Sunday, January 10, 2016

Jessica Jones: How does Kilgrave's ability work?

Warning: Spoilers below

My girlfriend and I have been watching and enjoying the first season of Jessica Jones.  Jessica Jones is cut from the crime drama, suspense-thriller cloth.  The protagonist of the is Jessica Jones, a private investigator who suffers from PTSD as a result of being enthralled by the primary antagonist of the show, simply known as "Kilgrave." 

The show takes its source material from the comic book heroine of the same name.  It's produced by Marvel Studios, and major characters in the show have superpowers.  What's interesting in this show is that it's not so superhero-y.  Jessica tends to downplay her extraordinary abilities, and the use of such abilities is sporadic.

However, this isn't the case with Kilgrave, and this is what I want to focus on in this post.  Kilgrave has the power to make people do whatever he tells them to do, and he uses this ability quite frequently throughout the show.  I've thought a bit about how this power is supposed to work and I suppose writing it out will me make sense of it.  A small disclaimer before I proceed.  I'm ten episodes into a thirteen episode season, so it is possible that some things are revealed in episodes eleven through thirteen that might answer some of the questions I have below.

As I just mentioned, Kilgrave's power is that he can make people do whatever he tells them to do.  Let's unpack this a little more.   What happens is that Kilgrave utters a sentence in the imperative mood, and the individual to whom the sentence is directed at is irresistibly compelled to perform the action commanded by the imperative sentence.  This raises questions, some of which are answered in the series, others left unresolved.

Several constraints on Kilgrave's power are made explicit during the series.  First, Kilgrave's power apparently doesn't work if his voice is transmitted via some medium.  So, for instance, Kilgrave can't order someone to do something over the phone, or over some PA system.  I'm guessing that he can't use a bullhorn either, or two cans attached to a string.  (There's apparently a "scientific" explanation to this, but it comes across as very bullshitty, akin to the whole midi-chlorian nonsense that you get in the Star Wars prequels.)  So, Kilgrave has to be within earshot of the individual that he wants to control.

A second constraint on Kilgrave's power  is that its effects wear off over time.  I believe the time frame is roughly twelve hours, after which an individual feels no longer compelled to do what Kilgrave commanded them to do.

Let's grant these constraints and set them aside.  There are other questions afoot as to how exactly this power is supposed to work. 

Kilgrave's power is delivered via spoken language, more specifically via sentences in the imperative mood.  All imperative sentences have a verb as its main predicate.  However, not all verbs are the same.  For instance, some commands are specific enough such that they can only be carried out in one way.  For example, the command "Sit down" is fairly specific, and we usually have in mind one action that satisfies that command, i.e. the action of immediately sitting down.  Other actions are more ambiguous, and can be carried out in a myriad of ways.  For instance, the command "entertain me" can be successfully carried out in more than one way.  We don't usually think that there is just one action that corresponds to that command.  Thus, there is also a distinction between specific and general commands.

Why does this matter?  Well, one recurring theme in the show is the notion of action and responsibility.  If Kilgrave commands you to do something, and you do it, are you morally responsible for that action?  Can you be blamed for doing it?  At different points in the show, different characters insist that you are not responsible for actions you commit while under Kilgrave's command.  However, it's not so simple.  This is where the notion of a general commands comes into play.

In the show, Will Simpson, a police officer, is commanded by Kilgrave to kill Trish Walker.  This is not a specific command.  Murder can be carried out by a variety of actions.  We don't see a scene where Kilgrave explicitly gives the order to Simpson, so we don't know the exact phrasing of the command.  Suppose the phrase was simple, i.e. "Kill Trish Walker."  We might agree that Simpson should not be held responsible for the attempted murder of Trish Walker, but what about the means by which he attempted murder?  In the show, Simpson tries to deceive Walker into letting him into her apartment so that he can carry out his unfortunate task.   Did Simpson freely choose this way of carrying out Kilgrave's command?  Was this his idea?  If so, should he be held responsible for deceiving Trish Walker?  This leads us to general questions about the scope of Kilgrave's power and the scope of moral responsibility.  How much control does Kilgrave have over an individual?  Is their free will completely overridden?  The extent to which their free will compromised seems to vary positively with the extent to which we would hold them morally responsible.

There are other interesting questions to ask about Kilgrave's power.  We can ask about the extent to which Kilgrave can order people around.  For instance, Kilgrave order someone to do something that they are not capable of doing?  It's probably true that Kilgrave can command an individual to do something they are not physically capable.  They'll probably try and try for twelve hours to do it, but fail to carry out the action.  Kilgrave could order me to slam dunk a basketball on regulation height basket.  I'll pathetically try to do this for twelve hours, but will fail to succeed.  Okay, so commands involving actions that an individual is physically incapable of performing seem fairly straightforward.  However, there are other sorts of commands to consider.  Another category would be commands related to mental states.  Can Kilgrave order someone to feel or believe something that they don't currently feel or believe?  Most would agree that these sorts of mental states are not under our control.  If I don't believe that there is life on Mars, then I can't make myself come to believe that claim.  I can pretend to believe it, but there is a difference between pretending to believe and actually believing.  The same goes for emotions and other sorts of mental phenomena.   I can't directly will myself to be angry if I am not currently angry, nor can I directly will myself to feel pain.  Furthermore, I have no direct control over my preferences or desires.  If I don't like the taste of anchovies (which I don't), then I can't will myself to like them.  If I have no desire to go outside and job, I can't create that desire out of thin air.

Of course we do have some control over all of these things, but the control is indirect.  If I want to believe that there is life on Mars, then I might go rooting around for other pieces of evidence, which may ending up convincing me that there is life on Mars, thus forming a belief.  I can't make myself angry, but I can certainly expose myself to stimuli that might elicit that emotion.  The same goes for pain.  Preferences and desires work in the same indirect way.  We're all familiar with the concept of acquired tastes.  I may not initially like anchovies, but maybe I can come to like them through repeated exposure.

Back to the question about Kilgrave's power.  Can Kilgrave order someone to directly acquire some mental state?  There's an interesting scene in the show that seems to suggest that the answer is yes.  In this scene, Kilgrave is at the local police station.  He's ordered everyone to point their weapons at everyone else.  As he leaves he gives the following paraphrased order: "Once we leave you will all put down your weapons and think that this was all a hilarious joke."  Sure enough, after he leaves they all put down their weapons and start laughing.  What this seems to suggest, then, is that KIlgrave's power is greater than what I had initially been led to believe.  Kilgrave has, in some significant sense, the ability to control minds.

This leads us to some more interesting questions about the individuals under Kilgrave's control.  When they are ordered to carry out some task, are they aware that they are carrying out that task?  The evidence from the show seems to suggest that the answer is yes.  What happens when the task conflicts with their own desires or values?  What's going in the person's mind then?  At one point Kilgrave orders Simpson to jump off the roof of a rather tall building, which would most likely result in his death.  What is Simpson thinking at that point?  He is not normally a suicidal individual, so the order has to conflict with his core desires and beliefs.  What does it feel like to be under Kilgrave's control?

All this leads me to form the following half baked theory.  Kilgrave's power is the ability to plant mental states into an individual's head that last for twelve hours.  Usually these mental states come in the form of desires.  In the literature on free will and moral psychology, there is a distinction made between first and second order desires.  First order desires are the cognitive mechanisms that drive your everyday behavior.  Second order desires are desires about your first order desires.  If your second order desires are incompatible with your first order desires, then you may experience internal conflict.  Take the familiar example of dieting.  I have a first order desire to eat foods like ramen, fast food, and ice cream.  This explains why I eat the way I do.  However, I also have a second order desire not to have this first order desire.  I realize that eating like this is unhealthy, so I really don't want to continue eating this way.  So, I eat a bunch of junk food, yet I don't really want to eat this kind of food, leading me to try to diet.  This is the kind of internal conflict explained by the distinction between first and second order desires.  If I didn't have this kind of conflict going on, then I wouldn't be dieting.  We find plenty of these kinds of examples when it comes to addiction.  Usually addicts know that their addiction, i.e. their first order desire for some substance, is bad.  They don't want to have that desire, yet they find themselves succumbing to that first order desire.

What Kilgrave's power basically does is to plant a very strong first order desire into your head.  It turns you into a kind of temporary addict (This theory is interesting given the Malcolm sub-plot.  Malcolm is a neighbor of Jessica's and also a drug addict.  He was also a delivery guy for Kilgrave.)  You feel a compulsion to carry out the command Kilgrave gives in a manner similar to the compulsion an addict feels to take a certain drug.  In many cases our second order desires are able to at least temporarily override our first order desires.  This is why we are at least temporarily successful at dieting.  However, it seems that the desires implanted via Kilgrave's power are so strong that they cannot be overridden by second order desires.

This might explain why Kilgrave's victims feel guilt after doing something that they thought was morally wrong.  Even though they were compelled to act in the way they did from an external source, to them it really did feel like they wanted to perform that act.  It really felt like their desire, and so it would be hard for them to distance themselves from the act, and from the emotional consequences of that action.

Friday, January 8, 2016

What does it take to be a "real" fan?

I follow sports fairly regularly, particularly football.  I'm originally from the metro D.C. area, and I've been watching the Washington Redskins since 1987, when they won their second Super Bowl.  My knowledge of sports is probably one of the few things that allows me to small talk with other guys without it being terribly awkward.

I've been a big fan of the Redskins for a long time, although lately my devotion has waned, given the team's consistently terrible performance and the ownership's insistence on keeping the racially provocative team name.

Much to my surprise, the Redskins have done surprisingly well this season, and have secured a wildcard spot in the playoffs.  All of a sudden I find myself interested in the team again.

This change in attitude made me reflect on the notion of being a fan.  What does it take to be a fan of a team?  What does it take to be a real fan?

Being a mere fan of a team seems pretty easy.  All that's required is self-identification.  If you claim to be a fan of a team, then you're a fan.  Simple as that.

However, there are fans, and there are real fans.  What's a real fan?  Who knows for sure, but I thought it'd be interesting to list some oft mentioned criteria.

1. Knowledge
So to be a real fan requires that you have some non-trivial amount of knowledge about the team.  This comes primarily through watching games and reading about the team through various news outlets.  So you're a hardcore fan of the Cubs?  Can you name their rotation of starting pitchers?  You a LeBron fan?  Can you give his stats from the 2015 season?

Of course, there's really no saying how much knowledge is required.  

2. Support during adverse circumstances
Everyone knows that a real fan roots for a team regardless of whether the team is doing well or poorly.  Real fans will of course speak derisively about "fair weather" fans or fans that ride the bandwagon.

This is where fans can come to resemble cult members.  Will a real fan support a team no matter what?  Suppose that the owner of the team is discovered to be racist and involved ethically dubious business practices, such as exploiting laborers in developing countries.  Is a real fan obligated to support the team when it means that the owner of the team will be indirectly supported?  Furthermore, what does this support amount to?  This question leads us to the next point.

3.  Financial support
Some say that a real fan invests in the team in some concrete way.  This usually means something like buying merchandise or buying tickets to see games.  For instance, many teams will consider season ticket holders to be top tier fans.

4.  Community participation
Fans of sports teams quickly form communities.  These communities can be online through various forums or websites.  They can also be physical communities, with fans tailgating before the game at the stadium parking lot or congregating at bars when the game is on.  One might hold that a real fan is one that participates in these kinds of communities and, as such makes their allegiance publicly known.

5.  Sports tribalism
Many of the more established sports teams have notable rivalries.   Typically rivalries are between teams in the same division, or between teams that are geographically related.  Some rivalries can be quite intense, and have long histories.  Examples include the Yankees/Red Sox, or Duke/University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  For many, to be a real fan of team it is not enough that you support and cheer for a team.  You must also despise another team.  You must go to their forums and wreak havoc on their discussions with incessant trolling.  You must get into shouting matches at bars.  Home games must be hostile war zones for visiting fans of a rival team.

These are some necessary conditions that I could come up with off the top of my head.  I'm sure there are more, and it's probably the case that some of these are not really necessary in order to be a "real" fan.  That said, how do stack up?  Am I a "real" fan of the Redskins.  Let's break it down point by point.

As far as knowledge is concerned, I think I have a fair bit of knowledge about the team.  Even though I don't watch as many games as I used to, I still read up on the team.  I can rattle off the starting lineup, coaching staff, and probably some of the more notable members of the front office.  I'm also conversant with the coaches' preferred style of offense and defense, and can usually hold my own in a bar conversation about the X's and O's.

Support during adverse circumstances is where my level of fandom has wavered.  Ever since Daniel Snyder bought the team in 1999, I've tried my best to be supportive.  Years of his inept ownership, however, have taken their toll.  It really gets harder and harder for me to get excited about this team.  I notice the same kind of attitude in the various Redskins blogs that I read.  It's nice that they made the playoffs, and I'll probably go watch the game, but not really expecting much.

Financially speaking, I haven't really spent that much money on the team.  I've never been to a Redskins game.  This is partly because I haven't lived in the metro D.C. area since 1996.  I do, however, own two jerseys: a Clinton Portis jersey and a Sean Taylor jersey.

Being a displaced fan, it's hard to find any kind of community physically speaking.  I've lived in Atlanta, Milwaukee, and currently live in Syracuse, NY.  Syracuse surprisingly has a community of Redskins fans that watch games at the local chain sports bar.  However, by the time I moved to Syracuse (2008), I've weathered almost ten years of the Snyder led Redskins, and I was gradually checking out by that point.

I will have to say, however, that I do despise the Cowboys, Eagles, and Giants.  I especially hate the Cowboys and their "America's Team" narrative.  They are by far the most overrated team in the NFL.  Every season talking heads predict the Cowboys to go deep into the season, and yet in almost 20 years, have won only three playoff games, only one more than the Redskins, a team almost universally dismissed by football pundits.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Books that are representative of me

When I would visit other people’s houses, I would often take a look at their bookshelves.  This was partly because I like books, and also partly because I thought I could get a better idea of who the household residents were by looking at the books they owned.  The rationale behind this was simple.  Reading requires effort.  Taking the time to read a book meant that a person thought that the book’s message was worth the effort.  It is also likely that by reading a book, the book would have some sort of influential effect on the reader.  So, by examining an individual’s bookshelf, one could somehow derive a person’s worldview from the sorts of ideas and narratives contained in said bookshelf.

This method is obviously flawed.  Just because they own books does not necessarily mean that they read them. Moreover, it is certainly possible that individuals have read books that are not displayed on their bookshelf.  This is more so the case since many people, myself included, read many books in electronic format.

Nevertheless, I do think that the books we read can tell us a lot about who we are.  I thought it would be an interesting exercise to list the sort of books that would be representative of who I thought I was and what my worldview amounted to.

Like just about everyone else, I identify myself by including myself in various categories.  One such category is of course my occupation.  I am currently a graduate student in philosophy. Working in academia amounts to two kinds of activities.

The first activity is research. As far as my research is concerned, my dissertation is on metaphysics and epistemology (more specifically, the epistemology of metaphysics).  Needless to say, I spend a lot of time, although probably not enough time, thinking about these subjects.  People sometimes ask me what my research and my dissertation is about.  If I could give them a book that would describe my research in an accessible way, then I’d give them one of these:

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Riddles of Existence, by Earl Conee and Theodore Sider.

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Why Does The World Exist? by Jim Holt

The first is basically an introductory textbook to metaphysics.  It’s written for readers with no prior background in philosophy.  The second book is also written for a lay audience.  The book attempts to answer a simple question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”  This question is probably one of the deepest and fundamental questions out there, and is certainly a metaphysical question.

The second activity in academia is teaching. I enjoy teaching more than I enjoy research, probably because I think that I am a better teacher than I am a researcher. I've been teaching at the college level for about nine years now, which is longer than any other job that I've held.

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What The Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain

This book largely identifies the methods and practices of college instructors that are recognized as exceptional teachers.  It helped me immensely in recognizing that what is important as a teacher is to get students to really master the content and intellectual tools that the course purports to offer, rather than just trying to get them to jump through procedural hoops.  As such, I've done much to change the way I design courses, like getting rid of traditional exams and quizzes and offering a variety of ways that students can use to show me that they have mastered the content.

I identify very strongly with my interests and pursuits, my occupation of course being included as one of my pursuits.  

One pursuit that I strongly identify with is eating. I don't really identify as a "foodie." I don't have a well developed palette, and I'm not super knowledgeable about all things gastronomic, but I really do enjoy eating, just as many others do, and I often mark periods of my life with memorable meals. Also food, in addition to sports, is the one thing that I can use for small talk without feeling incredibly awkward.

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Eat More Better by Dan Pashman

This book is great in that it takes an approach to food that I can relate to. Pashman is very methodical about trying to maximize the pleasure extracted from each bite of food. It's a very enjoyable read and very instructive. It is definitely a marked departure from other food books which are more or less just travel or lifestyle books, detailing dishes that I'll never get to eat in places that I'll probably never go.

Another major pursuit of mine is video games. I've played video games all my life, starting with the Atari 2600 when I was five years old in 1983. These days I play mostly MMO (massive multiplayer online) games like Star Wars: The Old Republic and Final Fantasy XIV. I also play a lot of Hearthstone, which is an online CCG (collectible card game) that happens to be massively popular. Finally, I play a lot of platform games like the Super Mario franchise in the Wii U with the girlfriend.

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Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell

Extra Lives is cited by various video game luminaries as highly influential. It's written by a journalist who is also an avid console gamer. The book is a collection of essays, each of which is centered around a particular game, like Grand Theft Auto, Mass Effect, or Gears of War. One of the themes that ties the essays together is the question involving the relationship between video games and narrative. Can video games make good stories? Why or why not? Can video games be art? Should they be taken seriously?

For a long time, I was very much interested in music, particularly playing guitar. Most of the books that I read with respect to music were instructional books, which covered technique, music theory, and repertoire.  However, there was one book that had an impact on me that wasn’t necessarily just on the nuts and bolts of guitar playing.

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Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo

This book related spiritual themes from Zen Buddhism to various aspects of making music. It helped to give me a sense of perspective on what exactly making music was about, and made the whole process fulfilling at a deeper level.

Speaking of spiritual themes, religion, particularly Protestant Christianity, has played a huge role in my life.  For about sixteen years or so (from around 1998 to around 2014), I would say that I was devoutly religious, and that I identified very strongly as a Christian.  I was very much into what is known as "spiritual formation." This is a label designating various thoughts on the idea of moral and spiritual growth as a Christian. Books like the following were very influential.

The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard

Celebration of Discipline by Richard J. Foster

In both books, the term "discipline" refers to activities believed to nurture spiritual growth. Such activities include prayer, Bible reading, fasting, church service, etc. The first book, by Dallas Willard, deals primarily with the "why" of spiritual disciplines, whereas the second book, by Richard Foster, deals mainly with the "how."

These days, my relationship with Christianity has gotten more complex.  This is partly due to disillusionment sparked by my own observed failures at spiritual growth and fueled by a Christian community that largely seems uninterested in spiritual growth and the pursuit of answers to difficult theological questions.  

My views have gotten more liberal, given that the sorts of views taken to be representative of conservative Christianity are in my mind rationally untenable.  Even though I have moved further and further away from what some might consider to be orthodox Christian belief, I am not yet ready to identify as either an atheist or agnostic.  Part of the reason is due to a principle that I am convinced is true.  The truth of some religion is required in order for there to be objective meaningfulness of life.  If all religious claims were false, then life would at best be subjectively meaningful only.  However, I believe that subjective meaningfulness is no meaningfulness at all.  So, since I think meaningfulness is important, I would like for some religious claims to turn out to be true.

However, I am often afraid that no religious claim is true, and that life is inherently meaningless.  I am afraid that this is case because it often seems to me that the world is an absurd place.  No system of religious belief seems adequate in explaining the sorts of crazy things that we experience.  This puts me in a rather uncomfortable limbo, vacillating between hope and despair.

I find that existentialist fiction captures this frame of mind almost perfectly.  Here is a sample of books and short stories that I found to be extremely influential:

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The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

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The Plague by Albert Camus

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The Complete Stories by Franz Kafka

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The Wall by Jean Paul Sartre

These narratives do much to capture the sort of inner tension that I experience.  The following is an anthology of essays in existentialism that I found particularly instructive.

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Existentialism, from Dostoevsky to Sartre edited by Walter Kaufman

At its core, existentialism is about the search for life’s meaning in a world that seems completely meaningless or incomprehensible. This is something that I profoundly identify with, and influences much of my own outlook and behavior.

Interestingly, although I can’t get away from the fact that my ethnicity is an inescapable part of my identity, I often found myself trying to downplay it.  Part of this is probably explained by my relationship with my family.  This is relationship was often a source of frustration because it was hampered barriers in language and cultural perspective (I was born in metro Washington D.C., and my knowledge of Korean is minimal at best).  The ensuing resentment was partly directed towards my cultural heritage, and so I didn’t really make much of an effort to pursue a deeper understanding of my roots.

This attitude softened over time, and fairly recently I found myself interested in gaining a better understanding of my cultural identity.  The following books were particularly helpful.

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The Geography of Thought by Richard Nisbett

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The Analacts of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation translated by Roger Ames and Henry Rosemont Jr.

These books helped me to see how deep the cognitive differences were between East and West.  It raised interesting questions about the significance of these differences, and how I, someone of Asian descent growing up in the United States, fit in which respect to these cognitive archetypes.

When I lived in Atlanta, I started a book club at a church that I had attended.  The first book that I chose was the following.

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Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

The book was basically about how changes in mass media technology, from oral to print to television, also changed the way in which people exercised rationality.  I thought this book represented my interests well because I am fascinated by various aspects of culture, including technology, media, institutions, arts, etc.

My fascination with culture, society, technology, etc. started with the following books.

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1984 by George Orwell

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Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

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Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I remember reading these books in high school and being profoundly struck by them.  I took this sort of dystopian literature to be prophetic in some way, and have been drawn to various forms of social critique ever since.

Interestingly enough, although I had initially thought the world envisioned by Huxley in Brave New World to be repulsive, now I am not entirely sure.  The reason why I struggle now is because I often struggle with the question of free will.  Do human beings really have free will?  I see more and more evidence of individuals acting in irrational ways, and this leads me to believe that humans are in less control over their actions than I had initially been lead to believe.  Even praiseworthy actions, like acts of heroism, are seemingly done not by deliberate free choice, but out of some kind of compulsion.  (Here's a link to the Radiolab episode discussing this.)  If humans don't have free will, then they are biological machines.  If they are biological machines, then it seems that an assembly line style society with various divisions of labor seems to make sense.  I want to believe, however, that humans are free, but I struggle with this a lot.