulous 1960 book by crusading journalist Vance Packard). And I’d been learning about the extremely cool fixer collectives that were cropping up around the world. Environmentalism, handiness, problem-solving: This is catnip for me! I wanted to write about it.
When I reread my piece now, though, I realize I’m slightly uncomfortable with one aspect of it — which is that it looks as though I was taking a dismissive swing at the maker movement. Hey guys! Stop doing this self-indulgent “making” — start being serious, sober-minded “fixers!” Making has moved sufficiently far into the mainstream that it has provoked its own entirely-predictable backlash; for any critic looking for easy targets, there’s an endlessly mockable supply of people selling twee things on Etsy, or hawking funding for dubious Kickstarter projects. (A great recent satire: The “Kickstopper” video.)
Except this critique is misguided. That’s because of a simple fact of maker/fixer psychology: Making often leads to fixing. When you get seduced into trying to make something, you wind up accumulating the mindset and skills that are crucial to fixing stuff in our throwaway, made-to-break world.
This precisely what happened to me. A couple of years ago I saw the Chronulator analog clock on Boing Boing, fell in love with it, and ordered a kit. I hadn’t done much soldering in aeons, so it was a steep learning curve. But that got me interested in making other weird electronic projects, so I started messing around with Arduino kits — and as with most making, I wound up with a host of partially-built, abandoned, sad little pieceworks of failure. But an interesting side effect emerged: Because I’d become much more comfortable with electronics I started ripping open things when they’d break to see if I could fix them. This led me to discover, as I wrote in my Wired column, that many Dell and HP laptops are super easy to fix … so now I think nothing of opening up a neighbor’s laptop to try and repair it.
The same thing happened with woodworking. I saw the cigar-box guitar that Mark Frauenfelder made, wanted to make one, and was thus forced to learn a bunch of woodcrafting techniques. (That’s the guitar I made, above!) And again, pretty soon the woodworking also started spilling over into fixing: I started taking my old house’s misaligned doors off their hinges and resetting them, resurfacing old wood, ripping walls open to reach something busted within, knowing I could make it look new(ish) again after. Making was the seductive part, the fun part, and it opened my eyes to the fixability of the world around me. Or to put it another way, without doing the supposedly “silly” projects I’d never have done the “serious” ones. It’s a pattern that Mark has noted himself, including in his book Made by Hand and in this Q&A:
There are practical benefits to making things, but it seems that you’ve discovered other benefits, perhaps psychological or spiritual. Can you talk a little bit about how your own life has changed as a result of becoming a do-it-yourselfer?
I feel that my sense of being able to get things done, my self-efficacy, has increased. I’m less reluctant to take on projects that involve new skills or knowledge that I don’t have, because having gone through a bunch of things where I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, and being able to eventually be successful in completing those projects and solving those problems, I know that probably with enough time and effort I can tackle those things that I normally would have shied away from, like fixing the thermostat that went on the blink a couple of weeks ago, instead of calling an HVAC expert to install a new one. I went online, read about it, and bought a thermostat. It took me a couple of hours to do it, but I got it done.
That said, there are some interesting differences in the psychologies of making vs. fixing. I’ve found it’s easier to be daring with fixer projects, because the emotional cost of failure is lower. If I’ve got a busted laptop, why not crack it open? What’s the worst I can do? Break it? It’s already broken! There’s also a sort of puzzle-solving pleasure in fixing, a sense of grappling with complexity. You encounter a lot of mystery that you’ll never solve and just have to live with, which is what makes repair a philosophically powerful activity. You learn humbleness in the face of intransigent reality. This was something Matthew Crawford wrote about in Shopcraft as Soulcraft:
Fixing things, whether cars or human bodies, is very different from building things from scratch. The mechanic and the doctor deal with failure every day, even if they are expert, whereas the builder does not. This is because the things they fix are not of their own making, and are therefore never known in a comprehensive or absolute way. This experience a failure tempers the conceit of mastery; the doctor and the mechanic have daily intercourse with the world as something independent, and a vivid awareness of the difference between self and non-self.
Crawford is overly critical of making, I think; there are plenty of mysteries and puzzles when you’re building something from scratch, too. But the point here is good.
It’s been too long since I’ve been able to return to the longstanding B-plot of my blog: The science of our cephalopodic peers. Really outstanding squid science doesn’t come along very often, in part because the enigmatic beasts — particularly the deep-living ones — are so hard to study. They roam mostly in solitude, generally eschewing contact with one another: The flesh UFOs of the briny deep. But every one in a while we get some really good video evidence of their activity. And what do we find?
Frenetic orgies of gay squid sex.
That’s the conclusion of “A shot in the dark: same-sex sexual behavior in a deep-sea squid”, the title of which ought to win some sort of literary award. The researchers got their hands on footage of 108 Octopoteuthis deletron, a squid that lives at mesopelagic depths (i.e. 200 meters to 1,000 meters). What the scientists were looking for was evidence of how, precisely, these squid mate with each other.
Here’s the thing: Given how deep O. deletron live, they don’t have much light to work with. Scientists have always suspected that the male squid have no idea whether the partners they randomly encounter during their plutonian wanderings are, y’know, female. So what does O. deletron do? Sniff out some subtle odor? Detect some faint bioluminescent marker of the sex of its potential partner?
Nope. It’s much simpler.
They just try to have sex with anything they come in contact with.
When the scientists took screengrabs of the squid, they found that the male and female squid were equally like to display evidence of having had sex with another dude. During sex, the male ejaculates packets of sperm towards its partner, which implant themselves in the partner’s skin. (The packets are called “spermatangia”, and there’s an animation of how it works here that is very cool but which you may not want to watch just before you eat or something.) Anyway, the fact that the male squid and female squid were equally shot up with sperm indicates that “male squid routinely and indiscriminately mate with both males and females.”
Why aren’t they more careful? Because the cons of trying to mate with anything that moves (it’s inefficient; you lose a lot of sperm that way) are outweighed by the fact that if you try to carefully verify the sex of the rare squid you encounter, you might never have sex. It’s a volume business. Or as the researchers put it:
The combination of a solitary life, poor sex differentiation, the difﬁculty of locating a conspeciﬁc and the rapidity of the sexual encounter probably results in the observed high frequency of spermatangia-bearing males in this species. Apparently, the costs involved in losing sperm to another male are smaller than the costs of developing sex discrimination and courtship, or of not mating at all. This behaviour further exempliﬁes the ‘live fast and die young’ life strategy of many cephalopods.
Finer scientific prose cannot be had.
This sort of indiscriminate gay male sex has not been observed in other flavors of squid, by the way. Apparently male Octopoteuthis sicula have been found with spermatangia implanted in their skin, but in that case it appears to have been a sort of autoerotic mistake. If you’re a squid having sex it’s super dark, you can’t see anything, and there are a lot of limbs flailing around … so apparently it’s pretty easy to shoot yourself with your own sperm. (Or as the authors put it: “Accidental self implantation during mating with a female is also a possibility.”)
By the way, that paper is available for free in full text; it’s only four pages long and is really a blast to read, so go check it out!
(That picture is from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute!)
I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, which came out Sept. 12 this year. You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).