How and Why Companies Will Engineer Your Emotions

Richard Johnson in IEEE Spectrum:

Affective computing systems are being developed to recognize, interpret, and process human experiences and emotions. They all rely on extensive human behavioral data, captured by various kinds of hardware and processed by an array of sophisticated machine learning software applications.

AI-based software lies at the heart of each system’s ability to interpret and act on users’ emotional cues. These systems identify and link nuances in behavioral data with the associated emotion.

The most obvious types of hardware for collecting behavior data are cameras and other scanning devices that monitor facial expressions, eye movements, gestures, and postures.  This data can be processed to identify subtle micro expressions that a human assessment might struggle to identify consistently.

What’s more, high-end audio equipment records variances and textures in users’ voices. Some insurance companies are experimenting with call voice analytics that can detect if someone is lying to their claim handers.

More here.  [Thanks to Brian Whitney.]

Out of Time

Astra Taylor in Lapham’s Quarterly:

Twelve years, or so the scientists told us in 2018, which means now we are down to eleven. That’s how long we have to pull back from the brink of climate catastrophe by constraining global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Eleven years to prevent the annihilation of coral reefs, greater melting of the permafrost, and species apocalypse, along with the most dire consequences for human civilization as we know it. Food shortages, forest fires, droughts and monsoons, intensified war and conflict, billions of refugees—we have barely begun to conceive of the range of dystopian futures looming on the horizon.

One person who looks squarely and prophetically at the potential ramifications of climate change and insists on a response is Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old Swedish environmentalist who launched a global wave of youth climate strikes. In April 2019 she gave a tour de force address in the British Parliament, invoking not just her peers who were regularly missing class to protest government inaction but those yet to be born. “I speak on behalf of future generations,” Thunberg said. “Many of you appear concerned that we are wasting valuable lesson time, but I assure you we will go back to school the moment you start listening to science and give us a future.”

Thunberg accepts what many influential adults seem unable to face: the inevitability of change. Change is coming, either in the form of adaptation or annihilation; we can respond proactively or reactively to this discomfiting fact. Perhaps she can accept this because she is so young. Eleven years, a little over a decade, is the time for a human infant to become a preteen and for a preteen to become a young adult. For Thunberg, eleven years is more than two-thirds of her life, a veritable expanse that, projected forward, will involve crossing the threshold from adolescence to the first stage of maturity. Yet for a relatively contented middle-aged or elderly adult, eleven years isn’t as substantial—not quite the blink of an eye but a continuation of the present, a deeper dive into one’s golden years. At a certain point, stasis is the goal, to ward off decline. But decline awaits us all—as the economist John Maynard Keynes bluntly put it, “In the long run we are all dead.” Everyone’s time on earth must come to an end. The question is, What do we do with such knowledge?

More here.

The Trumpian Christians

Dave Denison in The Baffler:

ONE OF THE GREAT PERVERSITIES in American politics today is that we see Christian leaders taking their cues from Donald Trump, rather than the other way around. And the perfect example of this inversion—the archetype of the Trumpian-Christian—is Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. Unlike his late father, Jerry Falwell Sr., who founded Liberty University in 1971 and the Moral Majority in 1979, the junior Falwell is not a reverend. His background is in real estate development. But because of his famous name and his perch at the top of a large and prominent Baptist-founded college, his support for Donald Trump in the 2016 Republican primaries was seen as a key turning point in the campaign. It came at a time when Texas Senator Ted Cruz had been expecting Falwell’s endorsement and when Cruz seemed to be emerging as the consensus candidate for conservative Christians. Falwell, of course, has been steadfast in his devotion to the president ever since. Trump accepted an invitation to speak at Liberty’s commencement ceremony in May of 2017. And the intervening months have made one thing clear: mingling with Christians makes no impression whatsoever on Trump. But Trump seems to have become a role model for his Christian admirers. You can see the dynamic play out in an uncanny way in Falwell’s recent life and times.

These times have lately brought some unusual tribulations. The roots of the current troubles go back to 2012, when Falwell and his wife Becki met a “pool boy” at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Florida. They struck up some sort of relationship with him. They decided to back him in a real estate investment involving a “gay-friendly” Miami hostel, which also involved their son Trey, who was then twenty-three. Eventually there was a lawsuit over the financing of the hostel. As several news outlets later reported, there were supposedly racy photos of Becki Falwell circulating that may have been used as leverage in the legal battles. (Falwell has denied the existence of compromising photos “of me,” but in June reporters at the Miami Herald said they had seen three photographs, adding: “They are images not of Falwell, but of his wife in various stages of undress.”)

More here.

Sunday Poem

Nina’s Blues

Your body, hard vowels
In a soft dress, is still.
What you can’t know
is that after you died
All the black poets
In New York City
Took a deep breath,
And breathed you out;
Dark corners of small clubs,
The silence you left twitching

On the floors of the gigs
You turned your back on,
The balled-up fists of notes
Flung, angry from a keyboard.

You won’t be able to hear us
Try to etch what rose
Off your eyes, from your throat.

Out you bleed, not as sweet, or sweaty,
Through our dark fingertips.
We drum rest
We drum thank you
We drum stay.

by Cornelius Eady

Nina Simone, Mississippi God Damn

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Virtual Roundtable on “The Ego and the Id”

Elizabeth Lunbeck (and others) at Public Books:

It would be hard to overestimate the significance of Freud’s The Ego and the Id for psychoanalytic theory and practice. This landmark essay has also enjoyed a robust extra-analytic life, giving the rest of us both a useful terminology and a readily apprehended model of the mind’s workings. The ego, id, and superego (the last two terms made their debut in The Ego and the Id) are now inescapably part of popular culture and learned discourse, political commentary and everyday talk.

Type “id ego superego” into a Google search box and you’re likely to be directed to sites offering to explain the terms “for dummies”—a measure of the terms’ ubiquity if not intelligibility. You might also come upon images of The Simpsons: Homer representing the id (motivated by pleasure, characterized by unbridled desire), Marge the ego (controlled, beholden to reality), and Lisa the superego (the family’s dour conscience), all of which need little explanation, so intuitively on target do they seem.

more here.

Heaven, Atheism and What Gives Life Meaning

Oliver Burkeman at The Guardian:

Years ago, the magazine US Catholic ran a headline that had the air of being written by a devout believer who had just had an appalling realisation: “Heaven: Will It Be Boring?” If he believed in heaven, the Swedish philosopher Martin Hägglund would answer with an unequivocal yes. And not merely boring: utterly devoid of meaning. “If I believed that my life would last forever,” he writes, “I could never take my life to be at stake.” The question of how to use our precious time wouldn’t arise, because time wouldn’t be precious. Faced with any decision about whether to do something potentially meaningful with any given hour or day – to nurture a relationship, create a work of art, savour a natural scene – the answer would always be: who cares? After all, there’s always tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.

I sometimes feel oppressed by my seemingly infinite to-do list; but the truth is that having infinite time in which to tackle it would be inconceivably worse. The question at issue here isn’t whether heaven exists.

more here.

Becoming Beauvoir: A Life

Sarah Ditum at Literary Review:

In Kirkpatrick’s work, Sartre appears far more in need of Beauvoir than Beauvoir is of him. In his later life in particular, it is hard to see him as anything other than pathetic: ruined by alcohol and amphetamines, throwing himself down the intellectual dead-end of Maoism, still skirt-chasing even after several strokes. Much of what is considered to be Sartre’s unique contribution to philosophy and ethics turns out – on consultation of Beauvoir’s letters, diaries and published work – to have started with her.

That goes for the ‘pact’ too. Before the two had discussed such a thing, Beauvoir ‘came to the conclusion that she would love multiple men in the ways she thought them loveable’, writes Kirkpatrick. When the two first met, as students in the late 1920s, Beauvoir may already have had a lover. The record is hazy, understandably so given the censoriousness shown towards unmarried, sexually active women in the early 20th century.

more here.

The Human Brain: Blessing and Curse

Bob Grant in The Scientist:

The most exciting thing about science is that it can ferry humanity into the unknown. The scientific method, as a mode of observation piloted by humans for generations, has probed outer space, the depths of the oceans, and the inner reaches of cells, molecules, and atoms—our amazing brains at the helm. Never satisfied, the three-pound, skull-encased lump of flesh strains to know more, discover more, solve more. And the universe obliges. Unimaginably vast swaths of space lie unexplored; most of the ocean floor remains a mystery; and new insights into the functioning of cells and the nature of subatomic matter emerge on an almost daily basis.

This almost unfathomable potential for discovery and innovation always rockets to the fore of my own three-pound fleshlump when it comes time to edit our annual issue on neuroscience. Most scientists and science enthusiasts I’ve met are intellectually inflamed by the fact that there is so much out there (and in here) that we don’t know—a passion that transcends disciplines. And is there any mystery more fascinating than the functioning of the human brain itself? After all, we carry our brains around with us every day and use them to ferret out the patterns and meanings that throng around us. Neuroscientists, even more than the rest of us, use theirs to think about thinking.

Yet, after millennia of intimate interactions with our own brains and decades of formal study of the organ, “how the brain works was and still is a complete mystery,” in the words of Albert Einstein College of Medicine neuroscientist Kamran Khodakhah, this month’s profilee. How in the name of Ramón y Cajal can cells, amassed in tangled networks and swapping ions across their membranes to propagate waves of electrical potential, result in a thought? How does this sequence of physical events form moving pictures, symphonies, emotions, and inspiration? It truly boggles . . . well, the brain.

More here.

Saturday Poem

Unholy Sonnets


Dear God, Our Heavenly Father, Gracious Lord,
Mother Love and Maker, Light Divine,
Atomic Fingertip, Cosmic Design,
First Letter of the Alphabet, Last Word,
Mutual Satisfaction, Cash Award,
Auditor Who Approves Our Bottom Line,
Examiner Who Says That We Are Fine,
Oasis That All Sands Are Running Toward.

I can say almost anything about you,
O Big Idea, and with each epithet,
Create new reasons to believe or doubt you,
Black Hole, White Hole, Presidential Jet.
But what’s the anything I must leave out? You
Solve nothing but the problems that I set.

by Mark Jarman
from Unholy Sonnets
Story Line Press, 2003


Friday, October 4, 2019

Gandhi’s Enemies

Faisal Devji in India Today:

If Gandhi lives today it is because of his enemies, who seem unable to let go of his memory. The Mahatma’s followers have turned him into a saint whose teachings can safely be ignored-as the words of a superior being to be admired from afar.

Given the ritualistic respect offered to him in India and received with public indifference, it is puzzling why Gandhi remains such a living figure for his critics. Perhaps they are the only ones who still feel betrayed by his loss of sainthood. This betrayal is renewed in every generation, as scholars and activists discover yet another of the Mahatma’s failings.

In the wake of second-wave feminism, the Mahatma, during the 1980s, was excoriated for his views about women. The criticism was based on anecdotes about Gandhi’s treatment of his wife Kasturbai and his experiments with celibacy that entailed sleeping naked with young women.

But these women’s voices are strangely silenced. Manubehn, who participated in Gandhi’s experiments, has left a diary that no critic has thought to read. While he was sometimes harsh to his intimates, it was also from Gandhi’s circle that many women entered public life-Anasuya Sarabhai, Mridula Sarabhai, Amrit Kaur, Sarojini Naidu and Sushila Nayyar.

In the 1990s, when the Mandal Commission revived caste struggle in India, Gandhi’s caste prejudice came into focus.

More here.

Elusive protein and key to many tropical diseases found after decades of searching

Bradley Van Paridon in Chemistry World:

A chance decision to attend a lecture led to the discovery of an elusive protein and promising drug target for parasites causing some of the world’s most notorious neglected tropical diseases – Chagas disease, sleeping sickness and leishmaniasis. As this protein had been so slippery and hard to track down some had doubted that it even existed in these parasites at all.

Trypanosomes are a group of protozoan parasites transmitted by insect bites that cause sickness, morbidity and death in humans and livestock in developing countries. They are responsible for sickening millions of people every year and cause the deaths of tens of thousands of those infected, but the diseases these parasites cause do not receive the attention others do as they mostly affect poorer people in the Global South.

For decades trypanosome researchers have searched for a protein called Pex3 within the genomes of trypanosomes.

More here.

The endurance of the liberal imagination

James Duesterberg in The Point:

“In the United States at this time,” Lionel Trilling wrote in 1949, “liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.” These words are strange to read today. One cannot imagine someone writing them now and, in retrospect, they suggest a dangerous hubris. And yet it is not clear that, applied either to Trilling’s time or to ours, they are wrong.

Since the global political unraveling in 2016, liberalism has lost its voice. From the “basket of deplorables” to the “#resistance” pins to the eat-pray-love liberalism of “a thousand small sanities,” public defenses of the West’s regnant political ideology ring hollow and desperate. Read the Times or the Post, listen to politicians, sit for a second and catch the mood in the airport: the absence is in the air, not just in our language. Max Weber called twentieth-century governance the “slow boring of hard boards”: they have been bored, and so are we.

To literary critics and political theorists—those whose job it is to front-run the zeitgeist—liberalism now seems not so much an opponent to battle as a corpse to put to rest. It is something to be, at most, anatomized, if not simply buried and forgotten.

More here.

Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius

Sudip Bose at The American Scholar:

In the annals of disastrous musical premieres, that of Edward Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, which took place on this date in 1900, wasn’t a complete fiasco in the manner of, say, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or Bruckner’s Third Symphony. It did not, however, go well—not by any measure. So poor was the performance, so distant the musicians’ execution from Elgar’s most vivid and hopeful imagining, that the experience left the composer despondent. A devout Catholic, he even briefly lost his faith.

Elgar first encountered John Henry Newman’s sprawling poem “The Dream of Gerontius” in 1889, the year he got married. The wedding ceremony was held in St. George’s Church in the English city of Worcester, where Elgar, like his father, had been the organist. The priest at St. George’s marked the occasion by presenting him with a copy of the poem, which Newman had published in 1865—two decades after his conversion from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism and 14 years before he would become a cardinal.

more here.

How Edward Snowden Found His Conscience

Jacob Silverman at The Baffler:

A series of discoveries, each disturbing in turn, leads to Snowden’s eventual decision to stockpile documents, smuggle them out of the Hawaiian bunker where he works for the NSA, and flee with them to Hong Kong, where he would meet the documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill. One such discovery was that of Stellar Wind, a bulk surveillance program that previous NSA whistleblowers had tried to warn lawmakers about. Through these and other programs, through the building of an unprecedentedly massive data center in Utah, through the boasts of a CIA technologist who talks about collecting and computing on all information generated in the world, Snowden begins to understand that “surveillance wasn’t something occasional and directed in legally justified circumstances, but a constant and indiscriminate presence . . . a memory that is sleepless and permanent.” The machine reaches everywhere, collapsing space, time, and memory into a single archive. “I now understood that I was totally transparent to my government,” he acknowledges with the finality of someone accepting a cancer diagnosis. Even the promises of free speech become illusory under the surveillance regime, as “self-expression now required such strong self-protection as to obviate its liberties and nullify its pleasures.”

more here.

Beautiful Terrible Vilna

Daniel Mendelsohn at the NYRB:

Stendhal didn’t like Vilna, either.

In Book Five of his History of Painting in Italy, the author describes Vilna as the site of his own personal trauma, a bad moment that had occurred on June 6, 1812, as he stood, he says, on the banks of the Neman, watching the Grande Armée pass into Russia. This was at the triumphant beginning of Napoleon’s Russian campaign, when there was no reason yet for despair. And yet, he wrote in this book—the manuscript of which, as it happens, he gathered together for the first time while he was in Lithuania, having brought it from Paris and worked on it steadily all the time he was serving in the Armée—he felt a certain sadness pass over him as he watched this innumerable army cross the river, one composed of so many peoples, and which was to suffer the most memorable defeat history can tell of. The glum future that I perceived in the depths of Russia’s endless plains, together with our general’s erratic genius, filled me with doubt. Wearied by these pointless conjectures, I turned my mind to positive thoughts, that faithful stay in all manner of fortune.

more here.