Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Michael Brenes's "For Might and Right"

Michael Brenes is Associate Director of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy and Lecturer in History at Yale University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, For Might and Right: Cold War Defense Spending and the Remaking of American Democracy, and reported the following:
From Page 99:
Some Cold War Democrats in Washington, D.C., also fought aggressively to defeat the [Limited Test Ban] treaty. Through their control of the Senate Preparedness Investigating Committee— a committee organized with the purpose of increasing military spending— Democratic Senator John Stennis from Mississippi and Thurmond held hearings where men like the hawkish General Curtis Lemay, who had close ties to the American Security Council, testified against the treaty. But the LTBT was approved in September 1963 by a Senate vote of 80–19, after being backed by considerable public support. The LTBT was unable to achieve a sustained détente between the Soviet Union and the United States during the 1960s, but it was a milestone in the Cold War. The treaty was the first major accord between the two super-powers in the postwar era whose intent was to ameliorate the arms race. For these reasons, the treaty’s opponents viewed its ratification as the beginning of a process that would culminate with a communist takeover of the United States.
Page 99 details the legislative outcome following the debate in the U.S. Congress to ratify the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT), which prohibited atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. The administration of John F. Kennedy proposed the LTBT as a measure to ease tensions with the United States and the Soviet Union following the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. The treaty followed ambitions for a failed “Open Skies” initiative by President Dwight Eisenhower in the mid-1950s that would have allowed the United States and Soviet Union to monitor (through aerial surveillance) nuclear production and planning in each other’s countries for the purposes of international transparency—and to limit the fear of mutual assured destruction (MAD) through nuclear war.

Divisions among Democrats over the LTBT represent a central tenet of my book: Democrats’ support for massive defense spending in the 1940s and 1950s to fight global communism largely benefited the Republican Right and its domestic and foreign policy agendas. For Might and Right is primarily about how a bi-partisan coalition of national actors collude to maintain and increase America’s defense budget for both ideological (in the case of right-wing politicians, Cold War liberals, anti-communist activists, and military personnel) and material reasons (which motivated workers and corporate executives in the defense industry, labor unions, and community boosters in towns that depended upon military contractors for jobs.) Because of the Kennedy administration’s efforts to reduce tensions and cut defense spending after the fallout from the Cuban Missile Crisis, anti-communist Democrats (like Stennis and Thurmond) gravitated further to the Right—and worked alongside conservatives and Republicans to maintain and expand America’s defense budget. These “Cold War Democrats” then justified their hawkish positions with arguments that cuts in the defense budget would increase unemployment and decrease economic growth in the United States. And a strong economy is needed for a robust national defense, they suggested. This argument was appropriated by the conservative Right in later years, particularly by Republicans like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, who as president in 1981 oversaw the largest increase in military spending since the Vietnam War, and a time when the country suffered from high unemployment and wage stagnation. Increased defense spending solved America’s problems at home and abroad, suggested Reagan.

Page 99, and the book overall, shows how the Cold War became a problem for Democrats once some of them tried to abandon defense spending without limits—which many Democrats, or Cold War liberals, still supported after the 1960s. Republicans rose to political power in the 1960s and 1970s by claiming that Democrats had turned their back on the economic stability and national security of Americans. Members of the GOP would be the ones to restore American might, to “make America great again”—or so they said.
Learn more about For Might and Right at the University of Massachusetts Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, January 25, 2021

David Pearson's "Rebel Music in the Triumphant Empire"

David Pearson is a music historian, saxophonist/composer, and educator. He is an adjunct assistant professor in the music department at Lehman College, and earned his Ph.D. in musicology from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. As a saxophonist, Pearson has performed modernist and contemporary classical, modal jazz, punk, rap, and more, and currently plays in the Afrofunk band Digital Diaspora.

Pearson applied the “Page 99 Test” to Rebel Music in the Triumphant Empire: Punk Rock in the 1990s United States, his first book, and reported the following:
Page 99 might not show everything my book is about, but it does highlight a central element: music analysis of punk, especially of the expressive nuances that made punk songs so meaningful to their audiences. This page comes towards the end of a chapter on punk as propaganda music, and this particular section is devoted to Naked Aggression, one of the seminal political punk bands of the 1990s. It starts in the middle of an analysis of the song “Revolt,” showing the band’s skill at concentrating the message down to a chant-like refrain and punktuating that refrain musically on multiple levels. Then it moves to an analysis of Naked Aggression’s “Religious Fools,” a somewhat atypical punk song in that it uses classical-guitar style figuration and melodious singing in the verses. In any event, the song rocks (check out the refrain!), and Naked Aggression’s musical tirades against Christian fundamentalism unfortunately remain quite relevant to today’s political situation.

From page 99:
Figure 2.23: Chorus and verse riffs from Naked Aggression, “Revolt”

power chord motion. Naked Aggression heightens the energy at the end of this already high-octane chorus by increasing the rhythmic motion of the riff, rapidly alternating D and C power chords under an even-rhythm chant of the typical punk sentiment, “We must resist authority.” The verses that follow (if verse is the right word here) use a similar strategy with a different musical feel. The KSA is cut in half, a tresillo-rhythm groove emerges, and the riff starts off more subdued by virtue of the palm-muted guitar. But in each verse, as the lyrics culminate in a repeated chant, the power chords ring out rather than being palm-muted on the pitch D that begins each bar, with the drums increasing in dynamics and activity for these chants. Thus each time the song’s message is boiled down to its simplest and direct form, the music is brought to a peak of intensity. While this simplicity of message risked becoming cliché, and Naked Aggression was criticized for this in some record reviews, the forward momentum leading to culmination in song structures, as well as expressive nuances such as slight variations in guitar strumming, are what made this simplicity effective as propaganda music.

Besides this reliance on simplicity and straightforward hardcore punk style, some songs delineated Naked Aggression from standard formulas by putting Phil Suchomel’s and Kirsten Patches’ backgrounds in classical music to use, with “Religious Lies” providing one salient example. The refrain section, shown in figure 2.24, displays the band’s propensity for cross-rhythmic groove, with its E-minor riff and vocal chant—“Re-li-gious fools want to con-trol our lives, fuck them!”—in a 3+3+3+3+2+2 rhythmic pattern.

The verses, by contrast, take on an entirely different character than the emphatic accents of the refrain, as shown in figure 2.25. While the bass plays an F♯ –D–E (i–♭VI–♭VII) progression accompanied by a drumbeat looser than that of the chorus and emphasizing the arrival of each new root, the guitar plays figuration betraying Phil Suchomel’s training in classical guitar. Rather than yelling, Kirsten Patches uses a softer timbre that she would have cultivated in her choir days and delivers each vocal line with far more melodic motion than is the norm in punk (when punk vocalists do “sing,” they usually just follow the root motion). In this and prior examples, Naked Aggression used changes in key and distinctions between major and minor chords in a way far different from most punk bands, with different sections in contrasting keys, the guitar figuration providing clear major or
One of the great joys of writing this book was that I interviewed a few punk musicians, including the vocalist of Naked Aggression, Kirsten Patches. Their words and ideas became central to the narrative of the book, alongside lots of quotes from punk zines. It was tremendous fun going back to the music after I had done my interviews, transcribing the guitar riffs, and thinking about how the musical details were part of punk conceptions of how to convey a strident message. The idea of “propaganda music” is generally considered in the negative sense in the United States, largely owing to Cold War narratives. But in punk, there was a very real sense of trying to come at people with a strong political message and move audiences to act on those political messages. I hope my music analysis conveys a sense of how much thought and heart went into these songs, and that people who love this music like I do will appreciate my explanations of what makes these punk songs connect with us on a visceral level.
Visit David Pearson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Jeffrey C. Sanders's "Razing Kids"

Jeffrey C. Sanders is Associate Professor in the Department of History, Washington State University. He is the author of Seattle and the Roots of Urban Sustainability: Inventing Ecotopia (2010).

Sanders applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Razing Kids: Youth, Environment, and the Postwar American West, and reported the following:
Page 99 briefly recounts the history of the famous St. Louis “baby tooth” study organized by Washington University’s Dr. Louise Reese and the Greater St. Louis Citizen Committee for Nuclear Information. This example captures many of the key themes of Razing Kids. At a time when the US government was less than honest about the risks posed by continued testing of nuclear bombs in the desert Southwest and the Pacific Proving ground during the Cold War, the study invited families to donate their children’s teeth so that researchers could establish a baseline of data about the level of dangerous and cancer-causing radioactive strontium 90 in the bodies of children. The study drew attention to hinterland test sites in the West, but also helped to inspire citizen scientists and political activists in the West and throughout the United States as they built a case for the limited Test Ban Treaty. As baby boomer children came to embody environmental risks, these activists helped to build a constituency that fought to end atmospheric nuclear testing and help to build a postwar environmental movement.

While Razing Kids mostly emphasizes people, places, and events in the western united states, page 99 describes events in St. Louis. But the test works perfectly for capturing the book’s key themes explaining the way environmental history often shows the relationships between places, people, and ideas that may seem regionally distinct but are in fact connected to national and even global issues.

After World War II, people living in the United States reconceived their relationship to the environment and to youth. With this book I argue that this was no coincidence. These developments were inextricable. With the double meaning in the title – Razing Kids – I hope to capture the central and contradictory role that children played in the development of both heightened environmental concerns and increasing environmental inequality after the war. To raise healthy youth in an era that supposedly elevated children and family also seemed to require razing, or at least neglecting, the environments and health of some youth so that others could thrive. This contradiction centered on youth and deepened during the twentieth century. The postwar American West showcased this dynamic at different scales. I show how workers, policy makers, and reformers linked their anxieties about youth to environmental risks as they debated wartime housing developments; worried about the impact of radioactive particles released from distant hinterlands; or obsessed over how riot-riddled cities, rural work camps, and pesticide-laden farms would affect children.
Learn more about Razing Kids at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, January 23, 2021

William Sites's "Sun Ra’s Chicago"

William Sites is associate professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago and the author of Remaking New York: Primitive Globalization and the Politics of Urban Community.

Sites applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book Sun Ra’s Chicago: Afrofuturism and the City, and reported the following:
Page 99 comes early in Chapter 5 of the book, where I analyze the urban context and hermeneutic import of a set of writings from the early 1950s by Sun Ra and his colleagues in the Thmei Research group. In this sense, the test effectively drops the reader into an intellectual world that does much to illuminate Ra’s music to come. These texts, or polemical broadsheets, take the form of fifty typed sheets of paper that at first glance offer a series of disconnected and obscure religious commentaries on race and the Bible. Close reading, however, reveals a quite coherent – if deeply disturbing – vision of postwar black Chicago as a world in spiritual and cultural crisis, the catastrophic legacy of a multi-millennial racial lie that can only be exposed through creative re-readings of Biblical scripture:
The broadsheets are harshly dismissive of the conventional forms of black communal striving and self-assertion in the postwar American metropolis. The respectable term ‘Negro,’ for example, is here associated— via the quasi-biblical etymologies typical of these writings— not with race pride but with racial death.
Question: Does the Bible contain anything about the Negro?

Answer: Yes. Jesus said, “Let the Negro bury the Negro.” . . . Unfortunately for the Negro the word Negro means dead body . . . The Cemetery itself is named after the word Negro: Necropolis or City of the dead. The word Niger is a Latin word meaning Black and Simon the Apostle upon whom the Church was built was called Niger because he was a Black Man.

Question: Is it better to be a Negro or a Niger?

Answer: Negro means dead body . . . Niger means black . . . If you like death and like being one of the Living dead then call yourself a Negro and continue to be rejected by the world as firstclass citizens.
Elsewhere in the broadsheets, the African Americans of the early postwar city are seen as lost beings: ‘THEY HATE THE THOUGHT OF BEING WHAT THEY ARE . . . THEY WANT TO BE WHITE RATHER THAN THE BLACK AND BROWN THAT GOD MADE THEM.’ Lost souls, they are compared to the residents of the fallen biblical cities of Babylon and Tophet, oblivious to their own imminent destruction.
The chapter goes on to investigate how these texts and their themes emerged from a heterodox religious milieu centered in Washington Park on Chicago’s South Side, where various black nationalist, Ethiopianist and Orientalist understandings of history became the intellectual raw material for the Thmei group’s iconoclastic vision of racial oppression and African American emancipation. In subsequent chapters, I explore how Sun Ra later in the decade carried this critical-utopian sensibility into musical performance and creative cosmology. Drawing from the community’s religious counterculture to reimagine the musical traditions of South Side nightlife culture, Ra and the Arkestra – a jazz ensemble that melded swing, bebop, blues, Latin dance music, Africanist percussion, pop exotica, space chant and more – increasingly offered themselves to local audiences as interplanetary emissaries from an ideal future. Sun Ra, refusing the oppressive reality of a shadow world on Earth, promised an entirely new, black-centered civilization in outer space.

The modern city, and postwar Chicago in particular, loomed large as inspiration for Sun Ra’s space vision. Much like earlier utopians from Sir Thomas More to Le Corbusier, Ra found in the city – in his case its black public spaces, its dynamism, its endless appetite for serious entertainment – the stimulant for his own notion of an African space world where ancient past and technological future might come together. Filled with new and unsettling sounds yet old songs too in reimagined settings, Sun Ra’s utopian music imparted a double existence to the streets and trains of Chicago, mingling the immediate experience of daily life with dreams of other, better worlds. Sun Ra’s Chicago, by exploring its protagonist’s urban spaces and places, reconstructs the social and cultural grounding of a musical imagination that gave expressive shape to twentieth-century Afrofuturism.
Learn more about Sun Ra’s Chicago at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, January 22, 2021

Charles Kenny's "The Plague Cycle"

Charles Kenny is a writer-researcher at the Center for Global Development and has worked on policy reforms in global health as well as UN peacekeeping and combating international financial corruption. Previously, he spent fifteen years as an economist at the World Bank, travelling the planet from Baghdad and Kabul to Brasilia and Beijing. He is the author of The Plague Cycle: The Unending War Between Humanity and Infectious Disease, Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding and How We Can Improve the World Even More, and The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest Is Great for the West. He earned a history degree at Cambridge and has graduate degrees from Johns Hopkins, the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and Cambridge.

Kenny applied the “Page 99 Test” to The Plague Cycle and reported the following:
Page 99 is the opening of The Plague Cycle’s sixth chapter on the history of sanitation, “Cleaning Up.” It introduces the instinctual and behavioral response to stay clean to avoid infection, discussing the fact that high status apes get the best grooming services. And it reports on recent academic studies linking the spiciness of cuisines to the burden of infectious diseases where they developed (Norwegian cooking: bland, Mexican cooking: hot). I hope that gives a good taste of the whole: the book is meant to be an accessible, enjoyable account of humanity’s struggle with infectious disease that is grounded in the latest research.

The chapter discusses sewage systems from the 5,000 year old network in Mohenjo Daro in modern day Pakistan through the efforts to clean up London during the Black Death to the massive infrastructure and workforce that underpins sanitation in today’s New York City. And it is a reminder that a lot of the techniques we’ve needed to control infectious disease are both very old and still very much under-utilized.

While medical technologies like vaccinations and antibiotics have allowed megacities to grow even in places where sewage networks, trash trucks and sanitary inspectors are underfunded and underdeveloped, the infectious threat lingers when we don’t clean up. Children are much more likely to be infested with worms or to come down with a deadly case of diarrhea. The food and water that people consume is more likely to harbor microbes from cholera to campylobacter. If they are unsanitary, factory farms are more likely to spawn a new disease that could jump species --like Nipah virus did from pigs or measles from cattle.

And Covid-19 has brought back into fashion some long-utilized sanitary techniques. I discuss in the book that while Marco Polo was in China he attended a banquet at which the waiters had “their mouths and noses swathed in fine napkins of silk and gold, so that the food and drink are not contaminated by their breath or effluence.” It is another a sign that for all the technological progress we’ve made against infectious disease over the past hundred years, we could still benefit a lot more from everyone using ancient approaches from social distancing through tracing and isolating the sick.
Visit Charles Kenny's blog and learn about his six favorite books.

The Page 99 Test: The Upside of Down.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Heath Brown's "Homeschooling the Right"

Heath Brown is an associate professor of public policy at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, and the CUNY Graduate Center. He has worked at the US Congressional Budget Office as a Research Fellow, at the American Bus Association as a Policy Assistant, and at the Council of Graduate Schools as Research and Policy Director.

Brown applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Homeschooling the Right: How Conservative Education Activism Erodes the State, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Homeschooling the Right contains a table that shows how state homeschooling laws vary from tightly regulated to largely unregulated in comparison to how charter school laws vary. So, for example, Arkansas has a low regulation homeschool law but a high regulation charter school law, while Pennsylvania has a higher regulation homeschool law and a low regulation charter school law. In Pennsylvania, parents are required to have a high school diploma to be a homeschool teachers whereas in Arkansas there are no minimum education requirements.

A reader would get a very good idea of the whole work. One of the central arguments of the book is that these two school choice policies, homeschooling and charter schooling, that appear so similar actually function very differently. This is the result of very different coalitions of supporters of each policy, but also the consequence of the design of each, homeschooling which allows near total freedom to parents, even in a high regulation state, compared to charter schooling which remains largely embedded in the public school system. Page 99 shows this contrast in a clear way that a reader would appreciate the longer argument of the book without even reading another page.

If you read just page 99 of the book, you'd understand an analysis later in the book about the relationship between homeschool organizations and public policy. What makes homeschooling policy so unique is that it has created this vast network of state and local organizations, providing everything from curricular help, teacher mentoring, and lobbying. This is because the laws are designed to disconnect homeschool parents from many of the services they'd receive from a conventional public school. In contrast, charter schools remain connected to the public school system, so parents have fewer needs to be filled and are lest apt to form organizations.

This matters in the book because it seems like it is related to the state laws that I summarize on page 99. I find that homeschool organizations are more numerous in low-regulation states compared to high-regulation states. Arkansas, a low-regulation state, has around five homeschool organizations per 100 students, while Pennsylvania, a high-regulation state, has just under two.

It is this dense network of homeschooling organizations that has sustained the policy overtime, allowed homeschool activists to exert pressure on state legislators, and even to influence presidential campaigns. These are political dynamics largely absent from charter school politics, also because homeschoolers have faced much less organized opposition than charter school advocates, who confront strong opposition at every turn.
Learn more about Homeschooling the Right at the Columbia University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Immigrants and Electoral Politics.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Susan Lee Johnson's "Writing Kit Carson"

Susan Lee Johnson is the Harry Reid Endowed Chair for the History of the Intermountain West at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Writing Kit Carson: Fallen Heroes in a Changing West, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Writing Kit Carson makes sense of the book’s subtitle, Fallen Heroes in a Changing West. The book as a whole weaves the life stories of two obscure white women, nonprofessional historians, who researched and wrote about the frontiersman Christopher “Kit” Carson in the 1960s and 70s just as western folk heroes like Carson were tumbling from their pedestals. Both Quantrille McClung and Bernice Blackwelder were westerners themselves, having grown up in Colorado and Kansas, respectively, and the book reveals how their origins shaped the histories they wrote. It explores the relationship between women historians and male historical subjects and between academic and amateur historians during an era when the field of western history professionalized: Blackwelder and McClung published on Carson in 1962, the same year that the Western History Association was founded. The book also examines the seductions of gender in the context of racialized power—how white women have given gendered selfhood shelter, letting their racial selves run wild, untended and too often malign. Underneath these stories runs a current of thought about how what we know about the past depends on the conditions of our knowing. Necessarily, then, I’m also a character in the book, not an omniscient observer, since my own production of historical knowledge, my own relationship to the West and its once-celebrated pioneers, must be at issue as I examine those of McClung and Blackwelder.

Page 99 marks a crucial turning point because it begins my narration of Kit Carson’s fall from grace, which followed the publication of Blackwelder and McClung’s work. While criticism of Carson had long circulated in Indigenous and ethnic Mexican communities, given his role in American Indian dispossession and in the U.S. conquest of the Mexican North, now those criticisms burst onto a wider stage, prompted first by an Indigenous anthropologist’s complaints about a Carson portrait displayed in a Colorado College ROTC exhibit and then by the campaign of a Mexican American civil rights group to change the name of Kit Carson Memorial State Park, in Taos, New Mexico, to Santiago Lujan Memorial State Park, which would honor a Native soldier from Taos Pueblo who perished in World War II. On page 99, I explain that even though “the decline in Carson’s reputation was a century in the making,” it was “the effects of political gravity that pulled him down to earth . . . in the 1970s.” But the gravitational pull did not originate in the Navajo Nation, which had “the gravest historical grievance against Carson, given his role in the brutal 1863-64 Navajo campaign conducted by the U.S. Army,” a campaign that ended in the Long Walk of the Diné to a reservation far from home. Instead, I explain on the following page, “the outcry against [Carson] arose along a corridor that he had known well, stretching from the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado south into the Sangre de Cristos in New Mexico.” The response of both professional and nonprofessional western historians to this outcry, including the reaction of McClung and Blackwelder, and the way social movements more generally shaped the field of western history going forward, inform my arguments about how we know what we know about the past and how that knowledge is shaped by the conditions of our knowing. While scholars have considered such questions, I contend that critical and reflexive biography allows us to ask questions about identity and subjectivity, about knowledge and politics, more difficult to pose in traditional hyperopic histories.
Learn more about Writing Kit Carson at the University of North Carolina Press.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Aaron Passell's "Preserving Neighborhoods"

Aaron Passell is associate director of the Urban Studies Program at Barnard College, Columbia University. He is also the author of Building the New Urbanism: Places, Professions, and Profits in the American Metropolitan Landscape (2013).

Passell applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Preserving Neighborhoods: How Urban Policy and Community Strategy Shape Baltimore and Brooklyn, and reported the following:
Much of the page is taken up by a graph showing the steadily and significantly increasing White population of central Brooklyn, New York, between 2000 and 2015 (from about 5% to about 25%). I argue, following Sampson (2012), that this is a comparatively rare case of gentrification occurring in much the way that neighborhood activists fear it will, with working and middle-class Black residents displaced by upper-middle class Whites.

The Page 99 Test would mislead readers about Preserving Neighborhoods. It points to a case of gentrification in the long-time Black neighborhoods of central Brooklyn, but misses the point of my research which is about how local activists use historic preservation regulation to mitigate this process in Brooklyn. It also misses the radical contrast – a kind of most-different case comparison – with Baltimore and how preservation regulation has been used there to encourage neighborhood revitalization. Historic preservation, neighborhood change, and the relationship between the two all operate differently in the context of different degrees of development pressure (rapid growth vs. decades of shrinkage).

Page 99 presents evidence of neighborhood change, but does nothing to reveal the underlying processes. The intention of the book is to unpack these processes and to complicate our understanding of them, indicating how diverse they can be from city to city, even neighborhood to neighborhood. I show that historic district designation can be a mechanism for neighborhood change, but that it should not be mistaken for a uniform influence. Not only do preservation efforts function differently in different contexts, but their most significant contribution may be indirect, as a form of community-building, rather than simply saving the built environment.
Visit Aaron Passell's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, January 18, 2021

Susan B. Levin's "Posthuman Bliss?"

Susan B. Levin is Roe/Straut Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Philosophy at Smith College. In addition to numerous articles in both bioethics and ancient Greek philosophy, she previously published two books in the latter area.

Levin applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Posthuman Bliss? The Failed Promise of Transhumanism, and reported the following:
Page 99 falls within my scientific challenge to Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu’s claim that the exogenous addition of serotonin could be a pillar of a universal program of bioenhancement intended to augment two moral attitudes: altruism and our “sense of justice.”

In Unfit for the Future, they worry that if there exists “too much pessimism about the possibility of moral bioenhancement,” it may be “prematurely dropped” from consideration as a promising research project. Therefore, Persson and Savulescu promise to show “how moral behaviour can be influenced by biomedical means in order to demonstrate that moral bioenhancement is not just a theoretical possibility, but has been practised.” They fail to distinguish between the uncontroversial claim that biotechnological measures may affect behavior, in some fashion or other, and the far stronger assertion that such measures could improve character itself in precisely the ways that the success of their program required.

On thin, evolutionary-psychological grounds, Persson and Savulescu maintain that altruism and “a sense of justice” belong already to our biological constitution. As a result, these moral attitudes could, purportedly, be strengthened through neurobiological and genetic manipulation. Page 99 occurs in the section of Chapter 3 where I argue that they fail to provide practical proof of concept for moral bioenhancement. The case studies that anchor my refutation of Persson and Savulescu’s claim to have offered precisely this involve two neurotransmitters, oxytocin and serotonin, and genetic considerations centered on genes’ nuanced and indirect relationship to complex phenotypic traits, such as kindness, trust, and aggressiveness.

In the ensuing section of Chapter 3, I show that their attempt to provide theoretical proof of concept for moral bioenhancement also fails. It becomes crystal clear that their failure on the practical side is no accident: whether the focus is moral or cognitive bioenhancement—the top priority of transhumanists overall—humans are simply not neurobiologically or genetically constituted such that they could be manipulated in the ways that transhumanists insist will eventuate if we but commit adequate resources to the endeavor.

Page 99, on serotonin, illustrates a misconstruction of human biology that plagues transhumanist argumentation for bioenhancement across the board. Although the immediate focus of page 99 is quite specific, it instantiates one of the book’s prominent themes: that transhumanists’ aggressive biotechnological agenda ignores humans’ neurobiological and genetic complexity. Embracing that agenda would produce, not the lofty elevation they tout, but human ruination.
Learn more about Posthuman Bliss? at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Noah Wardrip-Fruin's "How Pac-Man Eats"

Noah Wardrip-Fruin is Professor of Computational Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he codirects the Expressive Intelligence Studio. He is the author of Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies.

Wardrip-Fruin applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, How Pac-Man Eats, and reported the following:
In How Pac-Man Eats, the top of page 99 is a full-width image. At first glance it might appear to be a game screenshot, but on closer examination it’s a composite, showing an artist-made character skin posed both at street level and on a rooftop in the game Grand Theft Auto III.

The composite is made from Jim Munroe’s video, “My Trip to Liberty City.” Page 99 picks up after I have quoted the first line of the video’s voice-over, “Mm-kay. This is just some of the video from my trip to Liberty City.” From there it continues:
One of the first things that Munroe’s character does is refuse the game’s mission system. He’s asked to “introduce a bat” to the face of another criminal, and Munroe reflects: “You know, I just didn’t feel like it. It was a great day, it was beautiful out, the sun was shining. And I don’t even play baseball. Much less, you know, want to kill someone with a baseball bat.”

He changes the game’s avatar into a “Canadian Tourist” skin, so as not to confuse anyone else by having a thug-like appearance.

Next, Munroe’s character refuses driving. While everyone’s heard of all the cars in Grand Theft Auto, he feels like the best way to get to know a city is to walk around on foot. He demonstrates the beauty one can find by walking up to a rooftop—pointedly ignoring the valuable hidden package spinning at its top—and takes in the almost-setting sun and the street scene below. Then he notices a distant stand of trees that may be a park.

Back at street level he tries to “ask directions” to the park but finds an impolite response from everyone he meets (as GTA III players know, there is no way to ask anyone anything, only a way to bump into them). He tries to take in the natural beauty, but falls in the water and ends up at the hospital. On the way home he tries to catch a cab, but they all pull away (as GTA III players know, it is because he refuses to engage the carjacking mechanic), leaving him behind.
In the case of How Pac-Man Eats, the page 99 test finds a key example, but other pages must be read to understand why it is key. At this point I’m discussing the idea that video game players are most interesting when they are not doing what game designers expect of them. They may be opting out of the apparent rules or inventing new, creative modes of playful engagement with games. I’m asking: What are players really doing in these cases?

To answer that requires a step back. How Pac-Man Eats argues that we have consistently mis-identified the fundamental elements of video games. Most discussions of game fundamentals focus on “mechanics”—the things players are invited to do. I argue that mechanics are themselves supported by a set of “operational logics,” which enable things such as player control, object collision, and resource accumulation and expenditure. These logics are fundamental elements of “playable models,” the procedural representations through which we experience games’ physical space, combat, character progression, and more.

When you’re focused on mechanics, “My Trip to Liberty City” looks like someone refusing everything the game invites them to do. But How Pac-Man Eats argues that even if players are ignoring the high-level rules and expectations built into the game design, even if players are refusing the core mechanics meant to be at the center of the gameplay experience, these same players are deeply engaging the game’s logics and models. Munroe’s rooftop visit is a celebration of GTA III’s spatial movement model, while refusing to be motivated by the “rewards” meant to entice movement. In a later part of the video, to earn money again after his unfortunate hospitalization (no Canadian socialized medicine in Liberty City), he decides to try street busking. This involves “miming” by triggering the animations of the combat model without a target. That is, he exploits aspects of the combat model, while refusing to employ the mechanics it supports.

In short, this example helps reveal how logics and models help us understand what players are doing and how games respond, no matter how players approach games. Even if, as players, we choose not to address the problems the designers imagined us solving, or choose to deliberately subvert them, our play is always grounded in the environment defined by the logics and models.
Learn more about How Pac-Man Eats at the MIT Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue