Hello there 🙂
Welcome to issue forty two of Manufacturing Serendipity, a loosely connected, somewhat rambling collection of the unexpected things I’ve recently encountered.
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Speaking of coffee, grab yourself a suitable beverage my loves, let’s do this thing…
Part I: Things I’ve Encountered Online…
Last week I came across this wonderful essay by Samuel Jay Keyser, about the enduring popularity of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, despite it’s obvious flaws.
Possibly you’re thinking – wait, how is the story flawed?
Here’s the story in brief: Goldilocks comes upon a house which she enters without permission. She steals some food (porridge), breaks Baby Bear’s chair, then takes a nap. The bears arrive home and are understandably upset, at which point she wakes up, and runs away. The end.
There are no consequences for Goldilocks’ actions, no indication that the incident has changed her in any way, and there’s no justice for the bears – they’re just left to clear up her mess.
Not the greatest of endings, huh?
As a result, the story of Goldilocks is difficult to categorise within the fairy tale canon – it’s unlike other tales, and it doesn’t really in fit anywhere – as Keyser highlights:
“Christopher Booker (2004) sees Goldilocks is an example of plot type No 1: Overcoming the Monster as in, for example, Beowulf, Jaws or Jack and the Beanstalk.
[But] …this latter categorisation surely cannot be right. If there is a monster in Goldilocks, it is Goldilocks herself and not the three bears.
So what’s the deal?
How did the tale end up like this?
It turns out that the tale of Goldilocks has been heavily modified over the years.
In 1837, British poet Robert Southey, wrote a fairy tale entitled The Story of the Three Bears. Like so many fairy tales, it has a long oral pre-history (Southey did not create the story, he was just the first to write it down).
In his version, the protagonist is not a pretty little girl with golden locks, but a nasty old woman, and the bears are a cohabiting trio rather than a family (the bears names are: “Great, Huge Bear”, “Middle Bear”, and “Little, Small, Wee Bear”).
Perhaps most importantly, the ending of Southey’s tale was markedly different from the ending of Goldilocks today. When the bears arrive home:
“Out the little old Woman jumped; and whether she broke her neck in the fall; or ran into the wood and was lost there; or found her way out of the wood, and was taken up by the constable and sent to the House of Correction for a vagrant as she was, I cannot tell.”
Over the years the tale changed:
- In 1850, in his collection A Treasury of Pleasure Books for Young Children, Joseph Cundall transformed (with Southey’s approval) the old Woman into a pretty little girl called Silver-hair, but the trio of bears remained bachelors. Here, Cundall modifies the ending somewhat, but the essence is the same – his little girl jumps out the window and either: breaks her neck, gets lost in the forest, or makes her way home to be spanked by her parents.
- Around 1852, the three bears became a family: Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and Baby Bear.
- In 1918, Silver-hair became Goldilocks in Flora Annie Steele’s English Fairy Tales.
Goldilocks’ fate varies in the many retellings: in some versions, she runs into the forest, in some she is almost eaten by the bears but her mother rescues her, in some she vows to be a good child, and in some she returns home.
But whatever her fate, Goldilocks fares far better than Southey’s nasty old woman.
So we know that the original story was not so flawed (in terms of the ending); but we still don’t know why the tale of Goldilocks has endured despite it’s flawed and unsatisfactory conclusion.
Keyser suggests the story’s popularity might be down to the power of repetition. First up he cites this study:
“In her book, On Repeat (2013) Elizabeth Margulis describes a remarkable experiment. She introduced repetition into music where it never was. Starting with music by the atonal masters Luciano Berio and Elliott Carter, she copied a segment from early in a piece and pasted it later on, sometimes immediately after, sometimes several segments away.
Then on separate occasions, she asked ordinary music listeners and PhDs in music theory to tell her which version they liked best.
They preferred the doctored version.
The results stunned her because, as she said, “the original versions were crafted by internationally renowned composers and the (preferred) repeated versions were created by brute stimulus manipulation without regard to artistic quality. Margulis drew an inescapable conclusion:
The simple introduction of repetition, independent of musical aims or principles, elevated people’s enjoyment, interest, and judgments of artistry. This suggests that repetition is a powerful and often under acknowledged aesthetic operative.”
Keyser then goes on to highlight all the repetition in Goldilocks: there are the three bears themselves, Goldilocks embarks on three separate forays, the porridge, the chairs, and the beds; and within each of the three forays, there are three options:
- 3 bowls of porridge, one is too hot, one is too cold, one is just right
- 3 chairs, two are too big, one is just right
- 3 beds, one is too hard, one is too soft, one is just right
He notes that there is perhaps something special about these forays – they are all same/except repetitions:
“I first encountered the same/except relationship in Culicover and Jackendoff (2012) where they discuss same/except constructions in English (This vase is the same as that one except it is blue. This vase is identical to that one, except it is red. The vase looks just like that one, only it’s a bit smaller., etc.).
In the course of their illuminating discussion they cite William James’ Principles of Psychology, who pointed out that the ability to detect repetition necessarily entails the ability to detect difference.
They conclude (reasonably) that detecting same/except relationships is a part of the general domain of cognitive functions. It is a natural extension of Margulis (2013) to propose that detecting same/except relationships turns out to be a source of aesthetic pleasure.
The same/except relationship goes further than that [in Goldilocks].
Within each episode there are three objects; three bowls, three chairs, and three beds. Each object shares a special relationship with its siblings. The big bear’s bowl is the same as the other bowls except it is bigger. The middle bear’s bowl is the same as the others except it is bigger than one and smaller than the other. The little bear’s bowl is the same as the others except it is smaller than both. Thus, the same/except relationship is true not only of the episodes but of the things they are about. It is recursive, a form of repetition.
This same/except relationship abounds elsewhere in literature. For example, it is precisely what rhyme is in riming poetry.
Rhyme is repetition constrained by the same/except relationship. There seems to be something special about repetition. For repetition to be aesthetically pleasing, it can’t be exact. Rhyming come with come just doesn’t work.
Consider these two couplets:
Monty Woolley was such a ham
That all he ever ate was ham.
Monty Woolley was such a ham
That all he ever ate was spam.
One might speculate that the pleasure comes in locating the boundaries between similar elements.
Keyser goes on to conclude:
1. Repetition is aesthetically pleasing. But not just any repetition. Its elements have to be of the same/except variety, like rhyme in poetry.
2. Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ is made up of a hitherto unrecognized form of same/except rhyme where the rhymes are not made from the sounds of words but from the properties of objects as well as the structure of events.
That is why Goldilocks is such a poor story and yet such a popular one.
Moar Serendipitous finds:
“Researchers at the University of Birmingham in England analyzed 9,000 award recipients across 345 awards in the fields of science and medicine in the U.S. and U.K. Overall, women received just 15 percent of awards dating back to the 18th century. But when they focused on the 214 awards that were named after men, the number was even lower — a mere 12 percent.
On the other hand, when the researchers looked at the 93 awards that weren’t named after anyone, women were far more likely to receive them (about 24 percent of the time).
Likewise, when awards were named after a woman, women received them 47 percent of the time. And of the 12 awards that were named after both men and women, women won those 32 percent of the time.”
I loved this expansive essay from Lauren Collee about our increasingly uneasy relationship with time:
“We are haunted by the specter of an innate, perfect rhythm; the antidote to the endless lonely day of the internet, lying just out of reach.”
This is another long read, and it’s great. From ancient Egyptian cubits to fitness tracker apps, humankind has long been seeking ways to measure the world – and ourselves. But what is this doing to us?
“Spotify’s radio station for Ludacris’ “What’s Your Fantasy” doesn’t link to any OutKast songs, even though I watched Ludacris open for André 3000 and Big Boi when that song was released in 2000, and both acts are from Atlanta.
Is Spotify aware that Big Boi is a huge Kate Bush fan?
Does Spotify know that singer-songwriter John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats is a metal head? If you have seen Darnielle cover metal bands from Dio to Gorguts to Nightwish, or are familiar with one of his most popular songs, “The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton,” you know that he loves some sick riffs and moonward barks.
But all of that intimate (and publicly available) knowledge is lost to machine learning.
Tuning into Spotify’s Mountain Goats’ Radio won’t turn up any Dio at all—just literate and mostly acoustic indie rock songs that sound similar to the Mountain Goats. Left to a streaming service, these kinds of textured and unique connections are smoothed over or erased entirely.”
You might also like:
- Underrated ideas in psychology
- Searching 32 million academic papers for obscene acronyms hidden in the titles
- Gen Z Has Finally Discovered Kate Bush, and I’m Thrilled
- Spotify Podcasters Are Making $18,000 a Month With Nothing But White Noise
Part II: Books I’m Reading Right Now
This fortnight I read the graphic novel, Beverly by Nick Drnaso.
I’d previously read Drnaso’s second graphic novel, Sabrina back in 2018 when it was longlisted for the Booker Prize; and Beverly (published in 2016), was a book which has been on my “to read” list since then.
Beverly is a graphic collection of interconnected short stories featuring the inhabitants of a suburban American town. A group of teenagers pick up trash on the side of the highway, whilst excluding and ignoring a potentially violent loner in their midst. A suburban mother longs to be part of something bigger. A college student brings her sort-of boyfriend to a house party where she fails to reconnect with a friend she was formerly close to. A young woman’s trauma reveals the racial tension in the community.
These stories are unapologetically bleak. Both friendships and relationships here are hollow – what connects these stories perhaps, is the lack connectedness between these characters, and all the while, the potential for violence simmers below the civilised facade. It’s by no means an easy read, and clearly won’t be for everyone, but I loved it.
Part III: Things I’ve Been Watching
Here are a couple of things which I’ve watched this fortnight:
- Inside Number 9: Season 7, (BBC iPlayer) – this incredibly dark comic anthology definitely isn’t for everyone; and whilst I feel like this season isn’t as strong as previous seasons, it’s nevertheless worth a watch.
- Stranger Things: Season 4 Part 1, (Netflix) – what’s the deal with splitting seasons? I wanna see the whole thing! Thoroughly enjoyed this and looking forward to Part 2.
- The Lincoln Lawyer: Season 1, (Netflix) – honestly, this is absolute trash. The plot is very silly indeed, the script is painfully written, and the acting is only “good” in that the cast somehow manage to deliver lines like: “You know Micky – the only thing he likes more than a fight, is a fight with one hand tied behind his back” with straight faces. The actors are hot though, so there’s that, I guess? Also it’s been renewed for a second season so I suppose that means there are plenty of people out there who did like it. You do you, friends 🙂
I have not seen Top Gun: Maverick (the reboot of Top Gun); but Roxane Gay has, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading her review.
Part IV: What I’ve been up to…
I spent most of the long bank holiday weekend working on my presentation for MozCon, and I’m happy to say that after many rounds of feedback from my infinitely generous and patient friends the deck is now in pretty good shape.
I also went to Kew Gardens with my Mum which was lovely, successfully mixed raspberry martinis whilst my friend Steve barbecued, went out for a fancy belated birthday dinner at One One Four, visited my Dad for the weekend and went to a Kimber’s Men gig which was amazing, and I got to meet up with my friend Surena to set the world to rights.
National Flash Fiction Day – Book Launch
This Saturday sees the launch of And We Lived Happily Ever After (National Flash Fiction Day Anthology 2022), and one of my stories was selected for inclusion in the book. This is the first story of mine which has been published and I am very excited.
The launch is a virtual event which starts at 7pm BST on Facebook. Four videos of readings from the anthology will be posted every quarter of an hour, and the event is available to everyone (whether you’re on Facebook or not). You’ll be able to view the videos here from 7:00pm BST on 18 June 2022, and they will be available to watch any time after that here.
Wanna own a book with my story in it? Of course you do! You can buy the anthology here.
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