All the “porns”

mediterranean_dietThe last time I was in our neighborhood supermarket, I narrowly avoided buying the latest special issue of Good Housekeeping, full of recipes for the Mediterranean diet. Although I was tempted, $13.99 was non-trivial, and I reminded myself that if I want to eat something new, I could always unpack more of my mom’s cookbook collection.

Later I realized that my interest in the magazine had been visual – everything looked so delicious! Even things I would never actually want to eat, like cooked tuna. If that was the magazine’s real appeal, many of my mom’s cookbooks would work equally well, including those already on my shelves. I don’t actually need fresh “food porn.”

This metaphoric use of the word “porn” has been around for more than 40 years. Wikipedia says it originally drew on the “excitement” and “unattainable” themes in conventional pornography, but now it just means food that’s been beautifully photographed. (Along with whatever gratification your imagination can supply… like real porn, I suppose).

I’m also a big fan of “landscape porn.” My Windows screensaver is a collection of photos I’ve found online, and whenever my laptop’s sat idle for 10 minutes, I find myself enjoying a world tour of beauty. Most of my favorites show water and forest together, like this picture of the coast of British Columbia:


Or this one of Lake Tahoe:


But some are forests full of wildflowers, like these bluebells:


*happy sigh*

And then there’s my other favorite, “competence porn.” Although I’ve never watched it, my understanding is that MacGyver is the classic example. But my Perry Mason rewatch also qualifies. Everyone is always on top of their game: Perry, Della, Paul Drake. Even Lt. Tragg. Yesterday I was watching the episode where a glamorous novelist played by Beverly Garland (who later became the new mom on My Three Sons) had a secretary (a lovely young Louise Fletcher, more familiar to us from her subsequent roles of villainy on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). One or both of these women was being framed for murder, with a scarf left in a coffee can. Perry made the case that when he’d taken the scarf, he wasn’t removing evidence. As he told the judge, the police had examined the murder scene, and they knew how to do their jobs. If the scarf had been there then, they would have found it.

The Murderbot Diaries, a series of novellas by Martha Wells, also qualifies as competence porn. Our protagonist is a humanoid artificial intelligence with enough low-quality human tissue to provide it (its preferred pronoun) with emotion. This person (who ironically calls itself “Murderbot” but whom everyone else calls SecUnit, for “security unit”) is extremely socially anxious, constantly self-soothing by internally streaming its favorite episodes of soap operas (and I would love to get to see The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon). But it is also extremely competent. The best.

The gratification one gets from competence porn isn’t the same as looking at a luscious bowl of berries, but it’s still there. It’s about confirming our faith in people (human or otherwise) – they CAN get things right.

(Also, competence porn doesn’t mean mistakes are never made. It means people learn and try harder to get things right – that’s competence too.)

So, food porn, landscape porn, and even competence porn are about relaxation, unwinding, engaging the imagination in ways that restore the spirit. Taking a few minutes out of daily life for a brief reset. That’s great!

But this all brings me to a strange and iffy new type of “porn.” Last week on Nova, they had an episode about Arctic sinkholes – the results of underground explosions of methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas. Continue reading

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Every voice counts

I heard a fascinating talk today by Martha Bayless, who is one of our university’s folklore professors, and whose CV is full of awesome things, like medieval humor and games, food, and magic. She also curated the ongoing exhibit on medieval magic at one of our local museums.

Today’s talk was about an Anglo-Saxon queen named Eadburh, whose reputation was thoroughly trashed by the (all-male) chroniclers of her time. Her name was pronounced something like “ay-odd-burra,” and Wikipedia tells me she lived in the late 700s.

As it happens, there are no instances of Anglo-Saxon women being written about in a positive way, unless they’d given birth to some important man or devoted their life to the Church.

Eadburh’s story was more typical. First, she was said to have deliberately poisoned one of her husband’s closest friends and her husband, the king, accidentally died too – poison being the womanly way to murder people. Then she visited Charlemagne, who offered her the choice of himself or his son, and she picked the son because he was closer to her own age (with the implication that, horrors, she might be Continue reading

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Wordle, fast and slow

Like so many others on the fun, quick games bandwagon, my partner and I are regular players of Wordle. We’ve been playing for 20 days, and we each have 20 wins. In Wordle, you’re guessing the identity of that day’s five-letter word, and you get six tries. Just type in a valid word, and it tells you whether you’ve gotten any letters correct and in the correct spot (green), correct but not yet where it belongs (yellow-ish), or not in the word at all (grey). Then, use that information and try again.

You can share your process and success with your friends without spoilers, too. Today I did:


The game keeps track of how many times you’ve eventually gotten the word right, and how many tries it’s taken you. You can then calculate the average number of tries. His average is just under four tries, and mine is just over four tries. The game does not display a very different metric – how long it takes you to solve the puzzle. If it did, I’d be way ahead of him, because I zip right through it, whereas he’s careful and methodical.

Basically, we’re using different thinking styles – as Daniel Kahneman succinctly put it in the title of his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Keith Stanovich and Richard West named the two styles System 1 and System 2, where System 1 is relatively automatic and intuitive, and System 2 is more deliberate and systematic. People always use System 1, but we can choose to devalue what it tells us in favor of System 2.

This applies to everyone, even experts. Doctors are as intuitive as anyone, especially when meeting a new patient with familiar symptoms. They run the most typically useful tests and prescribe the treatment that experience has told them is most likely to be effective. At least at the first visit, they simply don’t have the time to invest in a full-scale investigation (though it’s so satisfying when they do – see Lisa Sanders’s “Diagnosis” column on medical mysteries, in the New York Times). That’s always a challenge for science – our initial reactions are usually pretty well informed, so it takes an effort to set that aside to be open to new possibilities.

With Wordle, I take an intuitive approach, usually choosing an initial word with at least two non-U vowels and some subset of T, N, R, S, L, and D. I’m not playing on hard-mode, where you have to keep using the non-incorrect letters in all subsequent guesses, so if I only get one correct letter I might try something completely different the next time. For example, ALERT first, then SOUND. Once I’ve narrowed it down, I’ll then go with any word that fits the parameters and isn’t too low-probability.

This is not my partner’s approach. He chooses a first word much like I do, but he does play on hard Continue reading

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Why we keep hanging onto the past – and what that costs us

For a couple days this week, I found myself highly motivated to hold my head relatively still, so as not to aggravate the massive headache that had wrapped itself relentlessly around it. I needed a fairly mindless way to pass the time. My partner had been playing the Storybook Brawl game, which meant I knew how it worked, and it’s free, so why not?

In Storybook Brawl, you “buy” fairytale-inspired characters from a magical shop, maybe cast a spell or two on them, then sit back and watch them “battle” another person’s characters. If your team loses, you lose “life points.” You’re playing against seven other people, and after many rounds of such battles, the last person standing is the winner.

It’s a clever game, with amusing characters. You can focus on playing princesses and princes, or tree people, or monsters, wizards, magical animals, or any combination. And when I say the characters are “fairytale-inspired,” I mean that very loosely, because they include, for example, Romeo and Juliet. That’s my favorite clever bit – if your Juliet dies before your Romeo, then when your Romeo dies, your Juliet returns! And if your team happens to have multiple Juliets and multiple Romeos, the “brawl” goes on and on.

trojan_donkeyI discovered that I’m pretty good at the beginning of the game, but by the mid-game I’m falling behind. Why is that? I’m pretty sure it’s because I’m too slow to trade in my weaker characters when more powerful ones become available. If I’ve invested a lot of spells in my “Trojan Donkey,” for example, I’m reluctant to part with him.

Which brings me to my topic for today: the sunk-cost fallacy. Usually we think about this in terms of money that’s already been spent, or effort that’s already been made. Even though our past spending and efforts are done with, people generally keep taking them into account when deciding on future spending. They don’t want to cut their losses, even though it may be the more rational course of action.

Wikipedia gives an example of a family going to a baseball game but realizing after a few innings that they aren’t enjoying themselves. Do they get up and leave, finding something nicer to do with the hour or two they regained? Or do they feel like doing so would mean they wasted the money they spend on the tickets, so they’d better stick around? Rationally, the first option makes the most sense, but the second option is all too common.

But money and effort aren’t the only resources that matter to us. Probably our most important resource of all is meaning, having something be meaningful to us. People can be willing to sacrifice their lives to Continue reading

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Fighting injustice with fantasy fiction

I read a great trilogy this past week, and I’m going to tell you all about it, but bear with me a moment – first I want to share a personal story. My late step-dad, Arnold, was in many respects an excellent human being, but like many aging senior citizens, he was reluctant to give up driving. My mom was naturally loyal to Arnold, so telling her directly that he was having a few problems behind the wheel wasn’t likely to get anywhere.

I suspect that’s a fairly universal principle – social bonds generally outrank principles, so if someone says, “Your partner did such-and-such bad thing,” your first reaction is likely to be skepticism. Or if you do believe they probably did that thing, you’d start making the case that it really wasn’t that bad, there must have been good reasons, and so on. But there’s a way to get past that, which I used with my mom.

stop_signAt our post office, there’s a main parking lot, then there’s a special lane where cars can pull up next to a set of mailboxes and you can reach out the window and put your letters into the box. This special lane has right of way over the parking lot exit – if you’re leaving the lot, there’s a stop sign for you. And one day, when I was dropping off my mail, Arnold was leaving the parking lot and ran right through the stop sign.

Did I say to my mom, “Hey, Arnold ran the stop sign at the post office”? No. I said, “When I was at the post office just now, someone ran the stop sign in front of me.” She reacted sympathetically – she was concerned about me, of course, and she agreed with the principle of the importance of the stop sign. Then I added, “…and it was Arnold.” Sure enough, Arnold stopped driving soon after.

So if you want to get people to think in terms of principles, it’s good to bring the principles to the forefront, and to show how they affect people (or fictional characters) we can care about. And one of the best ways to do that, curiously, may be through speculative fiction – science fiction and fantasy. That’s because our own identities and relationships can’t get in the way, as they can when we’re reading something set in the real world and we already know how we feel about the different “sides.”

Science fiction has been doing this for decades. Alongside all the books about amazing technologies and what we could do with them, there are also writers like Ursula K. Le Guin and Lois McMaster Bujold who let us see what the implications of amazing technologies, or different social systems, might be.

Fantasy novels, on the other hand, have long been associated with European-style castles, young men on quests, or wizards in training – which is fun too, but doesn’t really stretch the imagination the same way.

But things are changing. And that brings me to the WitchmarkStormsongSoulstar trilogy by C.L. Polk. I had greatly enjoyed Polk’s other book, The Midnight Bargain, set in a wonderfully vivid fantasy world modeled after Jane Austen’s Regency-era England (but with magic spells and powerful magical spirits), so I decided to try the trilogy too.

Witchmark had won the World Fantasy Award in 2019, and unlike many fantasy novels, where you start a bit disoriented, this book has a low barrier to entry. The setting is very much like Edwardian England Continue reading

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What it means to be a “we”

Today I read a really interesting idea in the New York Times. Columnist Jay Caspian Kang proposed that maybe it’s time to treat the “unhoused” (a.k.a. “homeless”) as a protected group. If this were to happen, he foresees three main effects. First, it would become illegal to discriminate against them. Second, the authors of the report he’s citing believe that talking about them as a group would help to humanize them and gradually reduce the stigma of homelessness. And third, treating them as “a people” could, they hope, increase support for building more, and more affordable, housing.

Here in Eugene, Oregon, we have an extremely high rate of homelessness (the highest in the country, in 2019), and along with all the great many attempts to try to help them, our local governments also put a lot of effort into keeping them out of sight. (I have to say, the homeless situation has really transformed our public library, with dozens of people finding it a good place to sleep away the afternoon, since maybe it’s not safe to sleep outside at night.) Figuring out how to solve this problem is a high priority.

I’ll get back to the homeless idea in a bit, but first I want to explore what it means to be “a people.” There’s a word for that: “entitativity.” (I always think that word has too many syllables, but no, there it is. It’s related to “entity.”) It means thinking about the group as a thing in itself, not just as a collection of individuals who have something in common.

Now, entitativity is not always good. In fact, it’s a theme that comes up all the time in genocidal thinking. Nazi Germany is an obvious and classic case, telling its Jews that they weren’t real Germans, that their true identity was based on their religion. With the power of the state behind it, entitativity for a minority group can become so much worse than simply persecuting random individuals who have that defining trait.

On the other hand, when people in power make a point to visibly include all the minorities as part of “us,” it can be a powerful protection against genocide and other forms of inter-group violence. After the end of apartheid in South Africa, Nelson Mandela made a big point of referring to the primarily white members of the South African rugby team as “our boys.” This symbolic act that was both deeply Continue reading

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“Bracketing” – with spoilers for my least favorite episode of Perry Mason

This morning, as I sat down to eat my breakfast with Perry Mason, as one does, I made a disappointing discovery. My DVR had only one new Perry recording on it, and it was the episode I enjoy least of all – the one with a tragic, horrible twist at the end. (Someone online described it as “probably the darkest episode in the series.”)

gary_collins_1972_wikipediaAs the episode begins, Alex Tanner is late for a party. He’s the guest of honor at a bash thrown by his employer, Global News, as he’s just moved to town to become the new CEO. His pretty young wife (the daughter of the recently deceased man who owned the company) calls him back into the house – he hadn’t said good night to their son Robbie, who’s asking for him. She hands him Robbie’s favorite stuffed animal and enjoins him to be sure the side of the crib is up, as Robbie is learning his prayers. Alex takes the toy upstairs then returns and heads out.

Meanwhile, at the party, Danny Shine is drunk and insulting everyone. He’s the columnist for the newspaper and he has nasty things to say to each of the party guests, including Perry. His secretary takes him outside for some air (and did newspaper columnists really have secretaries _and_ assistants back in the 1960s?). Alex arrives, and the columnist mentions he dropped by his house today and met the wife and child, and he’s going to write a column about Alex’s ideal wife, ideal child, and ideal situation. Alex heads inside; the columnist then starts mauling his secretary, which the columnist’s stalker wife (played by Cloris Leachman, remember Phyllis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show?) observes from her car parked across the street. Back inside at the party, everyone is greeting their new future boss, while the secretary comes in to get cleaned up. Meanwhile, someone shoots and kills the columnist.

The wrong guy is arrested, naturally (and for no good reason). He’s the columnist’s assistant, played by one of my favorite Perry Mason actors, Douglas Henderson. And he has no motive, but the only one who can testify to that is Alex Tanner, and Alex refuses to help, as he has other worries. Baby Robbie has been kidnapped! The kidnappers won’t release him until the trial is over! Eventually, of course, Perry learns and reveals the truth – the killer was Alex himself. His career was on the line, and he was desperate. He didn’t want the world to know that his wife was psychotic… Robbie had actually died before the story ever started.

I paused the recording once breakfast was done, and before it was time to watch a few more minutes with lunch, it struck me that there could be a value to watching the episode more closely to better understand why – beyond the cheap horror written into the script – it struck me as so awful.

So I did, and I thought about it all afternoon. There’s a lot to dislike about the episode. I almost never want to subject myself to stories about dead children, and having a man who seems so kind to his wife turn out to be instead unspeakably cruel to her – that’s not great either. And there’s misleading the viewer: If Perry wanted to experiment with the “unreliable narrator” thing, I’d rather they’d introduced it long before the 270th out of 271 episodes.

But I also realized something else interesting about the episode, and that has to do with poor Mrs. Tanner’s coping strategy. Continue reading

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Career or hobby? The life-saving work of countering others’ recipes for disaster

I started my day today by reading Ezra Klein’s interview with Holden Karnofsky. He’s the co-founder of GiveWell, an organization that studies charities and helps figure out where donations really make the most impact. And now he’s the co-CEO of Open Philanthropy, which looks at the same questions from a much broader perspective – which decisions today could have the biggest positive impact for the long-term future of humanity?

As he describes it, “My job is to look for ideas that are not only important but also neglected. And so, I’m always looking for what could be the next big thing that could matter for a ton of people that’s not getting enough attention.”

And that got me thinking. The work I’ve done with Gerard Saucier at the University of Oregon is very much in this vein. Together we wrote a major paper about the patterns of thinking that underlie one of the biggest sources of premature death in the 20th century: genocide. Or rather, “democide,” a term that includes genocide, state terror, and other forms of politically or economically motivated mass murder of civilians. We studied 20 cases from around the world, reading everything we could get our hands on that Continue reading

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Practicing music, practicing empathy

Every morning, the first thing I do after checking my email is reading Carolyn Hax’s advice column. I love her sharp sense of humor, and her advice is always sound. This week, two letter writers wondered whether there was something lacking in them – they didn’t think they were feeling strongly enough when a friend was having problems. As one of them put it, “there are plenty of situations where a friend calls me about a problem they’re having and, while I’m happy to talk it out or to listen, I don’t feel their pain.” They wondered if that was abnormal and bad.

Carolyn reassured them that it was fine: “there’s a case to be made that not going through the emotions yourself enhances your ability to listen patiently and provide a shoulder. Some of the best caregivers are the ones who maintain enough detachment to keep their heads, and keep listening through what would be, for others, an exhausting level of duress.”

I was reminded of the work done by psychologist Mark Davis, 40 years ago, when he identified four types of empathy. “Empathic concern,” or sympathy, is a tendency to feel compassion and warmth for those going through negative experiences. “Perspective-taking” is a more cognitive process involved in taking others’ point of view. “Empathic distress” refers to feeling discomfort or anxiety when faced with others’ negative feelings. Finally, his fourth type involved being able to enter into the emotional worlds of fictional characters.

Basically, the first two go hand in hand, when you want to be supportive to someone. Sympathy works best when the person makes the effort to understand what it’s like to be in that situation, while making that effort without sympathy can feel cold and clinical. The third type of empathy generally gets in the way; it ends up making it about you, not them.

The fourth type has always seemed like it didn’t really fit with the first three, but later in the day I started to think about that differently.

I was attending a master class with renowned pianist Michelle Cann. michelle_cannThese master classes are a wonderful feature of our local symphony. Whenever the upcoming concert is going to feature a soloist, Continue reading

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What color is your pandemic?

One of the most interesting studies I’ve done during the help-people-quit-tobacco part of my career was a study of the metaphors people use when they think about quitting. Metaphors are so fundamental to how we understand things – if you’re still thinking of them as an optional and poetic form of self-expression, let me recommend Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. They’re everywhere.

In our study, we started with more than 2100 posts that were made in a social support forum for people trying to quit their use of moist snuff (like Copenhagen and Skoal) or chewing tobacco. I marked every metaphor I saw, and my colleague Shari Reyna did the same. (Shari’s so cool – she’s also an anthropologist and dairy-goat-farmer who loves socially creative science fiction by writers like Ursula LeGuin and Sheri Tepper.) Then we compared our notes.

We found that people had five ways of thinking about quitting tobacco: as a journey, a project, a battle, an escape from captivity, and ending a dysfunctional relationship. Why was this useful? When you know what metaphors people are using, you can think through the implications that follow from that way of thinking about things. If quitting is a battle, then you’re always on your guard against cravings, which makes sense for a while, but after a few years this attitude would be stressful. If it’s a journey, what happens after you arrive? Moving to a new community where you learn how to do some things differently could make more sense. And then if you’re designing programs to help people who want to change that part of their life, you have a better idea of what to take into account.

This week, I came across a new study using metaphors, this time about the COVID-19 pandemic. In the study, led by B. Liahnna Stanley, a grad student at Arizona State, they gathered their data in a much more efficient way: They just asked people directly. They interviewed 44 people and asked them, “If COVID-19 had a color, what color would it be and why?” and “If COVID-19 were an animal, what animal would it be and why?”

So what color is the pandemic? Their participants’ answers were fascinating. Along with the Continue reading

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