7 Quick Takes (6/21/13)

— 1 —

The Monsters Inc prequel comes out today, and I’ve been super-dubious about it for a long time.  Pixar has broken my heart recently (especially with Brave), and the plot of scrappy underdogs bands together with popular enemy and wins college seemed a lot more cliche than the original story.  But then I read this io9 feature on some of the choices the animators made, and now I’m totally enraptured.  For example:

“Monsterfication” is the word the design team used to describe the aesthetic of the Monsters University world. Sets art director Robert Kondo explains that the movie’s designers constantly asked themselves, “What would it be like to be a monster architect?” Some of the design challenges in creating the MU campus were practical. For example, since monsters come in all sizes, from Mike Wazowski through the giant football-playing slug creature, how do monster doors work? If you look closely at the campus buildings, you’ll notice doors within doors. There are smaller doors with handles the smaller monsters can reach, framed by larger and larger doors. Even the stairs and drinking fountains are designed for monsters of varying sizes. Plus, flying monsters don’t have to enter some buildings on the ground floor, instead landing on perches outside the top floor windows. Aquatic monsters have their own, submerged portions of campus.

— 2 —

And if you want to be enthused about the process of world and character building, you’ll probably like Eliezer Yudkowsky’s essay “How to Write Deep Characters.”

A good rule of thumb is that to create a 3D character, that person must contain at least two different 2D characters who come into conflict. Contrary to the first thought that crosses your mind, three-dimensional good people are constructed by combining at least two different good people with two different ideals, not by combining a good person and a bad person. Deep sympathetic characters have two sympathetic parts in conflict, not a sympathetic part in conflict with an unsympathetic part. Deep smart characters are created by combining at least two different people who are geniuses.

E.g. HPMOR!Hermione contains both a sensible young girl who tries to keep herself and her friends out of trouble, and a starry-eyed heroine, neither of whom are stupid.  (Actually, since HPMOR!Hermione is also the one character who I created as close to her canon self as I could manage – she didn’t *need* upgrading – I should credit this one to J. K. Rowling.)

And if you want to know some of what Yudkowsky knows about writing science fiction and fantasy, you should check out Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.  Yudkowsky cites it, and non-author me just had a very enjoyable reread of it on the way to the airport.

— 3 —

In real life, it’s been my privilege to know a great number of enjoyable characters.  And one of them is the Secular Students Association Communications Director Jesse Galef.  Previously, he sorted his books into the four Hogwarts Houses, and shelved them accordingly, and now, he’s explained why you should precommit to eating any cupcakes you have the ability and desire to eat.  His post is a nice, lay introduction to three popular frameworks for decision theory, and his reasoning is too, well, delicious to spoil here.

— 4 —

Over at The American Scholar, there’s an interesting memoir-essay by a survivor of the Burundi civil war, who is baffled and horrified by his American classmates love of first person shooter video games.  It’s ultimately an essay about the power of the stories we tell — what gets normalized, how do we make new experiences fit into the arcs and genres we’re accustomed to?  But I’m also interested by the way the narrator also reasons by analogy and stories, understanding his new friends by looking for analogues in the cast of characters he grew up with.

— 5 —

Since I was blogging on empathy (the ability to bring others to life in our heads as deep, accurate characters), I have to link to io9’s roundup of empathy research (with a special focus on how we could possibly increase our susceptibility).  But some of the findings surprised me:

What Chakrabarti and his colleagues found was that if you were asked whether your best friend should have a candy bar now or $100 next week, you were likely to make a similar choice to the one you’d make for yourself. But if you were trying to decide for a total stranger, especially someone from a different group, you’d be more likely to choose the immediate reward instead of the bigger reward later on. This isn’t just because you want the stranger to be ripped off — it’s because you have less empathy for the stranger, and thus have a harder time imagining the future reward materializing for him or her.

I would have predicted that I’d be more likely to not hyperbolically discount for a stranger, since both rewards were so far removed from me that I could think about both of them as time-independent.  Huh.

— 6 —

Oh, and I did manage to sneak a link to a Matilda song in my post on rule-breaking to learn, which is all the excuse I need to stick in my favorite song from that musical (“When I Grow Up”).

— 7 —

And finally, I’ll be emailing everyone today who signed up to play in the Ideological Turing Test, to let them know if they’ve been selected.  (I want a fair amount of diversity on both teams).  While you wait for them to write their essays on sex and death, you may want to check out this historical ideological turing test that Bryan Caplan spotted.

Dawes, Singer, and Lemons (1972)… recruited students who were “hawks” and “doves” with regard to the Vietnam War and asked them to write opinion statements that the typical dove on campus as well as the typical hawk on campus would endorse.  Then they recruited a second group of hawks and doves, asked the hawks to agree or disagree with the hawk statements written by hawks and doves, and asked doves to agree or disagree with dove statements written by hawks and doves.  Hawks rejected more hawk statements written by doves than hawk statements written by hawks, and doves rejected more dove statements written by hawks than dove statements written by doves.  Both hawks and doves rejected statements mostly on the grounds that they were too extreme.


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  • emd04

    Wait, wait, what didn’t you like about Brave?! (Yes, I’m sorry, out of all the quick takes, this is where my mind goes. To the Disney.)

    • Erick

      I can’t fathom anyone disliking Brave…. I loved it!

      • emd04

        Me neither, so I have to KNOW.

        • Ingrid

          Just as an aside, Brave is not a Pixar production, but a Disney one. It just happens to be produced by one of the executives at Pixar.

    • Beadgirl

      I came here to ask the same question! I loved Brave, and so did Beadboy2.

    • Mariana Baca

      I am wondering, too. I enjoyed the movie. Not the most “pixar” movie ever, but I didn’t find it problematic. Just not a bizarre enough concept/world?

      • emd04

        Apparently we ALL MUST KNOW. 🙂

    • LeahLibresco

      I thought the ‘not marry anyone’ solution was contrived, and it also didn’t make sense that the solution still ended up playing to Merida’s strengths. When she was breaking out of the house, instead of doing the one required thing (mending the tapestry), I assumed she was supposed to learn that the talent you love isn’t always the talent that’s needed. But this never developed.

      • emd04

        Originally, she was going to marry one of them. (I think the big one no one could understand….blanking on the name.) Cut that part. Presumably for sequel potential? Not sure. I think if she still would have married someone despite the scene in the hall where she does her Big Speech, that might have seemed more contrived. Like, Oh, I’m in love with you RIGHT NOW!
        I didn’t necessarily have a problem with the “mending the tapestry” thing, because that fit with the whole mother/daughter reconciliation thing- it really hits Merida, finally, what she’s done, that she may have done this to her mother because she basically threw a temper tantrum. I don’t think you have the payoff without it.

        • Martha O’Keeffe

          Yes, and the way she jumps to the conclusion that “If I do X, that will undo Y” – that is, all she had to do was carry out the process of mending the tapestry as the condition of undoing the spell, and it wasn’t that at all; that is, it wasn’t mending the physical tapestry that undid it, but what the tapestry symbolised.

      • Martha O’Keeffe

        What confused me about it was I (a) couldn’t quite figure out how old Merida was supposed to be – fifteen? eighteen? That makes a difference when it comes to marriage and (b) that she seemingly had no idea at all about either having to make a dynastic marriage or that this was going to happen now – I’m fairly sure her parents must have mentioned it as what was going to happen, and they surely gave some indication that “Okay, now you’re of age, the duty is upon you”.
        What I did love was that the witch/woodcarver’s bear obsession was so clearly signposted that in hindsight of course her spell was going to turn the mother into a bear. If you asked her for a wart cure, she’d do it by turning you into a bear 🙂

        • Dillon T. McCameron

          Yes! I didn’t connect the ursine dots until my second viewing, but it’s now my favorite part. ^_^

  • emd04

    This is very true. You see this all the time in medicine, especially transplant medicine. As a doctor, you are close to your patients, but you know that you can’t give them organs that won’t match/work/be suitable for the candidate, as much as you want to save their lives.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    I hope if I’m selected for the ideological Turing Test, the e-mail will remind me which team I’m supposed to be writing for, as I no longer remember what the two teams are supposed to be, and I’ve done enough comparative religion study (including atheism and a huge variety of Christian, Buddhist, and Islamic sects, plus a variety of smaller more primitive peoples) that I may get them confused.

  • Mariana Baca

    for the cupcake one — that assumes that the task is more important than the negative effects of eating cupcakes or that the task doesn’t conflict with cupcake eating. Obviously if your task is losing 5 pounds, giving into cupcake eating is not the right decision, (even if you count the cupcake calories, it might make suboptimal food rationing). Or, if your task is to read a boring paper tonight without falling asleep, cupcake might give you food coma. Or maybe it is more important to stick to your diet/not get into fight with coworkers over cupcakes/don’t spend too much on cupcakes/etc. than making sure you check in your code that night. I mean, you are making the decision to forgo cupcakes *for a reason* — nobody forgoes cupcakes for no reason. It stands to argue that the willpower cost is sometimes worth it if the reason is worth it. I feel that the article assumes we are just forgoing cupcakes as some sort of monastic training exercise — most people are not in that boat.

    • Martha O’Keeffe

      Assuming you are not trying to lose weight or for health reasons have to avoid sugary foods, then pre-committing to eating the cupcake whenever it’s offered (and not as an occasional treat) – for example, choice between piece of fruit and cupcake? Take cupcake! – all the time, that’s not going to be good for your health in the long run.

      That goes for all kinds of treats (not just cupcakes) and indulgences – there’s a reason our mothers all told us “Eat your vegetables first, then you can have your dessert”. Sometimes you do have to work on that boring task before you can do that pleasurable pastime, and not leave it to the last minute.

  • Alexander Stanislav

    I haven’t received an e-mail about the Turing test yet.

    • Alexander Stanislav

      Still no e-mail, have you sent them out?

  • grok87

    I loved “When I grow up” from Matilda!

    Re empathy and hyperbolic discounting, I think besides the lack of empathy for the stranger, another part of the problem Is that we are not likely to be in contact with the stranger in  the future. So we are “present-minded” with regard to the stranger and we hyperbolically discount. 

    Today’s epistle, Galatians 3, Talks about breaking down the walls between strangers and also addresses the hyperbolic discounting.

    “Brothers and sisters: Through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
    And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendant,
    heirs according to the promise.”

    Since we are not strangers but brothers and sisters in Christ, our empathy for each other should increase. And since we are all “heirs according to the promise” (of eternal life) we will be in contact with each other forever. So we should be less “present minded” toward each other, less likely to hyperbolically discount the good we might do for each other. As the Gospels says “store up your treasure in Heaven” (Matthew 6).