You are viewing a monthly archive page.


An exhaustive examination of pica, the eating of hair, rotten wood, cloth, but most especially dirt and clay. Truly disturbing, as it gives a dizzying number of examples of dirt eating in societies around the world, and explores the possibilities of what causes the practice.

Laufer [a researcher working in the 1930s] left little doubt that earth eating had “nothing to do with climate, race, creed, culture areas, or a higher or lesser degree of culture.” Indeed, to read Laufer is to watch a war of attrition remove all notions of Otherness from our understanding of pica. He cites Humboldt, Cragin, and the seventeenth-century theories of vanity, but for the most part, the pica of his pages is quiet and reasoned, medicinal, culinary, religious.



The "new" science of responsibility

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the BrainWe appear to be in the middle of a rash of books that seek to “re-examine” morality, responsibility, and the whole idea of criminal blameworthiness, in light of recent scientific discoveries. And while the field of neurology has had an astounding couple of decades, a lot of the work of applying these insights to our commonsense understanding of blame seems to be falling flat.

Consider The Science of Evil (British title: “Zero Degrees of Empathy”) by Simon Baron-Cohen. Here the premise is that ugly behavior is caused by a lack of empathy with others, which strikes me as banal, if not reflexive. There’s a scale of empathy, you see (and you can take the test!), and those with low to empathy are more likely to be “evil”. Of course your empathy score is a combination of nature and nurture, and people who normally have normal empathy can have temporary bouts of un-empathy. It’s all supported by research, but it’s also, I think, supported by our commonsense understanding.

Another book making the rounds is Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman. (You can hear him discuss it on Fresh Air.) Maybe I’m overinformed, but Eagleman’s central claim — that behavior is caused by brain chemistry — got little more than a “duh” out of me. His observation that the brain consists of a number of competing actors, and that the conscious mind is more an observer of decisions than a king, is lifted from the work of Daniel Dennett and others. And the idea that the criminal justice system should take people’s brain states into account when passing sentences is old hat to anyone with a passing knowledge of psychology; in fact our notoriously slow-changing and backwards justice system has actually been incorporating these ideas.

Eagleman’s big example of how brain chemistry cause our behavior is the pedophile who was cured and returned to normal when a suddenly discovered brain tumor was removed. But just because behavior in one person was linked to a tangible brain defect outside his control does not mean that we should re-evaluate our notions of blame in general. Some actions are within a person’s self-control and some are not. If Eagleman has a worthwhile message, it’s that the vast majority of decisions fall somewhere in the middle, and that our apparent free will is, much more so than we realize, an illusion of how our minds work.

The basis of that realization is actually decades-old psychological experiments (e.g. the pantyhose experiment), but it’s an idea that’s resisted by conventional wisdom. The value of Eagleman’s book (and his current publicity tour) is to spread this idea.

Posted: Wednesday June 15, 2011 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [1]


Research shows that certain vision defects help in the production of art. Examination of Rembrandt’s eyes in portraits indicates a misalignment, and art students do worse on 3D vision tests than control groups. The work of Van Gogh speaks for itself.



What's up with movie theaters?

sony projectorIt’s absolutely terrible. When I went to see the the new Woody Allen movie last week, I noticed as soon as the previews that the projection was out of focus. (The previous ads and trash were projected with something else, and looked just fine. Irony. Whatever.) I went out side to complain, which I don’t think I’ve ever done before. I found a guy in the lobby with a suit and a gold name tag, and explained the problem. He said he’d have them refocus, and got on his walkie talkie as I hustled back to my seat.

A few more previews rolled by, with no change. I figure, maybe they’re going to fix it when the main feature starts? Now, Midnight in Paris opens with a bunch of static shots of the city, and of course still shots are where you can the focus most clearly. And it was just terrible. Anyway, to make a long story short, I went out and complained to the same guy again, and it still wasn’t fixed. The movie was watchable, but it sure detracted from it. I’m going to be keeping an eye on Regal Cinema South Beach in the future (this was in auditorium #4), and I’m not putting up with that crap again.

I was reminded of this when I read Roger Ebert’s column about crappy movie projection yesterday. His biggest complaint is how dim many movies look today. Turns out the culprit is the misuse of the Sony 3D projector (pictured above). The double lens is supposed to be attached only for 3D movies, but many theaters leave it on for all features, because it’s a pain for them to swap in and out. The thing is, this lens blocks 50% of the light even for 2D movies. You’re supposed to look for a double beam of light, one stacked on top of the other. If you see that, you’re being shown an inferior picture, and you should complain. (More information here from a conscientious theater operator.)

It’s all pretty crazy given how expensive movies are, and how easy they are to pirate. Theaters should be trying to disincentivize people from piracy by providing the best possible experience, yet they seem to be moving in the direction of doing the exact opposite.

The good news in all this is that, at least here in Miami, a number of new independent cinemas have cropped up. There’s the upgraded and moved Miami Beach Cinematheque, Miami-Dade’s Tower Theater, and the Coral Gables Art Cinema. (I saw the Herzog 3D movie there a few weeks ago, so I’m going to keep an eye on them with that too. But presumably “Art Cinema” in the title = people who care about movies.) Luckily these places show a lot more of the films I actually want to see, and while the Regal South Beach is pretty good about keeping the small-audience features in rotation, one more experience like the one with Midnight in Paris and I’m not going back.

Posted: Monday June 13, 2011 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [1]


Midnight in Paris

midnight in paris Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is a perfectly charming little film with a cleverly incorporated time-traveling conceit. The only problem the film has is that it has been grossly and and ubiquitously over-rated in the press, often referred to as Allen’s best film in over ten years. See here, here, here, and here. If you’re a Woody Allen fan you should for sure see this film, but let me recalibrate your expectations a little first.

Owen Wilson plays the Allen role that’s, of course, at the center of the movie. He’s great — neither over the top nor overly understated. But most of the other characters are more plot devices than attempts to create real people. His fiancee, played by Rachel McAdams, starts out loving but descends rapidly into a monolithic source of irritation for both Wilson’s character Gil and the audience. Another character, meant to be an insufferable pedant, is given absolutely no redeeming qualities, and occupies the screen as a sort of boorish source of evil.

And there is time traveling! Well, sort of. Gil, Wilson’s character, goes wandering in Paris at night, and sort of suddenly finds himself in the Paris of 1920s. It’s cleverly done in the sense that there’s no time machine or anything; he’s suddenly just sort of there. Maybe it’s magic, maybe it’s all a dream: the movie doesn’t even ask you to speculate. And it’s a fine idea. The problem is that within a couple of evenings, Gil meets every famous American associated with 20s Paris. Here’s a party with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, with Cole Porter playing the piano. Then he wanders into an empty bar and runs into Ernest Hemingway. And here’s where the movie goes off the rails a little: as soon as Gil sits down, Hemingway starts going on about shooting a tiger that’s charging at you, and how the secret to good writing is being honest, and war. It’s as though the idea of not making him too much of a caricature never even crossed Allen’s mind.

Later on we meet Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Man Ray, and lots of others. It’d be like going to New York in the early 80s and partying all night with the New York Dolls, wandering through the park with Patty Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, having lunch with a young Donald Trump, and bumping into Grandmaster Flash in the Bronx. (Actually, I’d go see that movie.)

The scene with Dali is particularly gratuitous. Played eye-rollingly “surreal”-with-quotes by Adrien Brody, Dali waves Gil over to his cafe table and proceeds to rant about “seeing a rhinoceros” for a bit. As the scene ends, he quickly introduces Man Ray and Luis Buñuel, as though Allen were trying to fill some sort of fake celebrity quota.

So why should you see this movie? Well, when it’s not being overdone, the historical Paris bit is done exceptionally well, and it’s cleverly folded into a pretty good story. You’ll find at least some of the historical characters charming (I liked the Fitzgeralds and Gertrude stein, who is fabulously played by Kathy Bates). And Owen Wilson really holds the whole thing together. Now that your expectations have been adjusted, you just might be pleasantly surprised by how good it is.

Posted: Thursday June 9, 2011 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [3]


Doctors can't ask their patients about guns?

EMILY: Did you hear about this? They just passed a law in Florida that says Doctors can’t ask their patients whether there is a gun in their house.

JOSH: That’s weird. Why is the government telling doctors what they can and can’t say to their patients? And why are doctors asking about guns? I could see asking someone if they’ve been shot … but asking if there’s a gun in the house? What medical relevance could that possibly have?

EMILY: They’re concerned about safety. Pediatricians often ask parents if they have a gun in the house, and if so, whether it is stored safely. Haven’t you heard of all the kids that accidentally kill themselves or their friends playing with a gun they found around the house?

JOSH: Are those doctors also trying to get the parents to stop driving? Are they talking to them about pool safety, matches, blankets and plastic bags the kids can suffocate on, stairs, and a million other things? Because all those things are way more likely to kill a kid a kid than an accidental gunshot. Seems to me that, of all the household dangers facing a kid, a gun would be the most obvious to a parent. If they’re not a complete imbecile, they’ve already got it stored properly. And if they are an imbecile, having a doctor up in their face isn’t going to help.

EMILY: Well, the American Academy of Pediatrics says, “the absence of guns from children’s homes and communities is the most reliable and effective measure to prevent firearm-related injuries.” Meanwhile, of course the legislation to muzzle doctors is written by the good ‘ol NRA.

JOSH: Oh, so the pediatricians are open about trying to get guns out of the homes? It seems that we have a right to own guns in this country whether we have kids or not. If I had a gun, I sure wouldn’t want my kid’s doctor giving me crap about it every time I take my kid in.

EMILY: It’s not necessarily to try to get rid of the gun. If they know there’s a gun in the house, and then they later become aware of some other dangerous circumstance, they’ll be informed. “There’s a gun in that house! Do something NOW.”

JOSH: What possible set of circumstances would warrant action with a gun that wouldn’t warrant action without one? If you’ve got a dangerous adult in the house, it seems to me they’re just as dangerous without the gun. Aren’t kids much more likely to be beaten to death by their parents than shot to death?

EMILY: So you’re okay with the law dictating what doctors can and cannot say to their patients?

JOSH: Well, something sure as heck dictates what doctors should and shouldn’t say to patients. Some things are useful to discuss, and some things are a waste of time. Doctors sure as heck better make the best use they can of the limited time they have with their patients, right? Traffic accidents kill 45 times as many kids as gun accidents, and four times as many as all homicides combined. So hopefully doctors are spending way more time lecturing parents about driving as safely — and as little as possible — as they spend talking about guns.

EMILY: There’s something different about guns though. ‘The possession of firearms in the home is a professionally-recognized risk factor for both gun-related homicide and suicide.’

JOSH: Well, sure. And living near a cliff is a risk factor for falling homicides and suicides. A sea-front home is a risk factor for drowning homicides and suicides. A slippery floor is a risk factor for tripping —

EMILY: OK, suppose you have a suicidal teen talking to a doctor. You’re really saying the doctor can’t bring up guns?

JOSH: Actually, it turns out that there’s an exception in the law if the doctor feels the gun issue is directly relevant to the patient’s care or safety. Suicidal teens would be a great example of that.

EMILY: What about the example of a kid being bullied at school. Can a doctor ask if the kid has a gun in the house? If he’s ever brought a gun to school? If he’s though about harming himself or anyone else with a gun? This type of law will have a chilling effect on doctors — force them to try to figure out whether the question they want to ask meets the legal standard for being directly relevant or not. Do you really want doctors to have to keep these legal distinctions in the back of their mind when talking to patients?

JOSH: Everything doctors do is governed by laws. Doctors make these sorts of decisions all the time — often wrongly, which is why we have so many malpractice suits in this country. But I don’t get the example — you can ask a kid if he’s thought about hurting himself or anyone else. If he has, you take action. At that point, telling the parents to make sure the gun is stored safely pretty obviously falls into the legal exception.

EMILY: I don’t know. It still seems wrong for a state legislature to dictate what doctors can and can’t talk about with patients.

JOSH: Look, guns are a touchy subject in our society. But it’s been legally determined that they’re permissible. Understandably anti-gun folks want to continue the fight, but should doctors really be allowed to use their position of power to promote their particular views? We have laws that prevent teachers from spreading their political views to their kids. Why not similar laws for Doctors?

EMILY: Vaccines and abortion are both touchy subjects in society. Are laws that tell doctors what they can say about those things next?

JOSH: Okay, that’s the slippery slope argument. People who are in support of those things will pass whatever laws they can. The existence of this law isn’t going to make much of a difference. But for the record, if anyone passes a law that tells doctors they can’t strongly encourage parents to get their kids vaccinated, I’m moving to Canada.

Thanks to Steve for hashing out this debate with me, and for most of the links above.

Posted: Friday June 3, 2011 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [4]