Tuesday, May 16, 2017

In Praise Of Workplace Inefficiency

It's always bothered me the way you can open a newspaper like the New York Times and find completely different perspectives depending on what part of the paper you're in. In the Science page, you might read about how to lower your carbon footprint by taking fewer trips, while in the Travel section you're reading about how it can be a new kind of fun to fly to Europe just for the weekend, and in the Business section you're reading about how to get extra airline miles by making pointless extra stops while you travel -- first class, of course.

One of the main offenders in this regard, I think, has to do with the workplace. In one part of the news, you're likely to read about the importance of having a super-efficient company, with a super-efficient workplace. You might read about strategies to prevent workers from chit-chatting, or looking at the internet, or taking too long in the bathroom.

In another part of the news, though, you might see a completely different take on things, with basically the opposite message -- namely, how to avoid having work completely ruin your life. You might read about strategies for stress relief, like taking frequent small breaks and getting up to walk around.

Personally, I love to see workers being inefficient. This morning I happened to be staying at a hotel, while on a trip to visit my mother, and when I came down to get coffee, there were three hotel employees -- room cleaners, by the look of things -- and they were hanging out, chatting, laughing, and eating pastries from the hotel breakfast room. Yesterday another worker gestured for us go first up the stairs, and when we gestured that he should go first, he said, "Nah. You go ahead first. I'm on the clock!"

I was so happy to see workers in a seemingly relaxed workplace, enjoying themselves a bit. I thought to myself, "This hotel is awesome."

People spend a lot of time at work. And work that requires you to be always on, always pushing forward, never just slacking off -- it's awful. Maybe you saw the news stories about bankers in Canada who were pushed to upsell products in order to meet targets. The described "panic attacks," and "insomnia," "nausea," "anxiety" and "depression."


What must it be like to work as an Amazon picker, where you can never sit down, you can't chat with co-workers, and "if five minutes ever passes without you accomplishing a task, the scanner informs management"? Or in a store in the mall with unrealistic quotas and high pressure consequences like being fired? Or on a chicken conveyor belt, cutting up 45 chickens per minute?

Conversely, just having a bit of a relaxed feeling at work is such a huge component of feeling like things are OK. Those moments between tasks when you can share a joke, or take a look outside, or whatever. Before I became a professor I worked as a waitress, mostly in small, locally owned, low-key diner-type places. I didn't make much money, but I always appreciated it as decent work, mostly because -- unless it was super-busy -- you could chat and joke with your co-workers and customers as the workday rolled along.

This somewhat relaxed feeling at work -- it flies in the face of standard business norms in favor of efficiency, and in a competitive environment, employers might not even be able to afford to make their workplaces more relaxed than other workplaces.

And on top of that, it's not even something that would be easy to regulate. I mean, you can regulate a fifteen minute break. But you can't regulate that feeling that hey, it's OK, we all have plenty of time, if you want to stop and chat or rest your hands or whatever -- it's OK.

It's more like one of those things that has to do with amorphous matters like how it's OK for one person to treat another, and how much you're willing to yell at other people and make their lives miserable on a day to day basis, and how much other people are willing to yell at other people and make their lives miserable on a day to day basis.

Amorphous, shifting, hard to describe -- but very, very real.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Hot Housing Markets And The Dutch Tulip Bubble Of 1637


Ambrosius Bosschaert  (1573–1621), Flower Still Life [with a yellow tulip]. Via Wikimedia Commons.

A friend of mine sent me this article about the "overheated" condo market in Toronto. I own a condo in Toronto, so I guess issue is certainly relevant to my interests. Personally, the price fluctuations don't matter much to me. Partly, this is because we bought our place before prices got so high, and we are using it more as an actual place to live, rather than an investment, so who cares? Partly, this is because I'm the sort of person whose eyes glaze over when we talk about money.

So, sure, I open the unsolicited mailings that real estate agents send us, with their reports on what sold for what and their endless rhetoric of optimism. And sometimes I'm like OMG, how much?? But who knows what's going to happen next? I don't get too excited. From a personal point of view, it's more like entertainment or a spectator sport than anything else.

Of course more generally, I worry about rising housing prices, because I want people to be able to afford housing. Housing prices are one of the weirdest things to read about in the news. When housing prices go up too fast, it's considered bad. When housing prices fall, it's also considered bad, because people use housing as a way of saving for the future. When I see the news about falling housing prices, I sometimes think, "Yeah, I know. But isn't this also a good thing? For people who want to be able to afford homes?"

You might think that rising housing prices would be a reason to create more housing, the theory of supply and demand suggesting that the more supply there is, the more the cost would go down. But in the article my friend sent me, the chief economist at Bank of Montreal is cited saying this isn't so. Creating supply in response to more demand, he said, creates more demand. Prices will then go even higher.

He mentions the example of the example of the Dutch Tulip Bubble in 1637, when people starting paying more and more for tulip bulbs, with prices reaching obscene levels, before a sudden crash in the market. The economist asks rhetorically, "Do you think that the best response to the Dutch Tulip Bubble in 1637 was to cultivate more land and grow more tulips?"

Later he makes the same point with the example of the dot-com bubble of the 90s, asking whether the right response would have been an increased supply of shares of Pets.com or Toys.com.

I don't know if he's trying to simplify a complicated point or something, but these struck me as peculiar analogies. I mean, tulips and dot-coms shares are something no one needs. Housing is something everybody needs. I know, not everyone needs housing in a particular place. But still, tulips and shares are like the opposite of homes: the former you can buy and sell easily and there's no point to owning them beyond making money and impressing people. The other is a huge pain to buy and sell and most people use them for something essential to life. It doesn't add up.

Perhaps the implication is that housing prices are surging in Toronto not for normal supply-and-demand related reasons, but because people are doing with condos what they did before with tulips and dot-com shares, namely buying them not to live in, but more to make money and impress people.

I have no idea if this is true -- in fact, I'm not even sure how someone would know whether it is true. But if it is, even a bit, true, then I guess this means that there are a lot of people with a lot of extra money to throw around and a lot of leeway with respect to how they're throwing it. Are there really so many people who can afford to buy a whole condo just as an investment for the future? In addition to the home they're actually, you know, living in? Tossing them around the way you might throw around a tulip?

I've always thought these kinds of discussions were haunted by the old idea of a "just price." As I've written about before, a long time ago there was the idea that there was a "just" or "fair" or "appropriate" price for something. This makes it easy to explain how a tulip costing ten times someone's annual salary is insane. In some basic sense, a tulip just isn't worth that much.

But as economics developed, the idea of a just price started to seem unscientific and impossible to define. What would it mean, to say one thing is "worth" a certain amount? All the data we have just concern prices: what it's "worth" in modern parlance is just what people think it is worth, which is basically what people are willing to pay. The idea that there is "worth" inherent in objects, that transcends what people want to pay, seems peculiar, like some kind of weird bad metaphysics or voodoo science. 

But if worth is just what people are willing to pay, then it's difficult to say that things are costing "too much." You can't say that tulips were insanely overpriced, and by extension, you can't say that the housing market's pricing is out-of-whack. At most, you could say something about the future: that you think prices are going to come crashing down. But you'd have to refrain from saying anything about which price is what the housing is really worth.

The reason I say just price theory "haunts" these discussions is just that I think certain intuitive but hazy background ideas about worth are sometimes in play. When the pharmabro guy wanted to put skyrocketing prices on his drugs, people said he wasn't charging a "fair price." When people talk about housing prices being out-of-whack, there's a suggestion that there is something a condo is actually worth, generally speaking.

So when someone says it would be silly to make more tulips in response to demand, I think one reason this rings true is because we feel, in some inchoate sense, that tulips just aren't worth that much. After all, if tulips were found to have some cancer-curing chemical we could use to treat people, then a rational response to skyrocketing tulip costs would be -- of course, for God's sake, make more tulips.

It wouldn't be surprising if judgments of whether housing has some inherent worth varied along with wealth: if you think of housing as a think you use to live, like those life-saving tulips, then it seems to have some hazy inherent value relative to other goods in your life and so on. And a rational response to demand is to make more.

But if you think of housing in terms of a thing people just buy and sell, then it's hard to see how its "value" can be understood in any way except what people are willing to pay. And in that case, it might seem that the creation of supply would be, on balance, not a good thing.

I don't know all the ins and outs, so I can't say what will cause what to happen overall. But as someone thinking of housing as a good thing, the analogy to the tulip market doesn't ring true to me. If you have a good thing, and costs for it go up, then why not make more?

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Which Ideas Should Have A Place On University Campuses?

Which ideas should have a place on university campuses?

It might seem like the answer is "all of them," but I think that can't be right. Should universities invite speakers to give public lectures on "Why All Episcopalians are Evil People"? How about "My Personal Theory On Why The Germ Theory of Disease is False"? Or "Do You Have Cancer? It's Your Own Fault." 

What about a speaker who promises to show that "shape-shifting reptilian aliens control Earth by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate human societies." Or, just for something really simple, how about an hour long presentation on how "That Student Named Joe Green is Dumb and Ugly, and His Acne Makes Him Gross and Undatable."

None of these topics, I think, would be appropriate use of university resources and none would be appropriate as a sponsored event at a university. None, I think, involve ideas that would be appropriate for a teacher to endorse in a classroom setting.

As is often pointed out, giving people a platform is different from "free speech." According to the principles of free speech, if you want to walk around promoting your crackpot theory of illness, or explaining your personal ideas about how reptiles secretly rule the world, or ranting and raving about what a dope that Joe Green is, there's nothing to stop you. Knock yourself out. While there are legitimate questions in the margins -- like, whether you should be able to speak out without being fired -- the platform in question is not in that category. Having these as university sponsored themes would be ridiculous and offensive, and people would be right to be upset.

I think about this often, of course, when people talk about "free speech" issues on campus. There is a lot of concern out there that campuses are becoming intolerant of a free exchange of ideas, but as I've explained before, I think that often -- and especially when we're talking about university sponsored and promoted events -- "free speech" isn't really the issue at all. If students objected to a talk on "Why All Episcopalians are Evil People" or "Do You Have Cancer? It's Your Own Fault" or whatever -- I think they'd be right to do so. The issue with campus sponsored events isn't about "free speech," but rather about which ideas deserve a hearing and which do not.

When you put it this way, it's not surprising that people disagree -- because once you get into controversial topics, people not only disagree about what is true, they disagree about what is reasonable versus obviously false, what is worth debating versus what is a conspiracy theory, what is worth discussing versus what is just propaganda for instruments of oppression and so on. But this isn't a disagreement about free speech versus something else. It's a disagreement about actual ideas, about what is and isn't an open question, about what is and isn't harmful and how bad those harms are.

The question of which ideas deserve a platform, which deserve our time and serious engagement, is complicated. Judgments have to be decided on the merits of the case, and cannot be decided with a universalizing meta-principle. There are many factors to consider, like the degree to which a set of ideas might cause harm. One of the most important factors concerns the likely merits of the proposed contribution. On the face of it, people who deny the germ theory of disease, or want to tell us about global reptile domination -- the merit of the contribution is, to put it politely, "obscure."

If this is right, appeal to universalizing meta-principles like "free speech" or even "open exchanges of ideas" do not provide the relevant rationale. Cases have to be argued on their merits.

I was thinking about this recently when Milo Yiannopoulos was invited to speak at Berkeley and protestors prevented that from happening. Leaving aside for the moment the difficult question of the tactics used to prevent the speech, I was curious to know why he was invited to speak in the first place. Not knowing much about him beyond his abuse of Leslie Jones, I was curious what his defenders might think of as the merits of the proposed contribution.

In this article from The Guardian, The Berkeley College Republicans are quoted as saying that the opportunity to invite Yiannopoulos was "too good to pass up," while emphasizing they don't agree with everything he says. The Chancellor is quoted as describing Yiannopoulos a "troll and provocateur who uses odious behavior in parts to 'entertain,' but also to deflect any serious engagement with ideas," while also defending his right to speak on campus.

These remarks seem to me to leave the crucial question unaddressed. What is it that his defenders thought were the merits of the contribution? "Too good to pass up" -- why, exactly? Is it that his presence on campus would make people upset and angry? I think that on its own, in this context, this is not a reason.

I am a supporter of free speech. I think people like Milo Yiannopoulos and other provocateurs like Dieudonné have a right to say what they want to say. But people don't have rights to university platforms. It would be my opinion that if Milo Yiannopoulos proposed to give a campus talk consisting of abuse of Leslie Jones, then just like the "That Student Named Joe Green is Dumb and Ugly, and His Acne Makes Him Gross and Undatable," the talk would be wildly inappropriate and he shouldn't be invited to give it.

If we don't have a lecture series on why the germ theory of disease is false, or how the world is run by reptiles, this isn't because of enemies of "free speech." It's because those ideas are stupid, and not worth our time and attention. If you want to defend campus speakers, it's not enough to be in favor of free speech. You have to have a case for why, exactly, the proposed ideas are worth taking seriously. You don't have to think the proposed ideas are true. But you have to say why they're worth discussing.

I'm not saying that these cases don't exist. I'm just saying that in this context, appeals to "free speech" are never sufficient on their own.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Comedy And The Implied Author As Window-Dressing

I don't know if you read Emily Nussbaum's piece in the New Yorker a few months ago about comedy and modern politics, but one of the things she talks about is how the distinction between acting like a Nazi for "lulz" and and being an actual Nazi is breaking down, and how crucial the idea of "but it's just a joke!" has become to our cultural interactions.

Though her focus is more on politics, one of the things her analysis made me think of was the idea of an "implied author." I know this concept from reading about it in Martha Nussbaum's work on objectification, but it's really an idea from literary theory. The idea is that while the story or the narrator might present a certain thing one way, the normative stance toward that thing conveyed by the work of art might be something else entirely. For example, in Henry James's work, the characters use and "objectify" one another for various things like status and money. But the book as a whole seems to subject those actions to critical scrutiny rather than celebrating them.

It's obviously not an idea without complexities, since saying anything about an implied author requires interpretation and and interpretations can vary. But I'd also say that some texts are better suited to the idea of an implied author than others. And, of course, you can intentionally try to subvert the idea through ambiguity, and that's something that's gone on for a long time.

But I feel like there's a thing now that isn't ambiguity but that's more like a cynical attempt to allow people to enjoy and participate in something bad while holding on to the soothing cover of an "implied author" -- to kind of hold in reserve that the point isn't to celebrate something but rather to mock it or "comment" on it.

One example in the New Yorker piece is a story line from South Park, in which a megalomaniac presidential candidate goes on stage as a standup comedian intending to offend his fans. He starts with a joke about how awful it is to have to stand in line because of "all the freakin' Muslims," and then he moves on to how all the black TSA agents look like "thugs" from the inner city, and when he just gets bigger and bigger laughs, he finally starts talking about putting his fingers into women's butts and pussies. Finally, some white women walk out, and the candidate says "You’ve been O.K. with the ‘Fuck ’Em All to Death’ and all the Mexican and Muslim shit, but fingers in the ass did it for you. Cool. Just wanted to see where your line was."

"I just wanted to see where your line was." It's easy to make an argument that the implied author of this bit is making a joke about the entrenched racism of American culture -- that a large bunch of people are happy to tolerate and engage in offensive racist remarks and attitudes.

But I couldn't help but wonder if there was also an audience was that was enjoying those very same jokes, and perhaps inattentive to the possibility of this other implied author. In fact, you could read the whole thing the other way around, that the candidate is making a fearlessly politically incorrect speech (hey, free speech everyone!) and then making fun of the women who walk out for being "unable to take a joke."

The bit can work on both levels. In fact, the more outrageous the candidate's speech is, the more it's likely to work on both levels: the person wants to engage in racism can enjoy the speech and ignore any complexities.

And where I think the whole thing gets maximally creepy is that because of the way the entertainment industry works, shows almost have to work on multiple levels: shows cost a fortune to make, and they have to appeal to a massively wide range of people, sometimes a globally massively wide range of people.

You can do that by being action-adventure-bland, of course. But if you're going to be funny or edgy or whatever, you can only do it by working all the levels. Islamophobic and racist jokes that work for the islamphobes and racists, and an "implied author" the creators can point to to justify that they're not really doing the thing, they're not really participating in it. But, of course, in a sense they are.

If this is right, the whole breakdown of distinctions like "Nazi-for-lulz" and "actual Nazi" isn't really a bug, but more of a feature. It may have started with 4chan or whatever. But it's a great move, capitalism-wise. Working all the levels at the same time makes for bigger audiences, more money, all the things a complex and hyper-competitive industry needs to keep going.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The New Myers-Briggs

I've always thought that the Myers-Briggs test -- like most psychological classification tests -- had a kind of bullshitty aspect to it. But for some reason. the human urge to develop acronyms and short quizzes to unlock the mysteries of our inner lives seems unsatisfiable. So, in that spirit, here are some other categories I like to use to understand other people.

1. "Straight Man" Versus "Funny Man."

We live in a very fucked up world. As I see it, you can either laugh at the ridiculous of the world directly, or you can take up the quieter, more subtle, implicit side-eye approach. In defining "straight man," Wikipedia says "The ability to maintain a serious demeanor in the face of even the most preposterous comedy is crucial to a successful straight man." But this is a bit narrow. How about "in the face of even them most preposterous .. well, anything?"

Personally, I wish I'd learned about the whole straight man concept at a younger age. When I was around eight years old, I had a friend named Katie who was not only a creative genius but also a classic "funny man." We wrote and performed for our parents a serious of comedy sketches based on two characters: I was the stern and angry school principal (Mr. Valteman), and she was the carefree, rebellious teen (I had an awesome purple vinyl jacket that worked perfectly for her costume). Over and over, she'd call me "Mr. V," and flash the peace sign or whatever, and over and over I'd bring down on her head all the impotent rage that principals have brought down all through the centuries.

At the time, I thought she was the star of the show and I was kind of an also-ran. What I didn't know is that the straight man is a crucial ingredient. Now, I get it: you actually don't even need a funny man to be a great straight man. All you need is to live among absurdity (check), show that you know you do, and say your piece with a straight face. 

2. Lolcat Versus Doge


I know these are dated memes. But philosophy moves slowly.

I am a cat person along any available dimension you can outline, so it's not surprising that I love looking at pictures of cats in different poses, pictures of cats with captions, and pictures of cats with words printed on them.


What is a bit surprising -- or, at least, it surprised me -- was the degree to which I was left cold by the Doge meme. You know, where there's a picture of that Shiba Inu and there are words around it. I am left so cold by this meme that I don't even know the sense in which it is meant to be charming. Is it supposed to be funny? cute? meta?

There is something deep being shared and communicated by people who love this meme that is utterly and completely lost on me.

3. The Terror of Activity Versus the Terror of Inactivity

Rationally enough, some people's anxieties are triggered by things. They have to do something, or be somewhere. They have to talk on the phone, or organize some papers, or meet a deadline. They become anxious, and they dream of a world where all of that fades away: things are taken care of, there's nothing else they have to do, and they can rest quietly on a sofa in a softly lit room.

While I share the normal human tendency toward dread and fear of doing things, I'm actually more likely to be reduced to despair by a quiet and empty day. Time to think means  ... time to think. And thinking leads me nowhere good. You start by asking yourself what to do, you move on to asking what the point of various activities are, and before long you're either 1) wasting the whole day looking at the internet or 2) staring down the existential crisis that life is, actually, totally pointless.

This is the terror of inactivity.

Unlike the old Myers-Briggs proponents, I don't claim that psychological insight into these types will help you figure out, as we would have said in the 70s, the "color of your parachute." But isn't it more interesting and fun to know you're a straight man, than, say, an INTJ? 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

No Post Today Because The Blogger Is Sick - Again!!

Just a really bad cold, but I'm kind of incapacitated for the moment. Looking forward to meeting you all here next Tuesday and as always, thank for reading!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Consumer Micromanagement

One of the things I don't like about modern life is what I think of as "consumer micromanagement" -- by which I mean the way people who are selling me things are able track my choices and alter their goods and content in response. While it may seem to them like profit management and capitalism business as usual, the effect I feel in my life is to make me into a worse version of myself.


Before your individual choices were tracked, it was possible for your consumer dollar to express an interest in a bundle of things, appropriately bundled. A bundle of things that might range from the easy to the challenging, or the stupid to the complex, or the childish to the sophisticated, or the bad to the good. And even if you sometimes lapsed into choosing the easy, the stupid, the childish, and the bad, you could feel like in the larger scheme of things you were at least supporting something that was, on balance, OK.

Now that choices are tracked, it's no longer like that. Now if you choose the easy, the stupid, the childish, and the bad, the goods or content provider you are dealing with will take that as a sign that they should be providing -- and providing only -- the easy, the stupid, the childish, and the bad.

Here are a few examples.

1. In the news

I like to read the news. When I'm tired or depressed, I often click on what is easy and the stupid. But that doesn't mean I want my newspaper to stop providing the challenging and the complex. On the contrary.

It used to be that I could buy the New York Times or the local paper -- and know that I was, in a sense, throwing my consumer dollar toward the mix of things they had. 

If I was feeling low energy, I might head immediately to the comics, or study the "boldface names," or peruse the letters to the editor. I might not study the long article about the what's going on in Egypt or Syria. But I was happy to know it was there, glad to feel I could read it later or read a relevantly similar story some other day, and satisfied to know that in purchasing the paper I had expressed this full range of preferences.

Well, those halcyon days are over. If you read the news online, everyone knows immediately whether you clicked on the comics and whether you failed to inform yourself about something complicated or sophisticated. News providers being part of capitalism, they draw the obvious inference: they should run more comics -- or, in the modern situation, more listicles -- and less of all that other boring stuff.

2. In the bookstore

Bookstores used to go out of their way to stock a range of things, perhaps with the intelligent thought that people shopping for mystery stories might still enjoy the experience of being around books about Milton or quantum physics or the history of Mesopotamia.

Now, I realize that for a long time a store might know which books it's selling more of. But before the tracking mania, book industry people actually went out of their way to craft an audience. They didn't assume that a person, having bought seventeen light mystery-reading books in a row, would just want to read more like mystery-reading. They assumed, correctly, that people who read books could be interested in anything. Now, it's more like "Oh, we know what to print and stock -- we'll print and stock things like the things people have already bought!"

3. At the grocery store

Sometimes I buy tofu and yogurt and cashews. Sometimes I buy candy. I'm always paranoid that if I don't buy expensive blueberries or my preferred kind of feta cheese, that next time it won't be there. In a paranoid way, I have to shop for what I think I might want to shop for later. It's exhausting. If the store just had some vague sense that the things they were buying were the things their customers were purchasing, at least I wouldn't to worry in such a fine-grained kind of way.

I know we can't go back to the days when my dollar just expressed a general approval of some general range of things and not some specific version of myself at a specific time and place. But maybe we can just chill a little with the specificity.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Facebook, Fake News, And The Problems Of Trust And Legitimacy

When I heard that Facebook was going to try to "do something" about fake news, my first thought was "Oh yeah, that'll end well. What could go wrong"?

It's not that lies, hoaxes, and misinformation aren't a problem (and by the way, what was wrong with "lies" "hoaxes" and "misinformation"?) -- it's just that truth and factuality are not simple problems, they're not algorithmic problems, and they're not problems you can take a "neutral" stand on. Yet you know Facebook will try to treat them as if they are.

The first kind of example that came into my mind on thinking about this was about the aftermath of the protests in Ferguson after the shooting of Michael Brown. I got a lot of my news from following people on Twitter who were there -- some, like Jelani Cobb, professional journalists, and others people who were not. 

Often, what I read on Twitter did not match up with what I read in the mainstream press. The press interviewed the police or asked government officials to comment on things; in the nature of things they had a vested interested in portraying the protestors as initiators of violence. Reports from people there emphasized the militarized police response and also the number of peaceful protestors doing things like protecting property and cleaning up.

When the reports of the citizens on the ground don't match up with official reports or reports in the news, who are you going to trust to tell you the truth? And when, and why? These are difficult questions. But do you really want Facebook answering them for you?

Maybe you might say the is for simpler, more straightforward cases (like, you know, "lies," "hoaxes" and "misinformation"). But that's not how the response to "fake news" has been shaking out so far. Maybe you've heard about the "B. S. Detector" that claims to "alert users to unreliable news sources." One of the first things that happened was the site Naked Capitalism got incorrectly tagged as a "fake news" site. In fact, what Naked Capitalism is is in-depth analysis of current events that sometimes diverges from official positions and mainstream media.

Are we really so far down the rabbit hole that we want social media companies to pronounce on what is and is not a legitimate critique of government statements or the New York Times?

Facebook, in fashion characteristic of the tech industry, wants to be address the problem of "fake news" while also maintaining "neutrality." As we've discussed before, the dream is to off-load judgments onto users so that algorithm's can solve all problems and no value judgments have to be explicitly endorsed. And as we've discussed before, this is impossible: there is no "value-free" way to offload judgments about what is and is not acceptable speech, or what does and does not constitute unacceptable forms of discrimination, or what is or is not sexist, racist, and so on. You let users decide you're often going to get an outcome that goes horribly wrong.

I had to laugh when I learned that the term Facebook is going to use for hoaxes, lies, and misinformation is "disputed." For one thing, could anything be a more obvious attempt to sound "neutral?" It's like, "WE'RE not saying there's a problem. But SOMEBODY out there is disputing this."

In a more sinister vein, when it comes to actual hoaxes, lies, and misinformation, doesn't "disputed" actually seem like it would add an air of legitimacy? One of the more interesting things I read about "fake news" was how that guy in California created a ton of fake news  -- like "FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide" -- and earned a ton of money. You can read an interview with him here. But then it turns out that teens in Macedonia (and presumably people all over the world) are creating fake news just for profit.

Isn't using the term "disputed" to describe "FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide" heading off in the wrong direction entirely? Doesn't that make it sound like some obscure point about Benghazi, where some partisans think one thing happened and some partisans think another thing happened, but who really knows? Doesn't it make it sound like a possibly legit thing? When, in fact, it is just a hoax, a set of lies!

The problem of truth and belief goes way beyond algorithms and neutrality and involves complicated issues of community and trust. When the New York Times ran a whole article explaining why "pizzagate" was based on a set of lies, do you think people who believed in pizzagate said to themselves "Oh, I guess that pizzagate wasn't true." Of course not. They went and wrote articles debunking the debunking. Just a few days ago there was a protest in DC with people demanding an inquiry. 

Looking up pizzagate on Wikipedia, I see a journalist quoted as saying that pizzagate is "two worlds clashing. People don't trust the mainstream media anymore, but it's true that people shouldn't take the alternative media as truth, either." This is aptly said. People trust different sources. No algorithm is going to deal with that problem.

If Facebook's proposed solution is to add a "disputed" tag to posts, potentially undermining citizen reports that contradict official news, and legitimating things that are lies and hoaxes in the first place -- well, it seems to me this may well do more harm than good. Maybe Facebook should stay out of the social epistemology business altogether.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Modern Condition: No Slack In The System

There was maybe going to be a transit strike this past Monday in the area where I work, starting this Monday. It didn't happen, because of a tentative agreement reached late Sunday night. But it got me thinking about the ways that systems of modern life are so tightly wound that any disruption is like the end of the world.

Of course, having a major bus system stop functioning is a big deal no matter what the time and place. But it feels like these days, especially, a lot of people have employment that is particularly inflexible, precarious, and high-pressure. Work schedules can be posted late. Failure to obey the schedules can result in reprimands and dismissals. Quotas are set for a range of criteria and if you can't meet them, well -- you're screwed.

I don't know if you've been following the news about the Amazon warehouses, and how the pickers are under constant surveillance, not allowed to sit ever, forced to aim for a "target rate" of 100-120 items an hour. This story describes how Mail UK deals with employees as independent contractors, so that if they get sick, they not only don't get paid, they have to pay for replacement workers; a worker was charged £216 per day of absence after got hit by a car while delivering packages. Bankers across Canada are told if they can't upsell enough products to people who don't need them, they'll be fired.

But it's not only labor where there's no slack in the system. If you ever fly these days, you know that if something goes wrong with your plane, or a crew member gets sick, or there's bad weather or whatever, there's no "Oh, we'll get another plane' or "Oh, we'll put you on the next one." The planes are all in use; the crew are all maxed out; the planes are all full. There is no duplication, or overlap, or plan B, or whatever.

One thing about this that interests me is that although I have used a negative formulation to describe the phenomenon I am talking about, there is another description of the same thing, a positive one, one you'd probably find more often in the Business Section of the paper, and that is: "It's efficient."

It's efficient in one ordinary sense of the word: you're doing as much as you can with the "resources" you have. Amazon moves a ton of stuff for low financial cost. Planes fly a ton of people with lower fares. UK Mail made a profit of £16m last year when it was bought out by the Deutsche Post DHL Group.

You can ask the question of why "no slack in the system" seems to be so dramatically on the rise, but once you notice that "no slack" is also "financially efficient," you start to wonder about other things, like why this didn't happen earlier, or why there used to be so much flexibility, easy-goingness, and duplication, or why this is all happening now.

To these questions I do not have answers. Is it that electronic communication made possible a tightness that wasn't possible before? Is it that globalization and the financial crisis made everyone focus their attention on the bottom line? Is it a cultural thing involving negative attitudes toward labor and consumer protections? Or maybe it's actually been a really gradual thing that just seemed dramatic to me?

There's a point of view from which an important part of the explanation of things like this involves "corporate greed." The idea is that in a normal world, corporations are happy to make a moderate amount of money, and prioritize other things like worker well-being and so on. So the problem is that "greedy" corporations are trying to make a lot of money, instead of a moderate amount of money. And so they can't prioritize anything else.

As I've explained before, I think this explanation is inaccurate and possibly naive. In a modern capitalist marketplace context, the pressures toward efficiency are enormous. If you're less efficient, you'll just get run out of town by some other organization that can offer the same product for a lower price. In fact, this is just what we've seen over and over again, with smaller retailers going out of business because Amazon, Walmart, and so on are so hyper efficient. So: often it's efficiency or die.

I don't know whether we ought to do anything about the slack-freeness involved in things like having no planes sitting around unused. Fewer and more packed airplanes is actually better from the environmental point of view.

But when it comes to workers, my sense is that the slack-free workplace is horrible for people. It creates jobs that are massively stressful and ruin people's health and well-being. It illustrates something we've talked about before: that what is efficient when you're measuring money is not always what is "efficient" at producing good outcomes overall -- assuming "good outcomes" includes personal well-being and happiness of people.

Given the competitive nature of capitalism, it seems to me any solution will have to be systemic, and will have to involve labor laws, worker organizations and so on. Given that the bus driver's union Unifor Local 4303 retweeted a link to this webpage, about fairness in labor laws, including a comment about how "fair work schedules" means "2 week's notice," I'm guessing they're thinking the same sort of thing.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Humanities Teaching Is Difficult And Time-Consuming

Before I studied philosophy, I studied math. I was working on a PhD in set theory when I became less interested in how-do-you-prove-the-theorem and more interested in questions like what-does-it-mean-if-you-can't-prove-or-disprove-the-theorem?

Among other things, this means that before I started studying philosophy I spent a certain amount of time teaching mathematics. I started as a teaching assistant for introductory courses like Calculus and Statistics, and then I was a teaching assistant for more advanced courses like Differential Equations, and then toward the end I taught a few classes myself, including one on how to do mathematical proofs.

Math is hard. But I found teaching mathematics to be mostly straightforward and rewarding. Students are usually externally motivated to learn: they want to do physics, or engineering, or more advanced math, or whatever, and to do it they have to learn some math. Except in the case of bogus requirements -- like baby calculus for no reason for majors like business to "weed out" students they didn't like  -- the importance and relevance of the subject was relatively obvious.

At the level of undergraduate teaching at least, math is also coherent and unchanging. Because of the nature of the subject, the same kinds of things confuse people, and similar kinds of questions arise again and again. Once I had explained concepts like limits, differentiation, and integration a few times, the ideas were cemented in my head in such a way that very little teaching preparation was required.

On top of everything else, because math is obviously difficult, a teacher's ability to break down difficult concepts to make them seem simple earns them great respect. And this was something I was relatively good at.

Several years into the process of studying for a PhD in math I switched to philosophy. I've now been teaching philosophy in one form or another for ... well, a lot of years. And my personal opinion is that teaching philosophy is way more difficult and way more time-consuming than teaching mathematics. I don't have a lot of experience with the other humanities, but it is my belief that the reasons apply to humanities teaching generally.


Those reasons are several. For one thing, math seems difficult and a teacher is there to make it seem simpler, but in the humanities, it's often necessary to start by taking something that seems simple and showing students how difficult it is. I teach ethics, and philosophy of sex and love, and contemporary moral problems, and philosophy of economics. In all of these areas there's a sense in which a student already knows what they think about things, and part of my job is to complicate that -- to raise questions about things that seem obvious, to showcase views that seem counter-intuitive, and to just generally show how many different factors and perspectives can come into play.

This is intellectually difficult, and it can also be emotionally draining. How do you frame the issues when students are coming into the room with very different background assumptions - and you don't even know what those background assumptions are? How do you encourage people to speak up when part of your job is to suggest they might be totally wrong? How, exactly, do you figure out the line between constructively challenging existing beliefs and just being a contrarian pain in the ass?

Some people love the way humanities thinking challenges them, but other people find it exhausting and annoying. Sometimes science students in my ethical thinking class tell me how frustrated they are by the lack of a "right answer" in philosophy. I sympathize! It can be frustrating as hell. Unfortunately, the problems we're talking about are the ones that don't have straightforward answers, so it's the best we can do to muddle through.

Another factor, of course, is the variation and unpredictability of what kinds of things are going to come up. The social and cultural world we're living in makes different things seem obvious in different times. Even just contingently there are classrooms where one thing seems really important that didn't seem important to some other group.

This variation and unpredictability is, of course, part of what makes humanities teaching so important, relevant, engaging, and fun. But it also means that while teaching an interactive mathematics class can feel like a going through a play you're performed a thousand times, teaching an interactive humanities class can feel like a high-wire act where the tricks are constantly changing.

And finally, of course, there's grading. While mathematics grading can be time-consuming (when I did it, we didn't just grade yes-or-no, we looked at student work for partial credit) it's not like grading a paper -- work that combines engaging with someone's novel ideas and helping them toward an amorphous goal like "writing well." As we've discussed before, it takes a lot of time and energy, and it's not something you can scale up.

A few times recently I happened to be in large university group settings, where people were coming from a range of disciplines. And in that context, I heard some remarks about how, from the point of view of the sciences, what we humanities might regard as a large-ish class -- like, 50 or 100 students -- is to them a very small class. No one said it, but I felt the suggestion that somehow we humanities people weren't pulling our weight, that what we were doing was some kind of niche thing, cute and nice if you can afford it, but not really where the action is.

And I can't really say, because I have no experience teaching science. I only taught math -- which to me is a completely different kettle of fish. But from my perspective, the time and energy to teach a philosophy class is way more than the time and energy of teaching a mathematics class. Even when the classes are a lot smaller.

None of this is meant as a complaint. I love university students, and I love being around them. I think the people who criticize the younger generation for being phone-obsessed and jobless are wrong and ill-informed, and that today's young people are the hope of the future. I regard helping these young people understand the complex world around them as one of the best things anyone can do.

I'm just saying: for me, anyway, teaching about utilitarianism is way harder than teaching what it means to take the limit as h goes to zero.