Trenchant Lemmings
"Arrive in a clown car, bursting with anger."
Robert Weaver
Sydney, Australia
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The weblog description is a misquotation from Steve Aylett's Indicted to a Party: What to Do, Who to Blame.
The weblog title links to the "No Country Redirect" version, for whatever that might be worth.
March 20, 2005
(Juxta)position. (Juxta)position. (Juxta)position.

Inspired by a recent post of Roy Edroso to search for some info on the montage sequence in The Parallax View I found this rather old article which makes some very good points about the power of creating meaning from juxtapostion:

What we experience in Parallax is a short film constructed of still images and printed text titles, cut to music in a montage style not unlike experimental films of the 1960's...

At first, Parallax' montage seems like one of these. Soothing music is heard behind harmonious iconographic images familiar from Life Magazine - style photo layouts. Pictures of sweet old ladies and hardworking farmers accompany the titles 'MOM' and 'DAD.' Similiar stereotypical images follow title cards for 'GOD', 'LOVE', 'HAPPINESS', and so forth. The music starts to become more upbeat and dynamic, and the visual pace quickens as the same categories are revisited with new visuals and repeats of the old ones. This is going somewhere, we can tell . . . Odd cuts slip in, that don't seem to fit the categories, either because they are too fast to 'read', or contain disturbing content - lynchings, children in peril, the blurred, frighful face of a terrorized woman.

Soon the images are coming too fast for us to 'categorize' them. Each image has its own emotional reaction, some of which raise the hair on one's neck - Nazis, for instance, next to the Pope. Confusion sets in as images are repeated in contexts which change their meanings. Photos of people having sex, and stacks of coins are pleasing against the title 'HAPPINESS' but become unsettling when juxtaposed with images of what seem to be torture victims and political oppression.

Also, identical pictures appear to change 'without changing.' The impression made by a sweet rural mother changes when placed before shots of filthy, impovershed children. When placed in a context of persecution, her very expression seems to change too - a sensitive viewer knows his reactions are being manipulated, sculpted by the cutting. A portrait of George Washington is distastefully intercut with Nazi iconography, which seems artificially crude until the portrait is revealed as being displayed on a wall side-by-side with a Swastika (of a Klan member?).

Just when chaos seems total, the montage maker brings a unifying theme to the forefront. Each wave of buzzword concepts has ended with the title 'ME.' 'ME' has been evolving, from a happy baby, to an abused boy, to the imprisoned victim of tyrants and racists. Increasingly disturbing groupings equate the American flag, Hitler, MacArthur, the Pope, and a comic-book demon. Images of poverty, sex, and racial murder tumble forward. Repeated flags and patriotic icons drive home the message that "America is in trouble, the family is in trouble." Only when 'ME' becomes a hammer-swinging Nordic avenger (the comic-book character Thor) does the ANSWER arrive to end all the ideological trauma.

As a youth, I taped The Parallax View from a television broadcast and watched this montage over and over, fascinated by the clever way it shifted and distorted (or revealed) concepts solely through the intercutting of words and images. The article cited above doesn't mention one edit I found particularly amusing, when images of motorcycle policemen, first appearing as symbols of authority and order, are shown in repeated sequence with nude male dancers, recontextualising the leather-clad cops as icons of gay fetishism; an attempt, I assumed, to tap into the viewing psychopath's insecurities about his sexuality as another path to arousing the confusion and rage necessary to create a suitable assassin/patsy. It was interesting to me that the montage's muddying of concepts such as "Enemy" (first Castro, Stalin, Hitler &c then the same images that had been earlier used to illustrate "Country" or "Home") were done in an essentially ideologically neutral way; presumably preferring to create a contextless anger that could be directed by the Corporation against any target regardless of their politics. Of course, the conceptual manipulation in the film is really quite crude; the real thing would be much less obvious than in the Parallax montage, which had to look like manipulation for the benefit of the audience viewing the film in which it appears. Still great fun, though; and I loved the way the music track maintained its basic melody while becoming more brooding to accompany the darker imagery.

(Punning titles considered and rejected for this non-post: "Juxtaposition, Ma'am", "Parallaxative" and "The Full Montage".)

March 19, 2005
Sunset Clause

Navy's $100m chopper can't fly in bad light

Serious flaws have been uncovered in Australia's $1.1 billion squadron of Seasprite naval helicopters, rendering them unable to fly crucial missions.

Costing $100 million each - more than the latest stealth fighter - and arriving more than three years late, the helicopters cannot be used in murky weather when the pilots' external vision is impaired, the Herald has learnt.

They have been restricted to simple tasks, such as delivering stores and transporting passengers, and only when the weather is good. - SMH

"Now I must admit here there is a very strong possibility that our Seasprites won't get through. The Seasprite is a ludicrously cumbersome vehicle, depending as it does on a group of highly trained runners carrying it into enemy territory."

"Seaslug" in the original, of course, but as we - apparently - say in our country: "Near enough is good enough, eh?"

March 15, 2005
Strong Reciprocity

An interesting article from this month's New Scientist, on altruism:

..."The facts are clear," [economist Ernst] Fehr says. "Many people are willing to cooperate and to punish those who don't, even when no gain is possible."

This tendency - which researchers call "strong reciprocity" - throws into question the assumption that apparently selfless behaviour must have some selfish explanation. Across disciplines, researchers now agree that people often act against their own self-interest.


But when it comes to explaining the origin of our altruism, matters get a whole lot more contentious. In evolutionary terms it is a puzzle because any organism that helps others at its own expense stands at an evolutionary disadvantage. So if many people really are true altruists, as it seems, why haven't greedier, self-seeking competitors wiped them out?

One possibility, [evolutionary biologist Robert] Trivers suggests, is that evolution actually is wiping these people out - it just hasn't finished the job yet. He, along with many anthropologists, takes the view that humans evolved to cooperate when our ancestors lived in small, isolated groups of hunter-gatherers. In this setting, they learned through repeated interaction with others that cooperation generally pays because it induces other members of the group to return a favour in the future. Biologists refer to strategic cooperation of this kind as "reciprocal altruism". It cannot directly explain the true altruism found in experiments in which anonymous players meet only once, offering them no hope of future gain. But it is the benefits we gained from reciprocal altruism in our evolutionary past that lead us to behave with "inappropriate" altruism in experiments like Fehr's, Trivers says. "Our brains misfire when presented with a situation to which we have not evolved a response."


Undoubtedly adaptations that evolved to help us cope under specific conditions can backfire when situations change. But not everyone is convinced by the idea that true altruism is such a maladaptation. [Anthropologist Joseph] Henrich disagrees with the theory's central premise. He believes that while our ancestors lived in small, close-knit groups, one-shot interactions with strangers would have been common even then. What's more, these interactions could have been crucial to people's survival, because they would have occurred over shared resources such as water holes and prey animals and, more crucially, in times of catastrophe such as flood or drought. "Environmental shocks would have guaranteed that strangers encountered one another during fitness-critical times," Henrich says.

If both one-shot and repeated interactions were routine in ancestral life, Henrich argues, evolution would presumably have prepared us to distinguish between the two with some precision. And that does seem to be the case. Two years ago economists Simon Gächter of the University of St Gallen in Switzerland and Armin Falk of the University of Bonn, Germany, looked at how people alter the way they play the prisoner's dilemma game depending on whether the game involves one-shot or repeated encounters with others. If people treat one-shot encounters as if they were repeated - as the maladaptation idea suggests - then there shouldn't be a difference. But they found that repeated play more than doubled cooperation levels, indicating that we are fully capable of adapting our behaviour to the situation at hand...

Further support for the idea that strong reciprocity is an adaptation in its own right comes from the theoretical studies of economist Herbert Gintis of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, anthropologist Robert Boyd of the University of California at Los Angeles, and others. They set up a computer model in which groups of individuals interacted, and watched how their behaviour evolved. Individuals were set up in the model to behave initially either as cheats or as cooperators, and in personal interactions the former came off best. When groups competed with one another, however, cooperation came into its own: groups with more cooperators were likely to flourish.

But that was only the start. The individuals, whether initially cooperators or cheats, were also programmed to copy successful behaviour. In simulations with groups ranging from 4 to 256 individuals, the team found that altruism could evolve. The benefits that cooperation conferred on a group outweighed its costs to individuals - but only in groups of less than about 10. Ancestral human hunter-gatherer bands are thought to have numbered 30 or more individuals, so how could cooperative behaviour have evolved and spread in these groups?

The answer lies in the fact that strong reciprocity is not simply a matter of cooperation; it also requires punishment of those who fail to toe the line. When the team added punishment to their models, they found it made a huge difference. In a second round of simulations, they included a new kind of individual: the "punishers". These punishers were not only willing to cooperate with others but also to punish cheats. By making cheats pay for their antisocial actions, they tipped the balance towards cooperation. This time, competition between groups led to the emergence of cooperation in groups of up to 50 individuals...

Which is good to know - but here's a cautionary note:
Despite our altruism, generosity may not be in our genes. If true altruism has evolved through competition between groups, as some researchers maintain ..., then it is more likely to be the product of cultural evolution. Genetic evolution works by selecting individuals [or genes - strange to see a British science mag taking the Gouldian line - RW] with traits that are well adapted to their environment, but it has a far weaker grip on traits that benefit the group. So altruism is more likely to be learned. After all, every human culture invests considerable effort in instilling children with moral norms that help further cooperation.
Which means that a culture devoted to rewarding cheaters may eventually weed out strong reciprocity, and the devotees of those pseudo-scientific dogmas that claim human nature is innately selfish will succeed in creating a society in their own sociopathic image.

March 12, 2005
No Longer At Large

If, when you again feel compelled to notice the passing of a personal hero, you realise your last post was also for that purpose, you can only hope it is because you've been neglecting the blog, and not because heroes are falling like flies. At any rate -

Dave Allen: 1936 - 2005

Of the many tributes paid to Dave Allen yesterday, following his death at the age of 68, the shrewdest came from another Irish comic, Dylan Moran: "When he adjusted his waistcoat or shot his cuffs, dragons of unreason gasped and died at his feet."

Rest in peace, Dave. You were the first to show me a comic could be funny and still have something to say worth hearing. Or, what Mr Moran said.

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