polarity problems

Red alert, day 73. Lockdown, day 63.

Here’s a more durable excerpt from the autobiography of Warren Weaver, the science administrator discussed yesterday. Relevant to studies of qualia and evaluation/Appraisal:

[I have had a lifelong curiosity] about the magnitude of the range of “goodness” possible to various objects or procedures. For example, there are some things (I would offer cheese, whisky, movies, and peanut butter as excellent instances) of which I consider that all examples are good. Some, to be sure, are better than others, and the best can be superb; but none is unacceptably bad.

On the other hand there are interesting objects or procedures which range over a spectacular spectrum of goodness, ranging all the way from unspeakably bad to almost indescribably good. They maximize, as a mathematician would say, the ratio of the goodness of the best examples to the badness of the worst. In this category I would, for instance, place martinis. … These parenthetic remarks are stimulated by the mention, just above, of violin playing. For I think this the ultimate illustration of a procedure with the maximum range from best to worst. I am unable to think of anything more heavenly at its best and more punishing and terrible at its worst.

In my experience, Asian food is pretty much always good, but nouvelle cuisine and technical foods can be horrible. I have only ever eaten these at business lunches and dinners (something I don’t miss about the roaring ’80s and the roaring ’00s), the nadir of which was a celery granita in a Southwark lab food restaurant near the Symbian Foundation.

With films, the experience of immersion in watching large images is generally enjoyable independent of the content, with the exception of forced viewing as in A Clockwork Orange. There is some kind of coherence, even in jump cuts and jerky action. On the other hand, there is something about the stop-and-start quality of musical practice that is excruciating. This is true even of high level musical practice, as I found out from living with conservatory students in New York. The flow is always being interrupted. The same phenomenon is what makes technical problems on Zoom so hard to bear, and also computer problems in general. When I replace this machine, which has 4GB of memory, with one that has 8GB, I too will probably double my brain capacity from not having to wait for buffering.

When you are really starved for reading, all reading material is good (the proverbial cereal box, the value of books in prisons), but as choice increases you can become infinitely demanding. In going through 150 years of newspapers for my PhD work, it was clear that ideas of quality developed with the availability of print. Early 19th century readers got snippets that were often repetitious (five separate stories with essentially the same content rather than a wrap), or else long-winded descriptions and speech transcripts. There were no reporting standards, so we don’t know how much the stories resembled events or in what ways they might have diverged. And it was all the news they had. Now the information has to unroll at exactly the right pace, as well as being efficiently organized for skimming. News features and tabloid news are expected to be emotionally exciting as well.

This passage also reminds me of Lili Loufbourrow’s 2018 essay on the different scales underlying male and female descriptions of sex. Based on medical as well as anecdotal evidence, she suggests the male experience of sex falls into Weaver’s first category – always at least somewhat good – and the female experience into the second. This is a difference theory that explains many problems in law and everyday equity.

Posted on by Diana ben-Aaron
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