Heroes, Monsters, and Your Own Personal Monkeysphere

I had an interesting confluence of information thrown at me this past week. First, on Monday, I got an e-mail from one of the organizers of FrostBurn. It was a gentle suggestion to check out the lecture on TED.com by Philip Zimbardo: How ordinary people become monsters…or heroes.

The gist is that it is relatively easy to get people to do unimaginably cruel things. All you need to do is to ask them to gradually increase the intensity of their behavior, and to absolve them of responsibility for that behavior. As has been demonstrated by the atrocities of history, nearly anybody can be party to this kind of behavior, except for a few: the "everyday heroes".

In response to that e-mail, someone else posted a link to What is the Monkeysphere?. It outlines the notion that our brains are only capable of dealing with a clan of about 150 individuals. Outside that group, everyone else is not even a person, just a thing in the world. The article argues that in general, people don't care about the outsider group except when they make a deliberate effort to be empathetic. I personally don't think this is true, but Philip Zimbardo's research seems to back it up.

Anyway, in Zimbardo's lecture, he says that anybody can be trained to be an "everyday hero". His method of doing so asks people to consider themselves "heroes in waiting" — that someday you may be called upon to act heroically. I personally use the guilt-based technique where I ask myself, "which course of action will make me respect myself tomorrow?" to elicit my best behavior.  Regardless, we agree that a core element is the desire to not go along with the status quo for its own sake, but to remain vigilant and question that which seems wrong.

Then on Tuesday, I went to The Rochester Public Library (115 South Ave.) for the Books Sandwiched-In lecture. Douglas Lowry discussed his view on The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music by Steve Lopez. Lopez, a columnist, discovers a man named Nathaniel Ayers playing violin in the streets of L.A. Although he writes a column about this encounter, he is struck by this man and returns to him many times over several years. Ayers is clearly mentally ill, and Lopez tries to get him to use psychiatric services to discover how to experience joy.

Anyway, I just thought it was interesting that these things all seemed pretty related.

RIP, Baby Squirrel

This afternoon I was talking with my neighbor and a baby squirrel (okay, maybe an adolescent squirrel) came stumbling out and tried to befriend me. We suspected it was dislodged from a nest in the wind from a few days prior — or it was possibly Blondie's kin (that is, the so-named blond-hair squirrel that was flattened by automobile earlier this week). Whatever the reason, this inexperienced tree-rat was perfectly willing to let me pet it.

I went in and got it a banana — it seemed quite receptive to me (well, anyone I guess) giving it affection. I pet it a bit and brought it some sunflower seeds as well. I decided to let it be and see if its instincts would kick in after a decent (?) meal, so I headed out.

a baby squirrel

Well, come 1 a.m. when I got home, I searched for it and found its lifeless body in my driveway. I might have been able to do more, but I can only believe that its last hours were spent with a full belly, and with dreams of frolicking — cat-free — with its peers. Perchance, even, to run confidently along the squirrel superhighway (a.k.a. human utility service wires). Rest in peace, baby squirrel.

Among the 609

Sometime around midnight on Monday night, the lights in my house blinked out several times in 10 minutes or so. I knew what was coming — alas the same line I've complained about before was once again afflicted with inability to transmit electrical current. It's been a while since it got knocked out, but by midnight, the lights went out and the fans all stopped; the only sound was the beeping of back-up power supplies on assorted computers and appliances around the house.

So I called Rochester Gas and Electric (RG&E) (89 East Ave.) when it happened, and the nice computer lady recorded that my power was out. I went to bed. In the morning, the nice computer lady said that they recorded my outage — but did not mention that it was part of a larger outage. Darn. I had hoped a crew would be out already. As it turned out, tens of thousands of people were also without power, so I was not all that likely to get responsive service. By 10 a.m. or so, the computer lady said that there was a known outage affecting approximately SIX HUNDRED NINE customers — thus it was that crazy wire by the canal that got knocked out again. The worst, though, is that the streets near me are interleaved with power from different sides, so across the street, my neighbors were preserving perishable foods with refrigeration, drinking hot coffee, and reading in at night. By 3 p.m. or so, the nice computer lady reported that "the estimated repairs are scheduled to be completed by 6 p.m. — this Wednesday."

So I got a lesson in pioneer life for a while. As it turned out the power came back Tuesday night sometime — probably between midnight and dawn by my guess. In any case, I took the opportunity to revamp the computer setup where I write JayceLand and other stuff. I also pondered alternatives: like solar panels to operate the sump pump (which was thankfully bone-dry), getting (or making) a chest freezer, and figuring out how to get Internet connectivity. I might be closer to off-grid living than I thought … or not.

Idiocracy at the Dryden

I headed out to the Dryden Theatre at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to catch Idiocracy — the seldom-seen Mike Judge film, which was released … er … buried just a few years ago. It's about an absolutely average guy in the army, Joe Bauers, who takes part in a human hibernation experiment, only to accidentally be left for 500 years. When he awakes, he finds himself in a bizarre world where stupefyingly stupid people are running the place, and impossibly-stupider ones populate it. Automated systems somehow keep things marginally running [something like "Matrix Vista", I guess] — albeit in a totalitarian dystopia to which the population is absolutely complacent with. Joe is arrested and given an intelligence test which places him as the smartest person in the world — by a huge margin.

But the real brilliance of the satire is that it's a believable amplification of what we have today. The Brawndo corporation bought the FDA and FCC, allowing them to pump their energy-drink beverage through the plumbing for drinking — leaving people to refer to plain water as "toilet water". And, like in today's spirit of anti-intellectualism, people of the future referred to rational speech as sounding "pompous and faggy". It's relentless in its celebration of stupidity.

The film proposes that it was because stupid people have lots of kids but smart people don't that the world was getting dumber, but genetics don't work like that: stupid people breed smart kids just as often as smart people breed dumb kids. Remove that presumption, and the film becomes much more melancholic. For it's not that nature is failing us, it's that we arrogantly and tenaciously believe that because we think intelligence is a good thing that it should necessarily be — in Darwinian parlance — "selected for": that the "good" traits in a species should necessarily become more dominant in the population. Yet that has causality backwards and isn't even a valid comparison. Dominant traits in a population are simply most common, and "good" traits are at the whim of the era. Having ten toes is completely unrelated to being an oil baron in the 20th century or a king in the 16th century.

In Jim Healy's introduction, he believed the screening we were about to watch was the first 35mm screening in New York State — and possibly the entire American northeast. According to IMDb, it opened on 6 screens then peaking the next day at 130 screens — by no means large numbers, but it's unlikely this was the first screening. Anyway, Jim sided with the most rational and least controversial theory for the lackluster marketing for an otherwise hilarious and simultaneously biting film: that Twentieth Century-Fox simply could not figure out how to market it. While I don't doubt that's true, I don't think it's the full story since the Fox corporation has been aggressively courting anti-intellectualism as a philosophical mainstay. So I find it hard to believe it was as simple as a film without a market, but that Fox was the wrong group to try. After all, they opened drivel like Glitter on 1,201 screens and Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties on 2,946 screens yet intellectual fare like Fast Food Nation began on only 321 screens and Waking Life was seen on only 4.

If only they had smarter people working for them …