Saturday, December 24, 2011

Gorillas in our midst (no poker content)

As I mentioned last week, Cardgrrl and I spent an afternoon at the Albuquerque Zoo, which is surprisingly large and nice for such a small city. (Albuquerque proper is about 500,000 people, with a metropolitan area of only about 900,000.) I think we lingered at the gorilla exhibit for nearly an hour, mesmerized by these amazing animals.

I highly recommend visiting Cardgrrl's photo essay on the experience. Her words and photos do much better at capturing the feeling than mine will. Her final photo, in particular, just slayed me when I first saw it; the distant shot is a worth-a-thousand-words indictment of putting these animals into pens on the other side of the world from their rightful homes. This particular enclosure is among the nicer ones, as zoos go, but it's still a prison built for our purposes, not theirs, its inmates wholly innocent of any crime.

I found myself spending most of my gorilla-watching time trying to decipher their emotions. I don't think it's easy. Consider this female.

Is she feeling sad?




These shots were taken with only a few seconds elapsing between them, so it's unlikely that she was actually going through that range of emotions in so short a time, even though those labels are what get immediately conveyed to me by the images. I don't think our experience correlating human faces and emotions serves us well to interpret other species, even one as closely related as these primates.

I'll bet, however, that they have no such difficulty reading each other. Why else would they have such expressive faces, if not to communicate to other members of their tribes? The next pictures are of this troop's dominant male. Look at how his face changes, again over the course of just a matter of seconds in this series:

The entire dimensions of his face undergo transformation. Lots of other mammals have some range of facial expressions, but offhand I can't think of any non-primates that invest this much in making their faces so enormously flexible. It takes a lot of muscles and bony attachments--plus the neural wiring and brain mapping--to generate this variation. From an evolutionary perspective, that expenditure can only be justified if such communication is tremendously important to their survival. I wish I were in on the code.

I think both Cardgrrl and I were most taken with one female who tended to sit off by herself, not interacting much with the rest of the group. I know I took more pictures of her than any of her friends. I think I felt some sympathy with her, knowing well what it's like to be sitting alone in the corner of the playground while everybody else is interacting easily. Maybe she's on the outs socially. Maybe she's in some sort of pain. Maybe she was just having a bad day. Again, though we're naturally quick to interpret body language and facial appearance by experiences with our own kind, I doubt that the correlation to the apparent equivalents in gorillas is as close as we tend to assume. But what do I know?

Another of the band's females was obviously in late-stage pregnancy. If I saw this expression and posture in a woman of equivalently impending delivery, I'd probably be inclined to think she was contemplating the birth of her child, perhaps wondering what kind of personality he or she would develop.

But I confess that I have no idea to what extent a gravid gorilla's brain is capable of understanding what is happening to her, or what is about to happen, which in turn makes me interpret what I'm seeing with much more curiosity than certainty.

Here is a final olio of gorilla snapshots for you to ponder over. What are they thinking and/or feeling? Were I in their situation, it would be nothing but "How can I get out of here?" until I finally gave in to the futility of such efforts and surrendered myself to my fate, at which time my escape anxiety would be replaced with a crushing and unending sense of helplessness. Is that what these magnificent creatures are feeling? I don't pretend to know. But if the answer is yes, shame on us for inflicting that on them.


I originally wasn't going to include this video, because it's already in Cardgrrl's post, but I just can't resist. I've watched it several times and love it too much to leave it out.

The babies are adorable, obviously, but I'm most impressed by the silverback. You don't need any imagination to see the immense power of his musculature. He could toss around the NFL's biggest linebacker like a rag doll. But it's entirely contained and restrained, like a Ferrari engine at idle. He gently nudges his child away from the man at one point, then just sits and watches, like a patient dad tending his children at the playground. Maybe the little ones are so relaxed and bold in their exploring because they know they've got the biggest bad-ass in the jungle behind them, ready to rip apart anything or anyone that might threaten them. When it's time to move on, he just gives a little "follow me" grunt and saunters off. Amazing film.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

To be mean, or not to be mean--that is the question

Actually, it's not usually much of a question for me. It's rare that I feel an intention to be mean* in what I write. When I do, I'd like to believe that I leave no room for a reader to doubt my feelings about the subject at hand. For example, when I have written about cheating and cheaters in poker, or Richard Marcus plagiarizing poker bloggers, or Phil Hellmuth's embarrassing ego and antics, or several other topics that get my dander up, I do my best to deploy my limited rhetorical talents in a way that gets readers to share my disgust and/or outrage. If anybody running their eyes over those posts fails to grasp that I despise the people or actions that are in my crosshairs, then I have failed very, very badly. After all, when I check the thesaurus to make sure that I have exhausted every synonym of "stupid" or "wretched" or "evil" or "contemptible," I certainly hope that the point has been made.

But far more often, even when I'm criticizing and/or disagreeing with something or somebody, I feel no malice; I simply think that something that was said or done was wrong, and wish to explain why I think that. I have previously compared my sense of mission in such instances to that of the robot "Nomad" in an old Star Trek episode: to find and eradicate error. (As the currently popular joke puts it, "Somebody is wrong on the Internet!") My goal is to convey information, not to condemn in any moral or personal sense, nor to arouse any negative emotion in a reader. If I'm not feeling outrage, I don't have any motivation to trigger it in my readers.

Just before I left for a week's vacation with Cardgrrl, I wrote a post responding to something Very Josie had written about counting outs and estimating probabilities in poker. My intention was to set the record straight, not to be insulting or condemnatory--or, to return to the central word in today's post title, to be mean.

Shortly after publishing that post, I read an article in a poker magazine that made exactly the same mistake as Josie had, and so I whipped out a post about it just a couple of hours before I was to be leaving for the airport for my week away. Even though the error was the same, I was much harsher on the magazine columnist, for several reasons: He was writing for publication, which, in my mind, requires more care than a personal blog. He presumably has at least one editor, who should have noticed the problem. He describes himself as a poker teacher or coach, and says that he emphasizes the importance of math to his students. Finally, he took a rather haughty tone toward those who don't see basic poker math as being important. To have such a fundamental error of understanding of poker math under those circumstances strikes me as a far worse sin than having the same misconception as a recreational player, and my language reflected my sense of indignation and condemnation.**

I think that the sarcasm, the snarkiness, the sense of meanness in the latter post is self-evident. But I also think that the absence of such qualities in the first post is equally self-evident. In fact, I reread it just now and still don't see it as mean-spirited.

It was, therefore, quite a surprise and mystery to me when I started getting complaints about how I had been, well, mean to Josie. Commenters used words such as "painful," "harsh," and "crime of courtesy." Josie told me she felt I had been--here's that word again--mean, and that I had ridiculed her. She said she had received a number of emails sympathizing with how she had been "wronged." Even Cardgrrl mentioned that she was surprised Josie was still talking to me.

It's hard to describe how confused this makes me feel. How could I write something that to me felt completely neutral and dispassionate, lacking any of the markers that I deliberately include when I want to be mean, yet have it apparently come across to so many people as being vicious?

It's true that I didn't pad my criticism with softeners, such as starting with compliments then gently bringing up the points of disagreement, or qualifiers like "maybe" and "I think," nor did I hold open the possibility of this being a matter on which reasonable people might disagree, with language along the lines of "my opinion is..." or "I see it differently." I just said, in essence, here's what's wrong and here's what's right.

I don't see that as being mean. I neither felt nor intended readers to feel anything negative about the person who made the mistakes. I even started the post with an admission that I've made a whole bunch of mathematical errors in my posts--and I might as well expand that to having made all kinds of errors, not just mathematical ones. My readers point these out to me, sometimes gently, sometimes harshly. When I see that I've been wrong, my usual response is to acknowledge it, either in a comment or an addendum to the post or a whole new post revisiting the subject. I don't see this process--either having my mistakes pointed out or issuing some form of mea culpa and correction--as any big deal; it's just the way I've been taught that one should communicate in public forums.

One might certainly take issue with whether I should ever inject meanness into posts, even when I think the targets deserve being blasted with both barrels. I remember when I was a teenager and had one of my first letters to the editor published in the local newspaper. I was slamming somebody who had written about the evidence for UFOs, which I thought was ridiculous, and my language left no doubt about my feelings. My father, upon reading it, didn't commend me for my superior facts and reasoning, as I had thought he would. Instead, his reaction was, "You could have made your point just as well without being insulting." So if I were to be charged with being rhetorically heavy-handed sometimes when it isn't necessary, I'm afraid I would have to plead guilty to a very long roster of offenses.

But that's an aside, and fundamentally a different issue. What I'm talking about here is being perceived as having been mean when I had no such intention. That, too, is hardly unprecented, I'll admit. I have many times ruffled feathers when that wasn't my goal. It happens much more often in written communications than in person, perhaps because I'm at least averagely able to sense from nonverbal cues that something is amiss when I'm face to face, and can right away try to figure out where the message went wrong. In writing, though, I don't get the feedback telling me that I've accidentally stepped on a toe until the damage is done.

I'm sorry that I injured Josie's feelings and ticked off some of her friends. It was not my intention to either hurt or ridicule. I didn't even realize that my words could be read that way, since hurt and ridicule were not in my mind when I wrote. It should be clear from my previous posts that I genuinely like Josie (see, e.g., here and here and here and here and here). She's smart and funny and fun to be around. I hope that she will continue to consider me her friend, in spite of my failings and missteps.

*The word mean has several possible definitions, even when dealing with it solely as an adjective. I'm using it herein to broadly refer to the set of concepts in Definition 5b and 5c here, i.e., "characterized by petty selfishness or malice," "causing trouble or bother; vexatious."

**The second post also mentioned Josie in passing. The juxtaposition of seeing the same error in two places so close in time made me wonder if they were connected--specifically, I wondered whether Josie had read the poker magazine article, and that is why she had the same misunderstanding as its author. This speculation on my part annoyed her even more than my first post had. She commented, "Really? Now you think I'm plagarizing a dumb magazine article?" Not at all. Had I thought that the connection was suspicious of being conduct that I would find unethical, I would have said so explicitly (as I did when I wrote that I thought Josie acted more unethically than she was aware of when she agreed to soft-play a friend). For example, when I discovered that somebody had flagrantly plagiarized a friend's published column, I called the violator a "low-life scumbag" and a "scummy thief." That's not even remotely what I thought about the connection here. Even if I had known for sure that there was a cause-and-effect relationship, I would not have labeled it plagiarism. Learning for the first time some widely recognized concept and then restating it in one's own words without specific attribution is not, in my mind, plagiarism. If I assert that a flush beats a straight, I don't need to footnote where I first learned that. I also don't remember with confidence where I first learned the "rule of 4" shortcut that was the subject of both posts under discussion here. Maybe Phil Gordon in his commentary on "Celebrity Poker Showdown," but I'm not sure. It doesn't matter. The more widely known something is, the less need there is to point to any particular source when discussing it. Josie says that she never read the article in question, and I believe her. But even if she had, and even if that had been where she first learned that rule of thumb, I would have thought nothing wrong with not bothering to mention that fact when she decided to post about it.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Petroglyph National Monument

Cardgrrl and I spent yesterday afternoon wandering through one of the three main trails of the Petroglyph National Monument, just outside Albuquerque. See her observations here.

I uploaded a bunch of photos of the glyphs we saw here. (As the sun became very low, its color tricked the white balance on my stupid camera. The rocks are not actually blue. They are, in fact, mostly black, some dark brown.) Note that in a few spots some moron has come along and decided that these ancient pieces of art would make good targets for shooting at.

Back home tomorrow.