Living in suspense

A few weeks ago, I was eagerly awaiting the final episode of Sanditon. It was a Masterpiece Theater series based on Jane Austen’s unfinished novel of the same name – she’d introduced the characters and the setting, but didn’t live long enough to tell the story, so it wasn’t obvious how it would end. Charlotte would surely end up with the man she wanted, but what about Miss Lambe, the young heiress Austen had described as “half mulatto”? Would she marry the duke to get the fortune seekers to leave her alone, or would the duke be free to pursue his intimate friendship with lovely Arthur Parker? And how about our more mature lovers, the rascally lawyer and the king’s ex-mistress? Or the much more mature lovers, Lady Denton and her long-lost, now rich, childhood sweetheart?

(Arthur Parker is the best!)

turlough-convery-sanditon-arthur-6435c427e6eb7That last week, it felt hard to wait for the ending – especially when the cable’s schedule said there would be a “shocking revelation” (and thankfully that was a total misrepresentation – there was nothing shocking nor a revelation, only a reasonable misunderstanding). Then I realized that with PBS Passport I could easily watch the final episode online, immediately.

I declined. I realized I liked having a whole week to wonder how things would be resolved. It’s a normal human thing to take pleasure in suspense, at least where recreation is involved. Otherwise we’d never sit down to watch or read a story at all.

And I’m accustomed to the pace of television that I grew up with, where you waited from week to week to learn what happens next, and sometimes spent the entire summer waiting for a cliffhanger to be resolved. This binging of an entire series over a few days is alien to me.

I’m not a purist – with anime shows I’m fine with watching two or three episodes back-to-back, and a few more the next night, and the next, especially if the entire show is hundreds of episodes long.

In real life, too, there are a great many ways in which it’s wonderful that we don’t have to wait and wait to find out what’s happened. I can’t imagine living in the 19th century, when if someone you loved moved away or went on a long trip or – ack – went off to war, you’d have to wait for them to write and send you a letter so you’d know they were okay. It was much better when I was a kid – if anything important happened, they could probably use the phone. Now it’s trivial to send a message instantly using that handy device we all carry in our pockets.

I wonder, though, whether this all points to a way our speeded up society has changed that we tend to overlook. If we don’t like dramatic tension when it’s only recreational – if we’d rather binge and get it all at once – then how can we bear such suspense when the stakes are much higher?

Continue reading

Posted in narrative science, US politics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Is it “good”? Or is it “sweet”?

This year on Easter, after a lovely dinner with my partner and son, and after we each looked to see what the Easter Bunny had put in our Easter baskets, we settled down to consider playing the board game Bunny Kingdom. (If you’re guessing we celebrate what might be described as a “secular pagan” version of the holiday, you’d be correct – bunnies and eggs and candy are at the forefront.)

As I read the Bunny Kingdom rules, I found myself becoming sleepier and sleepier. My partner and son didn’t care – they were eagerly discussing the upcoming new set of cards for Magic: The Gathering. I then curled up for a nap, but kept listening to the two of them.

After a bit, I noticed that some of the new Magic cards were “good,” while others were “sweet!” I asked about this and was told the two terms are not synonyms – a card can be good but not sweet, or sweet but not good, or neither, or ideally, both. After following their conversation a bit longer, I suggested that maybe “good” means it’s a rational, calculated judgment, while “sweet!” is more emotional. They agreed.

You may not know anything about Magic: The Gathering beyond what I’ve just told you – it’s a game played with cards that come out in sets. If you’re curious, I can add that the game’s been around for 30 years. It has millions of players and generates several billion dollars in revenue each year for the company that owns it, which is currently Hasbro. About four times a year, new sets of cards are released, each set having its own theme but also including ongoing themes and characters.


I’m not here to talk about Magic, though – what I’m interested in here is that good/sweet distinction. We like some things for rational reasons, and others for emotional reasons.

I’m not going to claim those are two separate things. Pretty much everything has an emotional charge, otherwise we’d pay little attention to it. Believing that something is rational, orderly, logical, elegant, efficient, thorough… that comes with a certain emotional satisfaction.

But I would also make the case that emotional responses to abstract things, things that don’t affect us directly, happen for rational reasons. There are predictable patterns for considering something to be Continue reading

Posted in salience markers, US politics | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Thinking like a rose

I wonder what roses think about wildflowers that “volunteer” to share their garden without an invitation?

That’s a comment one of my readers made in response to my last blog post. I loved that comment, because it sends us off in either of two very illuminating directions, and as I made notes for my response I realized my answer could become a blog post of its own.

In my post, when I talked about garden plants, wildflowers, and weeds, I wrote as if the human perspective was what mattered, and more specifically, the “human who’s in charge of a garden” versus a “human observing what nature does on its own.” In both cases, it was humans making the categories on behalf of plants.

Making categories is an act of power – a way of claiming and exercising power. When scientists do it, the categories are provisional. They recognize that there can be better ways to categorize things, which they’re (in theory) open to, and they (generally) understand that categories serve a purpose. You need different category systems depending on what you’re doing.

But there are also lots of categories that we learn culturally, and these often have considerable social power behind them that usually resists any openness to questioning and revision.

Who’s in charge of the categories? It makes a big difference. If you were a German Jew in the 1930s, you’d likely think of yourself as a German who happened to be Jewish, while the Nazi party wanted people to think of you as a Jew who happened to be located in Germany.

sarunasMy all-time favorite professional basketball player is Šarūnas Marčiulionis, who played for the Golden State Warriors. He’s Lithuanian who came to the U.S. from the Soviet Union, and I was continually shocked by some people’s hostility towards him as a “Russian.” Didn’t they understand that the Russians had forcibly conquered Lithuania and were thus even more of a threat to him and things he valued than they were to American interests? Well, no, they didn’t, and I kept thinking how painful it may have been for him to be called “Russian” by ignorant Americans.

I have a whole set of blog posts I haven’t yet finished writing about the importance in today’s political world of who gets to decide how to categorize things, a topic that’s highly relevant both for gender issues and abortion rights. But Steve, if your question was metaphorical (pointing out that I’m not taking the perspective of those in the thick of it), it’s going to have to wait until I finish writing those posts, because I’m also fascinated by where we go if we take your question literally.

There’s a growing body of amazing work on plant perception, awareness, and even communication. I’ve been collecting books on the topic, but the only one I’ve read in the past ten years was What a Plant Knows by Daniel Chamovitz. Probably the most up-to-date book is Planta Sapiens: The New Science of Plant Intelligence. The lead author is Paco Calvo, the head of the Minimal Intelligence Laboratory in Spain, where they focus on understanding how plants experience the world. Plants can learn and remember! Wow! Continue reading

Posted in category science | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Wildflowers or weeds?

Wildflowers! Today I got a break from the massively complicated paper I’m writing, and we also had a break in the rain, so I went out to check in with the neighborhood wildflowers. A few years ago, I set myself a project of photographing them every Sunday, so I know just what will be there, but I hadn’t taken a look yet this year.

My main wildflower photography spot is a forested hillside next to Edgewood School, and over the years I’ve seen literally dozens of types of wildflowers there (of course, not all at once). Yet, when I went to photograph “wildflowers,” I found myself struggling to define the term. Obviously I’d photograph the shooting stars, the cat’s ears and hound’s tongue, the native iris, the fawn lilies, and the wild roses, but how about the ox-eye daisies? They’re lovely flowers, but I’m told they’re “naturalized,” that is, they came to Oregon with the Europeans then learned to thrive here. (Yes, I photographed them.)


What about the dandelions? They’re “native” but also “weeds.” (Eventually I photographed them too, for the sake of thoroughness.) How about the periwinkle? I drew the line there – the very healthy patch right at the edge of the forest looked too likely to have escaped from someone’s yard.

In a garden, we have clear categories. There are the things you planted, things you didn’t plant and don’t want (weeds), and things you didn’t plant that you welcome anyway. My grandma called those “volunteers.” I have a few of those in my own yard – two red-cedar trees, natives that sprouted up nicely near the back fence; pretty little cyclamen that inexplicably appear in my lawn every fall; and a walnut tree that popped up beside the driveway ten years ago and has grown large enough to provide nice summer shade.

Back when I was photographing the wildflowers every week, I was thinking of writing an essay about categories of plants as gardened or native or weeds, and relating that to politics, where people could be making a “garden” (colonists deliberately transforming what they find) or “native” (indigenous people making their own choices) or “weeds” (with entire categories of people targeted as undesirable and problematic by virtue of who and where they are, and because they’re a “problem,” the people in power sometimes think it’s okay to focus on how to get rid of them).

These supposed problem people could be natives, like when the American settlers wanted to put farms and ranches on land that was already in use. Poison oak is native to our region, and I have to say, if we could magically banish it without poisoning the environment or paving it over, I’d be in.

Or, the supposedly problem people could be immigrants. Tansy ragwort blooms with clusters of cheerful yellow daisies, but it’s toxic for horses and livestock (and us too, if it contaminates our food supply). Continue reading

Posted in category science | 7 Comments

Overcoming the temptations of conservatism, with the good people of Cranford

Even for progressives, being “conservative” is not necessarily a bad thing. A great many of us are conservative in at least some ways. Maybe we don’t like to try new foods, or we have some routines we really don’t want to change.

And this type of conservatism doesn’t necessarily match up with our political affiliation. My late step-dad (the good one, the one who kinda sorta shared in a Nobel Peace Prize) was a diehard Democrat and quite progressive for his time politically, but personally he was, shall we say, set in his ways. It’s possible that his lifestyle conservatism gave him the sense of background stability that let him be more open to new ideas for making the world a better place, and for living and working in places very unlike his Midwestern origins.

In contrast with this lifestyle conservatism, there’s also what we might call social or political conservatism. This worldview is focused on preserving institutions and traditions, and this is what we usually mean by conservatism. These folks want the security of knowing that things will continue to be how they expect them to be. But that’s not realistic. Things do change!

(And before we go any further, let me note that the “turn back the clock” mentality associated with Donald Trump and his followers is not what I’m talking about. Some political scientists call that mentality “radical conservatism” – these folks very much want change. True conservatives emphatically do not.)

Given that change is unavoidable, what are our realistic options for encouraging conservatives to make their peace with it?

gaskellRecently I was rewatching one of my favorite BBC mini-series, Cranford, based on the novel of the same name (and several shorter works) by one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Gaskell. Her books helped open people’s eyes to the human costs of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, and she’s also known for being good friends with Charlotte Brontë.

Cranford isn’t like her “heavier” novels. It’s a sympathetic and often humorous look at life in a cozy village where ongoing sameness is a virtue. And yet, things do change. People come and go, loved ones die, technology advances.

This time while I watched the show, I realized that Gaskell was showing us different ways that even the most conservative people can begin to accept new ways of doing things.

1. When the change is obviously and indisputably for the best. Jem Hearne, a carpenter, falls from a tree and suffers a nasty compound fracture of his arm. Standard medical practice would be to remove the arm – but even if Hearne survived the surgery, he would no longer be able to work. A newly arrived Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 3 Comments

Beyond love/hate binaries

Quick! What do e-cigarettes, fossil fuels, and Downton Abbey all have in common?

E-cigarettes are great – if you used to be a heavy smoker and managed to switch your nicotine addiction entirely to e-cigarettes, which are much less likely to cause lung cancer. E-cigarettes are kind of terrible, though, if you’re a teen who tried them a few times then found yourself hooked on nicotine, which is not without its own health risks, and which can pretty much control your ability to feel okay, once you’ve let it. And all too many people who use e-cigarettes end up using regular cigarettes too.

Fossil fuels? Obviously we’d rather be using Earth-friendly renewable sources of energy, but if the year is 2022 and you find yourself suddenly needing to cross a continent or ocean in a matter of hours, then fossil fuels will come to your rescue.

E-cigarettes and fossil fuels are both what we might call “ambiguously valenced” products – good for some people in some circumstances, bad for other people or in other circumstances. Other examples could include, hm, beef, whiskey, morphine, guns. I’m sure there are many others. (And there are also ambiguously valenced activities: abortion, jumping from airplanes…)

The trouble is, “good sometimes, bad sometimes” involves more nuance than we generally want. Nuance takes mental effort. We’d rather like or dislike something than have to call on more complicated feelings.

Sometimes, something many people think is bad turns out to be somewhat good. Both cannabis and chemicals classified as “psychedelics” may have valuable medicinal properties.

And sometimes, something we think of as good turns out to be not so great, like Bill Cosby.

When things are ambiguously valenced, it’s harder to deal with them. People who want to quit e-cigarettes get less support from others, because those others may think there’s really nothing wrong with e-cigarettes, especially compared to the alternative. (It’s also hard to get funding to help people quit. Grant reviewers don’t necessarily see the need for it.)

Why am I thinking about this, and what does it have to do with Downton Abbey?

I finished reading an interesting book yesterday: Orwell’s Roses, by Rebecca Solnit. It’s an exploration Continue reading

Posted in history, US politics | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

When Principles meet Loyalty, who wins?

I was probably right there on the Berkeley campus when the package arrived. I’d finally resumed work on my bachelor’s degree, and I also had a university office job, so I spent much of my time there. Thankfully, the package didn’t come into my hands, so I wasn’t on the receiving end of the Unabomber’s eighth attack. A grad student named John Hauser was – the enclosed bomb blew up his arm, and he only survived because a previous Unabomber victim was nearby and used his necktie as a tourniquet.

The Unabomber’s campaign of terror lasted another ten years, killing three people and injuring 23 others. Eventually, he mailed out a massive “manifesto” explaining his worldview, insisting on its publication. After much discussion with the FBI, a major newspaper agreed to publish it, in the hope that someone would recognize his writing style.

And someone did.

David Kaczynski had a trove of letters his brother had written over the years, and going back through them, he discovered phrases very much like those in the manifesto. With his wife’s encouragement, he reported his suspicions to the FBI. Ted Kaczynski was captured, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison.

I’ve always been intrigued by the story of David Kaczynski. What was it like to make that phone call? To turn in his own brother? But he had to act, or more people would surely die.

And I’ve always been intrigued, too, by the fact that we find his story so remarkable. Why was it surprising? Because we expect personal loyalty to outrank – to “trump” – principles. Or rather, sure, Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 2 Comments

From clickbait to transcendent meaning

This evening the weather was perfect for reading outside, and that’s what we were doing, enjoying the rustling leaves overhead, the trickle of water from our little fountain, and the antics of four of our cats, when my phone gave a beep. It was a message, in Messenger, from one of my neighbors. The message said, “Look who died, in an accident I think you know him…? so sorry,” with a couple of emojis and a link.

Naturally, I was terribly curious. I didn’t click the link, though. The message looked very like the sort of clickbait my mother-in-law had recently gotten from a friend’s hacked account, and I expect my neighbor is better with punctuation. Also, upon reflection, I also realized that this neighbor and I haven’t had that many conversations, so she doesn’t “think” I know various people. Rather, for any given person, she either knows for sure or doesn’t have a clue. Sure enough, a few minutes later she sent another message – don’t click the link, because she’d been hacked.

My big project for the past year or so has been studying the ways that people can make messages and ideas more dramatic and impactful. These techniques are familiar to anyone who’s encountered clickbait, but they’re also used in social movements, ranging from those encouraging us to broaden our ethical sensibilities (like caring more about nature) to those pushing us to contract them (as in mass violence, where leaders might want us to make war against people we’ve known and liked for years).

I’ve come up with five families of techniques that are commonly used to make information more exciting and interesting. They’re generally the same things that make art more visually interesting and music more emotionally moving, but they’re used here as ideas rather than part of the physical world. I’m sure I’ll write more about them here after I’ve found a good way to publish my work, but for now, I’ll just note that two of these techniques seem to me to be especially powerful.

The first is the contrast between existence and non-existence, that is, referring to birth or, especially, death. Research has found that making people think about death can make them more anxious and distressed (naturally!). Beyond that, though, sharp contrasts attract our attention, and as contrasts go, this is one of the sharpest.

The second is the realization or discovery of something you care about that was previously hidden from Continue reading

Posted in history, salience markers | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fantasy worlds as thought experiments

Reading a fantasy or science fiction novel gives your imagination a good workout. Not only are you constantly watching for clues to help you paint a coherent picture of the story world and how it works, you’re sharing the viewpoint of a character (or several) whose problems are probably very different from your own. As with reading any fiction, you gain empathy for others – you are literally practicing perspective-taking. With fiction set in other worlds, however, you also learn to see your own world differently, experiencing this world’s problems without the biases that would intrude from mapping your own identity into the story (as one may do with historical fiction), and potentially gaining real-world insights. Also, spending the time mentally inside another world gives you a refreshing break from your own, especially if this other world is somewhere wonderfully strange.

Of course, if the world you’re having to learn is too strange, spending time there becomes more work than fun, and you might give up. Authors have to make tradeoffs between originality and familiarity. Fortunately, there are – well, not tricks exactly, but techniques – that authors can use to help. They can model their world on ours, hence the endless stream of fantasy novels featuring European-style castles, knights, et cetera. They can give their characters problems that, although challenging, are also very simple – all it takes to save Middle Earth is the destruction of Sauron’s ring. Or they can give us a point-of-view character who’s naïve and has to learn how things work too, alongside the reader.

My partner and I both love the Murderbot books, Martha Wells’s series about a human-shaped, artificial intelligence “Security Unit” that illegally hacks its governor module to get control over its body, manages its intense anxiety by binging on soap operas, and finds itself (to its horror) making friends. To be honest, Wells doesn’t use any of those “help the reader” techniques in this series, so it takes some work to follow the story at first, but the books are short and immensely fun. Since I liked them so much, someone – I’m pretty sure it was local author Nina Kiriki Hoffman – suggested I also try another series by Martha Wells, The Books of the Raksura. I did and I loved them. I’ve read the five main Raksura books twice now, and this week I was delighted when my partner decided to try them too.

The Raksura books, which begin with The Cloud Roads, are a series inspired by its author’s background in anthropology. There are probably dozens of intelligent species sharing a world in which magic is real but rather limited, and which is most definitely not Earth. Our point-of-view character, Moon, is so naïve that he doesn’t even know what his shapeshifting species is called, but, as any reader might guess, he soon learns that he’s Raksura. A Raksura can just look ordinary and fit in well with other ordinary folk, but they (at least some of them) can also transform into a winged predator that apparently looks something like a gorgeous, glorious cross between a dragon and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Cover art from The Cloud Roads:


Not long after he started reading The Cloud Roads, my partner started telling about parallels he was noticing between the world where the Raksura live and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife series. I hadn’t noticed them at all. The Sharing Knife books are set in an alternate version of North America – we start the story among farmers living in a fantasy version of Ohio (though it’s not called that), spend time both with Anglo-types and Native-types, and eventually travel the entire length of the Mississippi River (though again, it’s not called that).

But he had a point, and that brings me to my own point. I hadn’t really considered before that, just like Continue reading

Posted in narrative science | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Growing up “meta”

Our young friend Maddie recently celebrated her first birthday. Maddie loves berries and books! We do too! And thus, my partner and I gave her three books about berries.

One is a book about colors of fruit.berry_colors

One is a counting book. Did you know that technically, grapes are berries?


berry_storyAnd the other is a story. A cute little mouse finds a great big strawberry, but the narrator warns the mouse that a bear who lives in the woods would also like the strawberry. Bears are big and scary! As the narrator goes on and on, the mouse becomes more and more concerned. On one page, we see that the mouse has bound the berry in chains, holding the key to its padlock. On another page, both the mouse and berry are wearing Groucho disguises. Finally, the narrator makes a suggestion. The best way to solve the problem is for the mouse to cut the berry in half and share it. With the bear, I assumed? But no, that’s not suggested at all. With the narrator! And this is done, and having eaten half a humongous berry, the mouse is quite content.

My partner read me the story when the book first arrived, and I took it at face value. Today, though, before delivering the book to Maddie, I read it for myself. This time, I realized that, uh oh, the narrator was probably manipulating the mouse’s emotions to get some of the berry for themself. And while there’s an important role in literature for the “unreliable narrator,” who isn’t disclosing all their own knowledge and motivation to the reader, it hardly seems suitable to put the person reading aloud to the child in that role. Parent as trickster? Hm.

I grew up in what I now think of as a golden age for irony and meta-awareness in children’s media. My younger sister watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street back to back, and the contrast between them was striking. It wasn’t just the pace, although that’s obviously different too, but the tone. Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment