Monday, June 29, 2015

The Hegemony Of Improvement Culture, Or, Why Can't I Just Enjoy BodyAttack?

BodyAttack: doesn't it look like fun?
There this group exercise class I love called BodyAttack. If you told me when I was a kid that some day I would grow up to enjoy a sports-inspired work-out class with athletic moves like sit-ups and squats I would definitely have said you were nuts. You think I'm going to go to gym class by choice? No.

But for me, BodyAttack is way fun. It's the way things are fun when you're a seven-year-old: you're running and jumping around to music, all with other people who are also having fun. It's a super-intense work out, and even though the official description uses phrases like "intervals" and "plyometrics," there's actually a lot of just goofy exuberance.

There are silly moves, like where you're doing jumping jacks and every fourth one you jump as high as you can. There's the anthemic track 8, which is basically a high-intensity chorus line to an emotional pop song. There's an outstanding mix of songs like the hip-hop track "Dibby Dibby Sound" and the impossible-to-classify "Hardcore Salsa 2K14 (Hardstyle Edit)."

I went to BodyAttack in Paris, and you know what they do there? They do the class in the dark with blue disco lights. Clearly, I am not the only one who thinks BodyAttack is fun.

Now. You would think that any sensible person, having found a healthy-well-rounded form of exercise that they really enjoy, would be in seventh heaven. You want to exercise and have fun? Just go to the class.

And yet such is the perverseness of some aspect of my psychology that I find this outlook almost impossible to hold on to. I find it extremely difficult to think of BodyAttack as an end in itself. Instead, I'm constantly thinking I need to use the fitness I've gained through BodyAttack to do Something Else.

Like -- maybe I should try to go beyond being pretty fit to become "super-fit." I could start going to the BodyPump weightlifting class, cut the empty wine calories, become one of those people who eats boiled chicken breast and lettuce for every meal.

Or maybe I should take up some intense and time-consuming new athletic activity, like snowboarding or surfing.

Or maybe I should train for some "goal-oriented" end point like a triathlon, or a race, or something.

But the truth is, I don't want to do any of these things. I like BodyAttack. The one activity I could see adding is dance class of some kind -- I used to dance as a young person, and it is fun. But even there -- am I really going to add that class time to the already large amounts of time I'm spending just exercising? Every time I try to put that idea into action, there are just too many other things to do in the day.

Typically, having cycled through and rejected all of these ideas, I come back to the obvious idea that there's already something I'm doing that I like doing, so what the hell is the problem with just doing that?

Well, this is territory we've touched on before. I'm a bar-raiser from way back: no matter what good thing we are talking about, I usually adjust immediately to think of that as the baseline. Then I'm like -- OK life, but what have you done for me lately?

I'm also a first-derivative sort of girl. It's not enough to have happiness and pleasure, you have to feel that the pleasure and happiness are on the upswing. You can't just do a fun thing. The fun thing has to get bigger, stronger, better, FUNNER.

I also have a problem with a pleasant day. What, I'm just going to go do a fun thing because .. it was fun? What's the point of that?

But it takes two to tango, and it's not just me making this problem. Remember, we're in the great fun crisis of the 21st century. No one does things because they're fun anymore. You can't even walk into a gym these days without someone assaulting you about what your goals are and how if you don't have goals you'll never move forward to achievement.

The whole tracking/life hacking mood of modern life is like "Oh, you're doing that thing? Don't you want to do that thing better? Or do a different better thing? Are you sure you're doing the thing better than other people and the best you can possible do yourself?"

What the hell happened to doing things just because ... they're things you want to do? Does that concept not even make sense for us anymore?

What really gets me though, at the end of the day, is that having thought about these things, and seen through the difficulties, and actually written it all out -- you'd think I could put it all behind me, just go to the stupid class, and have a good time, and listen to DJ Fresh and think about the blue disco lights.

But I can't. Such is the relative impotence of rational thought.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Château Rouge Experience: I'm An Outsider Here But It Feels Like Home

Château Rouge. I took this last winter but you get the idea.

I've been in Paris for two weeks, and lately when I come to Paris I always stay in the same place, and this place just happens to be in a neighborhood called Château Rouge.

It's an area with a lot of people who come from, or have roots in, Francophone Africa, and there are lots of shops with West African food, music, clothing, cosmetics, and so on.

It's also an area with an intense street life scene. During the day there are crowds of people in the street. Some of them seem to be just hanging around with their pals. Some of them are selling things: cellphones, handbags, cigarettes, belts, roasted peanuts, a mysterious vegetable that looks like a mini-eggplant, other things.

There are like four butcher shops in a one-block radius, and they do things the old fashioned way -- so if you come out in the morning, you might find a truck with four giant carcasses hanging, waiting to be brought in and cut up, while people are hanging around, talking to the workers and to each other.

In some ways, I am very far from being a part of this community. For one thing, I often don't even know what is going on. Those people selling mini-eggplants: what's going on there? There are plenty of food stores -- are these people really just selling a vegetable? How can they make any money that way, especially given that so many people do it? Is it cover for some other kind of exchange?

Often at the corner there are women hanging around. I'd assumed there was something sex-work related going on, but then the other day I saw a couple deep in conversation with one of them over the contents of a strange looking box -- like a child's jewelry box, or a super-fancy cigar box. WTF?

I tell you one thing: I'm not going to go around asking a lot of questions. I speak some French, but I am not really fluent, and in my experience, you have to have some pretty sophisticated language subtlety not to seem like an asshole if you wander into some world from outside and start questioning everyone.

In fact, all the questions I can even think of seem obviously rude. What am I going to do, say "Are you really selling mini-eggplants and how is that a money-making venture or is there really something else going on?' I don't think so.

So: there's definitely a sense in which I walk down the street and people are doing there thing and I'm doing my thing and other than basics like holding doors, there's not too much interaction.

But the weird thing about it is this: not only do I really like this neighborhood, I actually feel kind of at home here. Like when I've been out and about in Paris all day, and I get out of the Château Rouge Metro station into the crowds of people spilling off the sidewalks and filling the streets, talking and shouting, trying to sell me a cell phone or some weird perfume, I kind of relax a little, and think to myself, "OK, back home."

For a while this feeling puzzled me a bit, and I didn't trust it. I wondered if maybe I just felt judged by white Parisians, and projected certain attitudes onto them, and in Château Rouge felt the absence of that.

But over time, I came to realize that the Château Rouge Experience is actually very like an experience that was a big and important part of my childhood. My grandparents were immigrants from Italy who settled near Boston, and when I was little, often on the weekends I'd accompany my father as he brought my grandmother to shop at the Little Italy markets in Boston's famous "North End."

The scene was always chaos. People were selling all kinds of food and other things. I remember lots of aimless shouting and joking around, and every purchase came with lots of haggling -- or some kind of discussion I was too young to follow. Usually I would get a crushed ice treat or something, which made my day. 

Even as a kid I remember the chaos of it drove my father nuts -- the way you couldn't just walk from point A to point B because there were a million people in your way, the sense of people just hanging around, not really there to do something specific, the way every transaction took forever.  My father was a man who loved order -- a man who regularly obsessed about the importance of trains running on time, even though he drove a car to work -- and the North End was designed to get under his skin.

Of course, I didn't like to see my father unhappy. But otherwise I remember our trips with great fondness. I liked to see all the different things and different foods and different people, and it always felt so full of life there.

My mother reminded me recently of something from my childhood I hadn't thought about in ages: that sometimes in the North End, people who had to do business in a shop but couldn't find parking would just stop and leave their cars -- in the middle of a narrow street, so all the traffic behind them would just have to wait. My father would get so mad, he'd start pounding his fist on the car armrest in frustration.

Then just the other day I was walking back in Château Rouge, and there was a van in the middle of the road, and it was empty, the driver obviously having gotten out to do business in some shop and having left the van in the road. Behind the van where four cars, and their drivers were freaking out, four people pounding on four car horns in four different keys.

Château Rouge: just like home!

About a week ago, some people put up a mural in the neighborhood. It's in the photo below. I get that there's a Red Castle in it -- literally, a "Château Rouge." But a Rubik's cube? But what the hell else is going on in this image?

Well anyway -- I like it.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Philosophical Melancholia

Albrecht Dürer, Melancholia I, via Wikimedia Commons

Though I am, overall, a much happier person than I was when I was young, as an adult I've experienced a a lot of what I like to think of as melancholia. By melancholia I mean some mix of sadness, low life force, discouragement, and a feeling of "Oh, whatever, what's the point."

I suppose my melancholia bears some relationship the modern problem we think of as depression, but I don't think they are the same thing. I don't have any of the typical symptoms always mentioned in connection with depression. I have an excellent appetite; I sleep well and exercise a lot; I get things done and with most things I'm not even really a procrastinator. If I go through an internet depression quiz/checklist, it might say that if you check six out eight boxes checked that's a warning sign -- but I'll have only checked one box: the one that says "I feel sad, like life has no point."

To me, nothing captures this feeling better than Albrecht Dürer's 1514 engraving, "Melencolia I," at the top of this post.

Because my rise in melancholic feelings seems to correlate with the time I've spent studying philosophy, I've often wondered if there is something about philosophical thinking -- or about a certain kind of thinking, more broadly -- that encourages melancholia.

And I think in my own case, anyway, the answer is yes. In fact, I think there are direct causal connections between my thinking philosophically and my feeling melancholic. I'm sure the mechanisms are complex, but here are a few thoughts.

One difficulty, for me at least, seems to be the effect of constantly forcing myself to take a perspective from which I am at best just one person among others and at worst a speck in the universe. I don't mean the kind of destabilization you get looking at the stars or something -- it's not, I think, the mere fact of being unspecial relative to everything else, it's more the shift in perspective of caring, of thinking about what matters or what is important.

For example, like most people, I'd expect, I have the experience that from within my life, the little things that make up my little world assume huge significance and importance to me. Relationships, intellectual projects, of course -- but even things like how should I wear my hair, whether to see a movie, whether to cook or go out to eat, whether I should try harder to learn French -- absorb my mind, fill it up, tie me to life.

But even one minute of a certain kind of reflection shows my concerns to be of virtually no importance whatsoever in the grand scheme of things.

Sometimes, they seem worse than insignificant: there are horrible things going on in the world, injustice and suffering, and you're seriously thinking about hairstyles, movies, and treats?

Other times, they seem like mere moves in a massive social scheme that has little to do with me or what I might "choose" or not choose to do. Probably you've all had this experience: you take one step back from concepts like "hairstyle," "movie" and even "food" -- and you find yourself in a dizzying array of considerations about sexism and beauty norms and Hollywood and glamorization and animal rights and environmentalism and so on and so forth etc. etc. etc.

These are all fine and important thoughts to have. My problem is that in doing philosophy, I form the habits of mind that make that dizzying array not so much a place I visit occasionally to understand the world, but more like my inner mental home. And as an inner mental home, it's horrible. At least for me, it's a profoundly alienating and cold place to spend a lot of time -- like trying to live on the Moon and breathe oxygen through a straw.

Then, too, there's a sense in which philosophical reflection itself often seems to take the form of "what is the point." How ought we to live? Why do this or that? Well -- doesn't this often come to down, "Ultimately, what is the point?"

In some contexts I think this is an OK question to ask. But the problem is that it's a question that, if you're not careful, will spread like kudzu through your days and nights, leaving you staring blankly at the ceiling, trapped in a singularity of philosophical interrogation, until, if you're lucky, you're rescued by friends, or hunger, or some everyday obligation like doing the laundry that just can't be put off any longer.

None of this is to say philosophical thinking isn't necessary, important, and good, because I absolutely think it is. It's just that too much of it might make a person sad, as I think it does me.

If you, too, have the symptoms of philosophical melancholia -- which can, of course, strike anyone at any time -- my advice is: though it might seem tempting, do not try to think yourself out of it.

Just put down the thoughts and walk away.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Why Blaming "Corporate Greed" Is Misplaced and Naive

Edvard Munch, Workers on their Way Home, via Wikimedia Commons

It always bugs me when I see references to "corporate greed" as part of an explanation for why some bad worker-related thing is happening. It especially bugs me when lefties and progressives refer to it. Because it seems to me that referring to "corporate greed" is basically buying in to the whole "individual responsibility" anti-legislation anti-labor rhetoric that lefties and progressives usually think of as "the other side."

I was reminded of this last week when the New York Times ran this story describing how Disney laid off all these tech workers and replaced them with people from other countries on H-1B visas who would be cheaper to pay. The kicker was that to receive their severance packages, the employees had spend three months training their replacements.

In the commentary on this story, people regularly mentioned corporate greed as part of the explanation for how something like this could happen (see, e. g., the comments to this blog post). The idea being, I guess, that an ethical corporation treats its labor force as people -- people they're in a certain relationship with, and to whom they owe consideration and obligations.

It's a nice idea, but I think it fails to grapple with the deeply competitive set-up of capitalism as it exists in our world -- where it's basically guaranteed that if you're not equally ruthless as your competition, you'll fail.

In fact, in the business section of papers like the Times, the rhetoric is all about how to be nimbler and more flexible than your competition, so you can increase profits, so you can make shareholders happy. Especially if your industry is competitive, if you can't do those things, you're over.

So now, faced with that situation, the reason corporations are supposed to treat their employees well even if it costs more is ... that the people in charge are somehow good inside? And who is supposed to say "the buck stops here," exactly? The middle manager who's been charged with cutting costs? Is that person supposed to say "Oh yes, I know I'll be fired, but it's OK." Or the president of the board? Is that person supposed to say "Oh yes, I know the competition will undercut us with such lower prices that our company will go under, but it's OK."

This seems to me the same kind of "individual responsibility" thinking that props up so many ideas I find offensive, that somehow each person is supposed to rise above the crazy social pressures they find themselves in, that somehow if you decide to do something because you find it's the best of a bunch of shitty options, that somehow "Oh, well you *chose* it so you're *stuck with it*."

The pressures of capitalism are long known. Adam Smith understood that businesses would have huge incentives to collude with one another and misbehave in various ways, leading to bad outcomes. Smith figured that with the right laws and institutional frameworks, you could prevent that misbehavior. 

I don't know if that's true or if the problem goes deeper than that. But I do think appealing to the inner moral compass of individual business persons is pretty much a non-starter.

Monday, June 1, 2015

"Welcome To Me" Is Funny And Not Stupid. So Why Don't People Want To See It?

Kristin Wiig as Alice Krieg, in "Welcome to Me."

Last weekend, I went to see that movie "Welcome to Me." I'd never seen a movie or anything else with Kristin Wiig, so obviously I've been living under a rock or something.

In case you don't know, the movie is about a person named Alice who has borderline personality disorder and who wins a lottery, decides to go off her meds, then makes a series of troubling decisions -- including the decision to spend part of her fortune bankrolling her own TV show, "Welcome to Me," that is all about herself and her life.

Can I say right now: I think this an outstanding premise for a movie. Doesn't any one else? We'll get to that in a moment.

Against all odds, Alice's show becomes popular. There's a great scene in which a young nerdy graduate student interviews her about her radical new approach to visual arts. What was up with the raw emotional life reenactments? And why did those have cross-racial casting? Was she influenced by Cindy Sherman? Alice: Oh, you mean from Laverne and Shirley?

I loved that sequence, because the student's reflections seemed both stupid and silly but also interesting and true, which so many things are -- but you never get to really say so because you'll sound pretentious or you'll hurt somebody's feelings or something. It's brilliant that eventually Alice does come to see herself as an artist.

Eventually, as you can imagine, things spiral out of control, and I'm sure I'm not revealing anything unexpected when I say there are Life Lessons and Reflections on True Friendship and Subplots of Loss and Redemption.

My favorite thing about this movie was that it was funny and sad, sometimes at the same time. Doesn't it seem like funny and sad is becoming an endangered species in movies? Why is that?

There's a great scene where Alice is organizing a TV reenactment of a moment from her childhood where someone was mean to her, and it is ridiculously over the top with costumes, period details from the 1980s, and Alice's outsized need to share her internal pain with a TV audience. It is very funny. Suddenly something goes wrong with the reenactment, and Alice bursts into tears. It is very sad. But it is also still very funny.

It's not funny and sad in the mean way, where you're laughing at someone. It's funny and sad in the good way, the same way it's funny and sad that someone can simultaneously see themselves as a TV superstar and also be crushed because one classmate mocked them a million years ago. That dichotomy is certainly not particular to mental illness -- in fact it seems to me to pretty much sum up the human condition.

I also loved the fact that Alice-on-her-meds and Alice-off-her-meds were clearly the same person. It would have been so easy to make some stupid, pandering, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde bullshit. Alice off her meds gets upset, and is worse at making decisions that she doesn't regret later. But otherwise she's the same Alice.

The big question about this movie, and the one I've returned to ponder over the last few days, is why so few people want to see it. Sure, it's not Hangover III, but it's not 45 minutes of someone eating a mushroom. It's not even "My Dinner with André."

Most movies I like that no one else likes I know immediately why. They're European, or they have subtitles, or they're too thinky with not enough action, or whatever. But this is a comedy, with positive reviews, a famous and attractive movie star, sex and sight gags, and a great modern premise relating to fame and insecurity and all the important twenty-first-century things.

So WTF? Why a very limited theater release with simultaneous hoopla streaming?

Is it because mental illness is still such a scary topic to people? Is it because funny and sad has become too difficult to fit into modern life? Is it because it's about the life of a woman, and, god forbid, actually passes the Bechdel test? Is there some new thing where only guys being gross and aggressive counts as funny? 

I honestly don't know.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Favors and Gender and Helping: It's Complicated

I went to a conference in another city last weekend, and since I love public transportation, I was determined to use the city buses to get around. The system was a little confusing, but people were friendly and nice and helped me figure out where I was going.

Thus I found myself at around 6:15pm on a Friday sitting in the front of a city bus -- you know, the seats that face the middle -- in my nice conference clothes, with my backpack on my lap and my suitcase somewhat precariously to the left of my legs, paying close attention to the street names so I didn't miss my stop.

In the middle of my ride, a guy got on. He was late middle aged and paunchy, wearing causal clothes and -- this is the important part -- carrying too many things. In particular, he had a bag over his shoulder, a sort of binder for papers in one hand, and a large cup of coffee in the other.

I don't know if you're familiar with the problem of carrying too many things on public transit, but I am. When you take the bus or subway, you have to get out your card or money or whatever and show it or put it in the slot, which means you need at least one free hand. This means that, unless all your other objects are organized in the most precise possible way, carrying a cup of coffee is not going to work.

Incidentally, one effect of this for me is that it's a motivation to think of "drinking coffee" as a thing that takes place sitting down somewhere, something you finish before you move on to the next thing of "getting on the bus" or "going somewhere." To me, that's a feature not a bug, but I realize this could be a subject of profound disagreement.

Anyway, as I saw the guy get on, I thought, "how is he going to pay?" He's carrying too many things. He paused and considered his situation. Then he turned to me, held out the coffee, and said, "Here, could you hold this?"

I'm not going to lie. My first reaction was to feel annoyed and put out. Then stopped to consider why I was so irritated. Hadn't so many strangers been nice to me that day already? WTF?

There were several answers. Partly it was the way he asked, which was not in the tone of "Oh, could you help me?" but rather in the tone of, "Here, do this thing I need done." Partly it was the fact that, as I'd have thought obvious, I was already juggling multiple items of my own. Partly it was the fact that I was in my nice conference clothes, not really dressed for hostessing duties.

Partly it was the fact that this is not a problem that takes one by surprise. It's not like you can't foresee that when you get on the bus you're going to need to do something with your hands to facilitate paying. Why should this failure to plan become my problem?

As I considered these issues, I had to ask myself whether part of my irritation was gendered. Was I partly annoyed simply because it was a guy who'd asked me, and I was a woman?

Well, the answer is yes. I might be mistaken, but I think there's no way a guy would ask another guy in a nice suit and expensive shoes to hold his coffee on a bus. At least, there's no way it would be done in that tone of making a demand.

I tried to imagine a woman asking me to hold her coffee. I did feel immediately that I'd be far less likely to be annoyed in such a case, but I think this is mostly because of the tone of asking. I found it impossible to realistically imagine a woman asking me in that peremptory tone. In fact, many women have asked me to do things for them over the years, and it's pretty much always the same tone. I'm sorry to bother you. I need help with something. Could you please help me for a moment?

In fact the coffee story reminded me of another thing that happened last fall when I was having a McMuffin in a food court before an early morning bus ride, and a pregnant woman came up to me demanding I help her take off her boots. I admit, I hesitated -- but I'm happy to say only for a moment. She was in intense pain, she told me, because her feet were so swollen and and she couldn't get them off. I looked down and saw she was wearing those kind of rubber boots that have no give and no laces and no straps. Uh oh.

It took us like ten minutes of huffing and puffing to get those boots off. I pulled and pulled, she anchored herself with her arms and pulled the other way, and I twisted and turned the boots and checked to make sure I wasn't hurting her. We rested and resumed. Midway, she assured me that after she got them off she was never putting them back on again -- an assurance I appreciated actually, since it suggested all this effort wasn't just some kind of Sisyphean thing. I happened to be the only woman in the food court at that time, and the guys all around us were watching with that mild interest you pay when nothing else is going on and something is happening.

We were both thrilled when the boots came off. She thanked me, and I washed my hands and went back to my food, and she went up in her stocking feet to get something to eat. As I left the food court I saw she was gone and the boots were settled on top of the garbage can.

With the coffee guy on the bus, I did hold his coffee, but as I did it I fixed him with a look, a look that basically said, "Are you kidding me?" If you know me, you know that I can give that look pretty effectively. I'm hoping that next time he plans ahead, and gets his bus pass out before getting on.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Life-Planning: The Anti-Theory Theory

From the US Dept of Transportation website

I took a long drive last week, and since I hate to drive I spent a lot of time pondering the question: How many resources should you spend making a bad experience slightly less bad? Should I make do with the Super 8? Should I try to find a Hilton with a hotel bar? What's the deal with those Residence Inn places, anyway?

It seems to me that one consensus theoretical answer to this question would involve comparing the margin of improvement of the bad experience to other improvement you could make to other experiences with the same resources. Like, if you spent the extra hundred dollars on dinner out, would that dinner out bring you more in positive utils than the Super 8 cost you?

Maybe it's just me, but I feel like of all the ways I'd try to answer the question, this wouldn't be any of them, because I wouldn't have any idea how to compare the positive of some positive experience to the less-badness of some less-bad experience. Is that just me?

How did I try to answer the question? Like, I expect, a lot of people, my first idea had to do with comparing the money I was spending with the money I might have spent traveling in another, more expensive, way. That is, if the plane would have cost X, and my drive without the hotel would cost Y, then I figured that as long as I was spending a fraction of X-Y, I was good to go.

One weird thing about this methodology is that it can countenance surprisingly large amounts of money. If the flight is 700 dollars and you spend a 150 on gas and food, are you really going to spend 550 on a hotel? I didn't think so.

Another weird thing about this methodology is that the decisions you're making about one thing seem to be strangely related to something completely different. I mean, suppose the price of the plane goes up to 1000 dollars. Then the amount it makes sense to spend on the hotel goes up to 850? That seems strange.

Another idea had to do with the appropriate doling out of treats. A nice hotel is a treat. Like a schoolmarm, I asked myself: had I been having a lot of treats lately, or not enough treats? How much of a treat did I deserve on this occasion, and how did the hotel options map on to the treat scale?

But this methodology is also strange, because it doesn't take into account the price. Surely it must matter how much the treat costs?

Another idea that came to me had to do with mood management. Like, I didn't want my mood to fall below a certain point. So I tried to anticipate how frustrated and tired I'd be, and also how much various amenities would ameliorate that, and tried to think how to keep my mental state hovering near "OK, I can deal." Again, though, how to weigh mood management by price? I don't know. 

In the end I think I thought about the various factors I've mentioned and then made some intuitive judgment that felt like it took into account all of them. I settled on a Courtyard Marriott, which, this being the actual world and not a thought experiment, turned out to be booked when I called from a thruway rest stop.

I ended up at a Holiday Inn Express, out on a side street, kind of far away from the main road. As I pulled in and looked around, it occurred to me that I might not be able to walk to a place for dinner and wine, which would have negated any plus points associated with other features completely.

I asked the clerk, and he said "Oh, yes, you can walk to the TGI Fridays, it's about ten minutes along this road and across the street." I did that -- and as I listened to some female student athletes gossip and complain and watched some business guys eat steak and read the new Maz Jobrani book, I was happy. 

It was a little pricey. Did the cost bring me more pleasure than it would have if I'd spent it in another way? How did the margin of improvement of the bad experience compare to other improvements you could make with the same resources?

Honestly? I have no idea.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Accidental Philosopher Photographs Some Things, Part 2

I'm planning a trip, and it's in the car, and as we know, I don't like to drive. So there's some planning and fretting getting in the way of writing, and I thought I'd post a follow-up to our previous post Accidental Philosopher Photographs Some Things.

First up: some items in display for sale in the Ryerson campus bookstore. Not much to say about this except I think the designer didn't seem to really get the effect they were probably aiming for.

I saw this at the dollar store. It's some cups and a few balls in a bag, being marketed as a "Beer Drinking Game." Or, as we like to say here in Canada, "Jeu à Boire."

 WARNING: "Use of this device may result in Audio Recording."

This past semester I was recording audio for the online version of my philosophy of sex and love course. At the studio, outside the sound booth, they had all their old equipment, including this reel-to-reel tape player, which I thought was a pretty cool piece of equipment. Hard not to anthropomorphize.

On campus someone put up this poster advertising trombone lessons, and I thought it was really cute and sweet.

At the Apple Store. Wait -- you can buy a drone at the Apple Store? WTF?

Here's a tree I saw a few days ago, and in a way it's nothing special, just some tree, but around here it was only like three weeks ago that there was snow on the ground and the trees were all bare. The way the trees around here go from that to this in such a short period of time always blows my mind. One day, bare branches. The next day, thousands of leaves and flowers. FLOOMPH!

Monday, May 4, 2015

That People Want To Go To Mars Makes Me Sad And Angry

A proposed settlement from the Mars One website.

I know this will strike some readers as peculiar, but it makes me sad and angry that people want to go to Mars.

Let's start by looking at this New Yorker article, which certainly did nothing to challenge those feelings. Drawing on cases where ships got stuck in the ice, the story starts out with a discussion, of how harrowing -- and even fatal -- it can be to be shut up with a crew on a long voyage. The Mars trip, of course, will be much longer than the two months in 1898 that the Belgica spent trapped in Antarctic ice -- when people went crazy, developed debilitating melancholia, and died.

The piece goes on to describe a huge test being undertaken in Hawaii, where a specially selected small group of especially affable, especially fit, and especially cool-headed special young people are living in a special dome, 24-7 -- where they can't even communicate with the outside world in real time because they're trying to mimic conditions on a trip to Mars, where it's so far away even an email takes twenty minutes to get to its recipient.

To go to Mars will take eight months. But because of planetary motion, planning the trip home one confronts a dilemma: stay on Mars for a year-and-a-half, or spend more than a year getting home. Looming issues include: not driving one another crazy, not getting bored literally to death, putting up with weird food, not driving one another crazy, literally staying alive, staving off melancholy, and not driving one another crazy.

Everything about this makes me feel sad. Earth is so perfect -- why go somewhere else? And under such harsh conditions? Even though I know it's because we evolved here, it still kind of blows my mind the way Earth has everything we humans need for happiness. Air, water, plants, sunshine, tons of space, and lots of other people.

To me, leaving Earth is like leaving the Garden of Eden. And going to Mars is like leaving the Garden of Eden to go on a horrible trip in the most dangerous and oppressive conditions imaginable. Why would you do a thing like that? Who are these people?

Always in these cases you hear about the idea that if climate change ruins Earth, we're going to need somewhere else to go. I find this idea seriously troubling. Really? The reaction to the possibility that we've ruined our entire planetary home is just "oh, well, guess we'll need another one?" Can't we spend that time and energy preserving our lovely home planet instead of making plans to move? The idea that we're going to go leave a bunch of garbage on a new planet is kind of infuriating.

I realize this is a dark thought, but part of me feels like if we humans screw up that badly, we should just let it go. Let the cockroaches and bacteria repopulate Earth with some new, hopefully improved, evolutionary products. We had a good run.

Anyway, the other thing you hear about Why Mars has a vague reference to some supposedly essentially aspect of human nature that makes us want to find new places and "discover" and colonize them.

Always, there are analogies with going to unexplored parts of Earth. In the New Yorker article, someone is quoted as saying, "It’s hard to say when, but we will go with humans to Mars ... It’s like humans exploring parts of the earth we didn’t know. We’re made that way."

Am I the only one for whom these analogies feel creepy? I mean, a lot of the "exploring" and "discovering" that "humans" did of the earth was actually one group of people moving in on and colonizing and brutalizing another. Not that I'm worried about potential Martians -- but just to say, the impulse to "explore," historically, was often not an impulse of curiosity but rather an impulse of domination.

Looking at it that way, no, "we" aren't "made that way." Yes, some people and some cultures seem to have a thing for priding themselves on "Doing Important Things," where doing novel or physically challenging things seems to get more points for some reason I've never been able to understand.

But other people seem happy at home. They create food, or pictures, or stories -- or they just sit around taking care of kids and gardening and drinking tea. Seriously, given the effect we're having on Earth and on other people, it would seem the homebodies are the ones we should be struggling to imitate, not the conquerors of new lands.

Of course, at the end of the day, people who want to go to Mars are going to go to Mars, and my opinion doesn't really matter. The picture at the top is a depiction of a proposed Mars One settlement -- where people will live out the rest of their days, because Mars One is proposing one way trips to Mars

It astonishes me that someone could look at that picture and think, 'Ooh, I want to go live there!" But obviously people do.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Ridiculous Rise Of Individualism In Response To Complex Social Problems

Have you noticed lately how in North America no matter what kind of problem you're talking about -- social problems, labor problems, culture problems -- the solution seems to come down to some kind of individual action? How did this frame of seeing the world get such massive traction so quickly over the past couple of decades?

For example, we read over and over that looking at screens at night is bad for our sleep and that looking at our smartphones too much is killing us. Not surprisingly, the light from gadgets makes us wakeful. Not surprisingly, looking at phones while driving kills people. Not surprisingly, when parents look at their phones too much they ignore their kids and the kids feel sad.

Every article or opinion piece I read about this problem has the same suggestions. Turn off your phone at certain times. Don't check it during meals. Don't do email in the evening. If all else fails, get this crafty software that changes the quality of the light as it gets later and later. And voilà!

Does no one notice or care that for a lot of people the reason they're reading texts in the car or doing email at night is because their work requires them to? I'm not referring to myself here --  I'm lucky to have one of the last five jobs in the Northern Hemisphere where I can mostly decide how and when to do the things I need to do. But tons of people either work in a place where the culture is for late night email or they work in some kind of super-competitive industry where if they're not clients or whoever emailing at night, they just can't succeed. 

How the hell is it helpful to tell these people, "Oh and BTW -- turn off your phone"?

Another example is this thing I wrote about before about body anxiety. A Guardian writer wrote this very touching and interesting piece about her crushing body anxiety and constant worry about her appearance and thinness. This isn't like just an annoyance. This is like something that's ruining her ability to live a happy life.

This is the kind of thing most women -- and probably a lot of men -- identify with and experience themselves. So I was struck that the author felt guilty and felt that her emotions were at odds with her feminist commitments. Like, if you're a feminist, you should somehow be able to personally and individually regulate your thoughts so you feel "Yay, I love my body!"

Of course that's ridiculous. That's not how social feelings work -- you can't just decide not to have them. Plus, as I pointed out in the previous post, there are armies of people whose job it is to make you feel like you're ugly and fat and stupid and bad. How can the resultant problems be problems with Feel Good Individualism solutions?

A final example is this recent essay about how the modern economy is an asshole factory -- that is, instead of actually making things or providing services or pleasing customers, most companies are just increasing the number of assholes in the world.

The narrative part of the essay is excellent and really showcases how debased modern work has become. The author recounts the experience of a friend who works in retail, being unable to find something better despite multiple degrees. Among other things, the friend is monitored, measured, and shouted at all day long every day. From the essay:
"Her sales figures are monitored…by the microsecond. By hidden cameras and mics. They listen to her every word; they capture her every movement; that track and stalk her as if she were an animal; or a prisoner; or both. She’s jacked into a headset that literally barks algorithmic, programmed “orders” at her, parroting her own 'performance' back to her, telling her how she compares with quotas calculated…down to the second…for all the hundreds of items in the store…which recites 'influence and manipulation techniques' to her…to use on unsuspecting customers…that sound suspiciously like psychological warfare. It’s as if the NSA was following you around……and it was stuck in your head…telling you what an inadequate failure you were…psychologically waterboarding you…all day long…every day for the rest of your life."
If you think he's exaggerating, check out what it's like at an Amazon fulfillment center.

The asshole factory essay points out how once you're in this type of job, you have to become the kind of person who perpetuates the existence of this kind of job -- another asshole created.

These are huge issues, literally wrecking people's lives. And yet, at the end of the essay, when the author address the question of what to do, the answer is, "Don't be an asshole. Be yourself."

I know this is well-intentioned, but WTF? Is the idea really that a million readers are going to show up at work tomorrow and say to their bosses, "No, sorry, I won't monitor/shout at/abuse that employee, and yes I know you'll fire me for that,but that's OK because maybe if the paperwork works out I can go on food stamps and feed my kids from the garbage dumpster?" Please.

How did we get here? It doesn't have to be this way. In France, there are public discussions and policies related to limiting workplace email, and to general working conditions, and even to the fashion industry.

I'm not saying their solutions are the right ones. I'm just that it's possible, in some nearby possible world, to have a completely different framework for these conversations, one that doesn't come down solely to prodding individuals to take action that they can't take anyway and then blaming them when it doesn't happen.

Why can't that nearby possible world be our world? What the hell happened here anyway?