Liquid Comedy?

by Jessie Roberts

Wayne Curtis investigates whether drinking can make you funnier. He looks to an experiment by Joel Warner and Peter McGraw, authors of The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny:

The instructions to the subjects were straightforward: Come up with a gag. Have a drink. Repeat. After each round, the subjects [all from the creative team at Grey New York, an advertising firm] were asked to rate their drunkenness on a seven-point scale ranging from “sober” to “shit-faced.” (McGraw admits that his study “will never make its way into a peer-reviewed journal.”) They were also asked to rate their own jokes, on a scale of “slightly amusing” to “hilarious.” The jokes were later judged independently by a sober online panel.

The experiment was designed in part to test McGraw’s “benign violation” theory of humor, one in a long line of attempts to offer a universal explanation of what circumstances make us laugh. McGraw theorizes that humor arises when something “wrong, unsettling, or threatening” overlaps with a safe, nonthreatening context. So somebody falling down the stairs (violation) is funny, but only if the person lands unhurt (benign). Slapping is funny; stabbing is not. A faux-clueless Sarah Silverman saying racist things is funny; a drunk and hostile Mel Gibson is not. Each gag the Grey New York folks created was to take the form of a Venn diagram illustrating benign violation. Among the early contributions were two circles labeled “Grandpa” and “Erection,” the overlap of which was deemed “funny.”

The results?

“Drinking reduces inhibition,” McGraw says. “But it opens the door to failure, with failure likely to be on the side of going too far.” In the end, only three of the ad folks lasted for five stiff drinks at the Hurricane Club before they decided to call it quits. Among the final gags was a Venn diagram with “cancer” in one circle and “unpoppable pimple” in the other. The creator rated it hysterical. The online panel, not so much. “As people became more intoxicated, they thought they were funnier, but a sober audience didn’t see it that way,” Warner notes.

Reading Down South

by Jessie Roberts

Ed Winstead contemplates what makes the fiction of the American South so distinctive:

In 2009 The Oxford American polled 134 Southern writers and academics and put together a list of the greatest Southern novels of all time based on their responses. All save one, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, were published between 1929 and 1960. What we think of when we think of “Southern fiction” exists now almost entirely within the boundaries of the two generations of writers that occupied that space. Asked to name great American authors, we’ll give answers that span time from Hawthorne and Melville to Whitman to DeLillo. Ask for great Southern ones and you’ll more than likely get a name from the Southern Renaissance: William Faulkner, Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Eudora Welty, Thomas Wolfe—all of them sandwiched into the same couple of post-Agrarian decades. …

“Southern,” as a descriptor of literature, is immediately familiar, possessed of a thrilling, evocative, almost ontological power.

It is a primary descriptor, and alone among American literary geographies in that respect. Faulkner’s work is essentially “Southern” in the same way that Thomas Pynchon’s is essentially “postmodern,” but not, you’ll note, “Northeastern.” To displace Faulkner from his South would be to remove an essential quality; he would functionally cease to exist in a recognizable way.

It applies to the rest of the list, too (with O’Connor the possible exception, being inoculated somewhat by her Catholicism). It is impossible to imagine these writers divorced from the South. This is unusual, and a product of the unusual circumstances that gave rise to them. Faulkner, Lee, Percy, and Welty were no more Southern than Edgar Allen Poe or Sidney Lanier or Kate Chopin, and yet their writing, in the context of the South at that time, definitively was. There’s a universal appeal to their work, to be certain, but it’s also very much a regional literature, one grappling with a very specific set of circumstances in a fixed time, and correspondingly, one with very specific interests: the wearing away of the old Southern social structures, the economic uncertainty inherent in family farming, and overt, systematized racism (which, while undoubtedly still present in the South today, is very much changed from what it was).

Feel This Book

by Jessie Roberts

Researchers at MIT have developed a wearable reading device called Sensory Fiction:

Sensory Fiction was inspired by two sci-fi visions of what media in the future will look like. The first is Neil Stephenson’s steampunk classic, The Diamond Age, a novel that features interactive books with built in AIs. (The book that is often seen as the fictional inspiration for many of today’s technologies, like the iPad and Siri.) The other is The Girl Who Was Plugged In, a 1974 novella by James Tiptree, Jr. about a future in which the desperate are allowed to pay to take over the bodies of attractive human vessels.

“You feel this story in your gut,” Hope says about The Girl Who Was Plugged In. “It is an amazing example of the power of fiction to make us feel and empathize with a protagonist. Because our imaginations and emotions were so strongly moved by this story, we wondered how we could heighten the experience.”

Kathleen Volk Miller shudders:

As the protagonist’s emotional or physical state changes, so does the reader’s, via ambient light, slight vibrations, and, get this: localized temperature fluctuations and constricting airbags that actually change the reader’s heart rate. The emotional response I’m getting right now, without wearing the device, is: fear. The device has airbags?

Let’s discuss the obvious. For instance: if a book is well-written, we don’t need a “shiver simulator.” I mean, no one told me to be sad when Anna threw herself in front of a train. Can a device make my heart feel scooped out like so many books have through the years (most recently, Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped)? … I am no Luddite, but I see the very reason we go to books —to get lost in an different world, to empathize with an other, to escape — might get lost if our emotions and even our physical reactions are forced. Rather than transport us to another world, these reading augmenters force us into someone else’s perception of another world.

In January, Alison Flood remarked on how the concept resonated with other writers:

The Arthur C Clarke award-winning science fiction novelist Chris Beckett wrote about a similar invention in his novel Marcher, although his “sensory” experience comes in the form of a video game:

In the spare bedroom on the first floor a group of young men were gathered around a TV. They were all plugged into a device called a dreamer, very popular in that world, though unknown in this, and were playing the classic dreamer game called Ripper Killer. They had on 3D goggles and wore things called moodpads on their heads which gave low-voltage jolts to the hypothalamus in order to induce elation, longing or (as was famously the case with Ripper Killer) terror.

Adam Roberts, another prize-winning science fiction writer, found the idea of “sensory” fiction “amazing”, but also “infantalising, like reverting to those sorts of books we buy for toddlers that have buttons in them to generate relevant sound-effects”.

A Short Story For Saturday

by Jessie Roberts

Today’s story has remarkable staying power: E.M. Forster wrote “The Machine Stops” in 1909, but it’s proved so prescient that technologist Jaron Lanier has called it “that preternatural oracle of internet culture.” An excerpt:

For a moment Vashti felt lonely.

Then she generated the light, and the sight of her room, flooded with radiance and studded with electric buttons, revived her. There were buttons and switches everywhere – buttons to call for food for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. and there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.

Keep reading here. Previous SSFSs here.

The Conscience Of Carnivores

by Jessie Roberts

James McWilliams expands on the ethical conundrum raised by Bob Comis, a pig farmer who believes that “[w]hat I do is wrong, in spite of its acceptance by nearly 95 percent of the American population”:

Comis’s call for a more philosophical approach to animal agriculture is neither an arbitrary nor an academic appeal to an abstract notion of animal rights. Instead, it’s grounded in the humble workings of daily life, especially the humble, if complex, workings that bring to our plate animal protein—which has been shown to be not only unnecessary but often harmful to human health. A secular and religious consensus exists that living an ethical life means accepting that my own interests are no more important than another’s simply because they are mine. Basic decency, not to mention social cohesion, requires us to concede that like interests deserve equal consideration. If we have an interest in anything, it is in avoiding unnecessary pain. Thus, even though a farm animal’s experience of suffering might be different from a human’s experience of suffering, that suffering requires that we consider the animal’s interest in not being raised and eaten much as we would consider our own interest in not being raised and eaten. Once we do that, we would have to demonstrate, in order to justifiably eat a farm animal, that some weighty competing moral consideration was at stake. The succulence of pancetta, unfortunately, won’t cut it.

Previous Dish on the processing of livestock here, here, and here.

The New Longform

by Jessie Roberts

Last week, Teju Cole published a 4,000-word non-fiction essay on immigration, A Piece Of The Wall, entirely on Twitter. In an interview with BuzzFeed, he talked about why he chose to tell the story in tweets:

What made you decide that this specific essay would be best presented in this medium?

Teju Cole: I’ll answer that by saying I didn’t think this essay could be “best” presented in this medium, but I asked the opposite question:

Why does a serious longform investigative piece have to be in print in a major magazine? In various parts of West Africa, there are different iterations of the idea that “white people like paper so much that they even wipe their butts with it.” You know, you spend your life staring at paper, you spend paper money, proof of ownership of everything is on paper, you fill your house with paper, and when you die, the announcement is in the paper.

I love paper too. I love print. But maybe not everything has to be on it. And in the case of Twitter (and, before that, blogging), I just feel so strongly that there’s an audience here, and audience that deserves to be treated with the same seriousness as the paper crowd. …

I’m not getting my hopes up, but the point of writing about these things, and hoping they reach a big audience, has nothing to do with “innovation” or with “writing.” It’s about the hope that more and more people will have their conscience moved about the plight of other human beings. In the case of drones, for example, I think that all the writing and sorrow about it has led to a scaling back of operations: It continues, it’s still awful, but the rate has been scaled back, and this has been in specific response to public criticism. I continue to believe the emperor has a soul.

Earlier this month, Cole assessed (NYT) how Twitter has affected his writing, noting that “being active on Twitter … means that the literary part of my brain — the part that tries to make good sentences — is engaged all the time. My memory is worse than it was a few years ago, but I hope that my ability to write a good sentence has improved.” Follow Cole’s latest tweets here.

Voyeurism vs Journalism

by Jessie Roberts

Erika Thorkelson worries that camera phones encourage people to document others’ bad behavior rather than attempt to intervene:

Many professional journalists agonize over the ethics of this kind of reporting. Some argue that journalistic objectivity overrides any particular responsibility to act. Photojournalists train themselves to grab their cameras and start shooting before they fully recognize what’s happening around them, believing that documenting the moment does more long-term good than acting to stop it, or at least fulfills a separate but necessary societal obligation. But what happens when everyone with a camera phone sees him or herself as a journalist on a story, when everyone is a fly on the wall?

[This] brings to mind a classic This American Life story from 2007 about a craze for fake newscasts that took over an elementary school [see above video].

Children built elaborate cameras out of construction paper and toilet paper rolls, and began reporting on everything they saw. The school’s principal told Ira Glass that the trend reached its height when he discovered a brutal fight in the schoolyard, one student pummeling the other. Crowding around the fight, students were “breathlessly reporting” on what they saw, turning it into a news story rather than going for help.

Thanks to our phones, most of us carry cameras everywhere we go. Like journalists reporting on our own lives, our experiences become part of a narrative, honed in order to endear us to our various social media connections. We live with our faces angled toward the screens of our various devices, oblivious to the events beyond the viewfinder. Our bodies stilled to reduce shaking and our eyes trained on the screen, our filming—no matter how well-framed or widely shared, no matter how much attention we receive for it afterward—remains passive. We project the control we exert over the image we’re creating onto the experience itself, giving us a false sense of power, when in reality we have done very little.

Time And Punishment

by Jessie Roberts

Ross Andersen interviewed philosopher Rebecca Roache about how life-extending technologies may come to be applied to prisoners:

Suppose we eventually learn to put off death indefinitely, and that we extend this treatment to prisoners. Is there any crime that would justify eternal imprisonment? Take Hitler as a test case. Say the Soviets had gotten to the bunker before he killed himself, and say capital punishment was out of the question – would we have put him behind bars forever?

Roache: It’s tough to say. If you start out with the premise that a punishment should be proportional to the crime, it’s difficult to think of a crime that could justify eternal imprisonment. You could imagine giving Hitler one term of life imprisonment for every person killed in the Second World War. That would make for quite a long sentence, but it would still be finite. The endangerment of mankind as a whole might qualify as a sufficiently serious crime to warrant it. As you know, a great deal of the research we do here at the Oxford Martin School concerns existential risk. Suppose there was some physics experiment that stood a decent chance of generating a black hole that could destroy the planet and all future generations. If someone deliberately set up an experiment like that, I could see that being the kind of supercrime that would justify an eternal sentence.

Ari N. Schulman criticizes Roache for raising concerns about future uses of biotech without sufficiently addressing reasons not to pursue the technology:

It’s the same from doping the populace to be more moral, to shrinking people so they’ll emit less carbon, to “after-birth abortion,” and on on: Imagine some of the most coercive and terrible things we could do with biotech, offer all the arguments for why we should and pretty much none for why we shouldn’t, make it sound like this would be technically straightforward, predictable, and controllable once a few advances are in place, and finally claim that you’re just being neutral and academically disinterested; that, like Glenn Beck on birth certificates, you’re just asking questions, because after all, someone will, and better it be us Thoughtful folks who take the lead on Managing This Responsibly, or else someone might try something crazy. …

[W]hen transhumanists claim to be responsibly shining a light on a hidden path down which we might otherwise blindly stumble, what they’re really after is focusing us so intently on this path that we forget we could yet still take another.

A Poem For Thursday

by Jessie Roberts

The opening lines from Aracelis Girmay’s “Cooley High“:

I guess it’s a funny thing, really,
how I can’t hear Boyz II Men,
even the 90s bedroom countdown
and the colour blue of Michael McCrary’s
‘Injection, fellas’ without wanting
to cry.

Girmay explains that the poem is based on her experience of moving to boarding school in the 1990s, an attempt to capture “the psychological and emotional consequences of leaving home and being thrown into isolated orbit, neither here nor there (quite)”:

I wanted the poem to deal with loss, and to be built on a trapdoor – to conjure a sense of bottomlessness, and the swift fall beneath the poem. I wanted the opening sentence to serve the poem as noise (the radio!) and structure. The chatty, discursive tone of those first six lines slowly gives way to a different lyrical and geographical landscape (children, prickly pears and hills). I wanted that first sentence to be a kind of bookshelf you look at, plainly, then happen to lean against … the pressure of memory, that weight, pushing you into another hidden room. The house’s true and secret interior. The first sentence thinks it is merely and safely recalling grief, but then, in fact, ends up carrying the speaker deeper into her grief again.