Tuesday, July 19, 2016

I Liked Ghostbusters (2016)

I saw the new Ghostbusters movie on Sunday and I liked it.


1. There were many small, funny jokes that were also commentary on gender politics -- like when Abby is scrolling down the comments and reads out "Ain't no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts." But my favorite moment in the movie happened when the Ghostbusters are facing down the bad guy, Rowan.

Rowan wants to destroy the world because he feels he hasn't gotten the admiration and attention he deserves. At a climactic moment, he shouts to the women about how no one recognizes his true qualities, his worth, his genius!

It may have been my imagination, but I felt like after he shouted that there was pause, while the camera lingered on the faces of the Ghostbusters. What I saw in those faces was "We're women. You're going to try to tell us about having unrecognized worth and unappreciated qualities?!" Priceless.

2. All the ridiculous drama about the movie -- WTF? Sometimes when I disagree with people I sort of get what they're on about. But the rage that people seemed to feel over having four women ghostbusters -- it's truly mystifying to me.

I mean, it's not mystifying in the sense that yes, there are sexist people who just want to see men do things and women look pretty and they're threatened by anything else. But people don't like to state this as a bald fact, so they come up with "reasons." Like -- this movie is going to "ruin my childhood."

You know what? There are a lot of movies with premises I don't appreciate. I don't want to see a movie that guts the social satire of a Jane Austen book and turns it into a rom-com. I don't want to see Sherlock Holmes turned into an action franchise. I don't want to see anyone portraying Bertie Wooster and supplanting the mental Bertie Wooster I have in my head (who is a surprisingly good guy, BTW).

I might have confided to my closest friends that I regarded the making of these films as a perversion of art  and all that is good in the world. But, gee, somehow I managed to refrain from shouting all oer social media that anyone who wanted to make or watch these movies was a horrible cretin who was destroying everything and should go immediately to hell. FFS, people.

3. There's a very good subplot involving a moronic but conventionally attractive guy, Kevin, who becomes the Ghostbusters' receptionist. Some of the jokes are about how the Ghostbusters ogle him and act inappropriately and all that -- obviously a reference to the eleven million other movies in which a bunch of men hire a cute and ineffectual secretary to ogle and flirt with.

This reviewer describes the Kevin bit as "deserved reverse sexism." And I know the reviewer means well, but no, no -- it's not "sexism," and it's not "reverse sexism."

"Sexism" doesn't mean "inappropriate sexualization" and it doesn't just mean anything that is gendered. There's room for various definitions, but plausibly, "sexism" is whatever promotes or props up a certain system -- a particular system of gender difference and gender hierarchy.

If you're in an all male office and the male superiors ogle and flirt with their male subordinates, that is sexual harassment, but it's not sexism, because it's all men.

If you're in a mixed office, and the male superiors ogle and flirt with their female subordinates, that is sexual harassment and sexism: it's harassment that promotes and props up the existing gender system in which men get to do jobs and women are there to be ogled and flirted with.

If you're in a mixed office and the female superiors ogle and flirt with the male subordinates, that is sexual harassment, but it is not sexism -- because it challenges, rather than supporting, the dominant gender system in which men get to do jobs and women are there to be ogled and flirted with.

What happens in the movie is sexual harassment. It's not "deserved," but it is cinematically appropriate and good in the sense that by subverting, rather than promoting, the existing gender system, the depiction is anti-sexist and shows up the sexism of the vast majority of Hollywood blockbusters as movies. 

Sorry to be pedantic. But calling it "deserved reverse sexism" is so confused and wrong, it just plays into the whole misguided idea that calling out sexism is somehow, itself, sexist.

4. Many people have pointed out that it was weird to have the one black Ghostbuster also be the only non-scientist Ghostbuster. I thought that was true. If you want to hear Leslie Jones talk about it, you can, in her excellent interview on the WTF podcast.

5. I was astonished by the degree to which it was a big deal to me to see women -- particularly women scientists -- in a movie. I mean, I know we talk about this all the time, how it matters to see people like you doing your thing, and how there are almost no movies that pass the Bechdel test (must have at least two female characters, they have to talk to one another, about something other than a man), and about how women are virtually always just arm candy, or moms, or absent altogether. But somehow I didn't expect to feel so emotional about it.

I'm not a scientist, but I am an intellectual, and I spend a lot of time having conversations, often with other women, involving big words, and technical details, and complicated ideas, and differences of opinion. Seeing this activity finally depicted on film blew my mind. It's crazy to realize that I'd never, ever seen this activity, which makes up so much of my adult life, in a movie.

At the end of the movie, there's a scene where Sigourney Weaver plays the older, more experienced scientist mentor of the zany, young scientist and Ghostbuster Holtzmann, and tells her to do some things, and to not do some other things. And I got so excited: older, more experienced, female scientist mentor! Unfortunately, since it was a three-second cameo, just like that it was over.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Purchasable Versus The Good: Economic Theory And The Problem Of What Gets Counted

I was reading this interesting post about the role that the "credentialed class" plays in creating societal disasters -- like the opioid epidemic -- when I got thinking about the connections and disconnections between economics, capitalism, and value judgements about what is good and worthwhile.

The post tries to trace some of the particular mechanisms through which pharmaceutical companies used aggressive and questionable tactics to market opioids after they were introduced, so that they made a fortune, without regard to the fact that part of that fortune was being made as a result of usage leading to addiction, overdose, and death.

It reminded me immediately of the somewhat strange role that concepts like "economic growth" and "preference satisfaction" play in economic theory and policy making. It's always seemed odd to me that from a theoretical point of view, economic theory understands "preferences" in a formal neutral sense, while at the same time, policy makers tend to regard maximizing preference satisfaction as somehow a "good thing."

The disconnect between these is well brought out by examples of consumer goods that are successfully marketed but also bad for people over the long term. From the standard theoretical point of view of "revealed preference theory," it's all sort of a tautology: if a person drinks a Coke, they are simply satisfying a preference they had for Coke; if a person gives 10 dollars away, they are simply satisfying a preference for giving money away; if a person educates their children, they are simply satisfying a preference for educating their children.

This means that using economic theory to figure out what would be "best overall," we should just do the things that maximize the satisfaction of all these preferences, where they are all on a par. It wouldn't matter whether what the preferences are. Coke, schooling, it's all the same.

But most of use don't regard these preferences as all being on a par. We want our society to be full of people who are healthy, generous, and educated. So, taking up a different perspective, we do things like taxing and benefiting when people do one thing instead of doing another.

It's like we have two completely different systems for evaluating how things are supposed to work. We have the capitalism system, where free trades promote individual preference satisfaction. Then we have a completely different value-based system, where we try to figure out what is and isn't working well in our society and try to fix it. The two systems are not the same. And we're constantly bouncing around about which one to use.

I think this same disconnection is at play in the recently debated question about whether black market activities should count for GDP. The EU has always had a policy that since GDP should measure "everything," calculations should include black market exchanges -- like the buying and selling of drugs, sex, and smuggled goods. In 2014, they started requiring countries to actually start measuring.

You can see the incentive for the inclusion. All kinds of decisions are based on GDP. The EU has a policy that restricts expenditures to a percent of GDP. So having a higher number puts more options on the table.

How far are we willing to go with this? Should payment to a hit man to carry out a murder count as "economic activity"?

This New York Times story says that Italy refuses to count "business conducted by the Italian mob" -- even though that would add to GDP astronomically -- and that France refuses to count drugs and sex work -- "out of concern that prostitution, for example, often stems from sexual slavery and should not be given the veneer of economic legitimacy."

And this critic of the policy wonders how far things will go. Will we count "forced labor, human trafficking and illegal organ trade"? If we do, doesn't this lend legitimacy to such behaviors?

Again, I think this shows how we have two different evaluative systems which only sometimes overlap. We have the capitalism system, which counts economic activity as economic activity, and we have the actual evaluative system, in which we know that mafia activity and forced labor are Bad Things.

The Times points out that moral considerations cast doubt on using GDP to measure anything at all, quoting Robert F. Kennedy as saying that GDP measures everything "except that which makes life worthwhile." In response to objections related to values, one EU economist said black market activity should not be included in GDP:
If you think that drugs and prostitution are things that do not necessarily improve the quality of life in a country, then including them undermines G.D.P. as measure of well-being.
But if I am right about the disconnect between the capitalist system of evaluation and the value-judgment system, there are real problems using GDP as a measure of anything to do with "goodness" or "well-being." Which market things increase well-being and which ones don't? And where do aggressively marketed opioids and Coca-Cola fit in?

It seems to me that sometimes the two systems for how things should work seem, at least to a lot of people, to run closer to parallel, so that with a little fudging, it appears like we can sort of nudge the capitalist system and the how-things-should-work system toward one another.

But I feel like at other times, they start to look far, far apart, so that the economically efficient ways of proceeding seem radically unlike the how-things-should-work ways of proceeding. Other times -- that is, like maybe now.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Skepticism About Economic Efficiency Isn't Stupid

On Sunday the New York Times ran this think piece about how maybe "economic efficiency" isn't all its cracked up to be, or at least isn't the only thing in life.

The main point of the piece is that overall economic growth isn't the only thing people care about. People also care about things like equality, the distribution of wealth, the texture of their lives and their social world. Because of this, people may reasonably endorse policies -- like limits on trade or rent control -- that economists -- and other people -- think of as "idiocy."

A few thoughts:

1. Isn't it obvious that overall economic growth isn't the only thing that matters? When I first read this, I had that weird feeling you get when something is in the news and you're like "wait, this is something people are thinking of as a new idea?"

With any policy there are winners and losers. You'd never endorse a policy because it resulted in one person gaining more than the entire current global wealth while everyone else starved to death. It wouldn't matter if it made for more "overall growth" because that one guy was so rich. It would be stupid. And in general, if all the growth goes to some people, the other people -- the losers -- would rationally oppose the policy. It's strange to me that skepticism about economic efficiency is so often just treated as stupidity.

2. Use of the term "efficiency" in these discussions is a bit confusing. As a technical term in economics, it refers to optimization. It can mean a kind of maximizing -- say, of overall economic prosperity -- or it can refer to something like "Pareto efficiency" -- which just means that no one can be made better off without someone being made worse off.

Again, a state of affairs can be "Pareto efficient" and also be utterly intolerable. If one person has everything and everyone else is starving, and if the only way for the starving people to get what they need would involve make the rich person slightly worse off, then that state of affairs in which that one person has everything is "Pareto efficient." But it is also ridiculous.

As we've discussed before, though, in ordinary language, the word "efficiency" carries with it other connotations. It means things like "not being wasteful." But this isn't the same thing as technical optimization. If the one rich person is a bit less well off and everyone else can have a meal, this isn't "wasteful," even if somehow that resulted in there being less wealth overall. And analogously, if trade regulations ensure worker protections or lessen inequality or whatever, they're not "wasteful," even if there's not as much overall wealth.

The Times piece alludes to the idea that opposing efficiency seems absurd, asking rhetorically, "What kind of monster doesn't want to optimize possibilities, minimize waste and make the most of finite resources?" But putting it this way is misleading: optimizing wealth and minimizing "waste" are two very different things.

3. From a philosophical point of view, the problems with using optimality as a goal have been well-known for a long time. Ethical consequentialism says that you should do the action that brings about the best overall consequences (measured not in money but in something else like well-being or happiness). But this is incompatible with taking other values, like liberty, fairness, and equality, to be fundamental.

I think that valuing "efficiency" as the only goal means rejecting all these other important values for no good reason and is therefore a huge mistake. If you want a lengthy explanation of why I think that, you can read my recent book, Moral Reasoning in a Pluralistic World.

4. The typical response to skepticism about efficiency is to say that as long as there is more money in existence, the money can be moved around to compensate the less well-off -- but the problem is that in practice, this is never how it works.

The idea is that, theoretically, if you pursue the policy that makes for the most overall prosperity, then it doesn't matter that some people are winners and some are losers, because you can just move the money around. There is more money, so you can compensate the losers and voilà! Win-win.

But not only does this not seem to happen in real life, I'd say the trend is away from it. Increasingly, people who get what they get from whatever policy exists tend to just think that is "theirs" -- so that when you move the money around you're "taking it away" from them. It doesn't matter if this is false if everyone believes it.

5.The Times piece discusses some interesting empirical research showing that many people do value equality as well as efficiency but that economic winners may not. In this research, they ran a game where they gave people tokens, with real cash value, and people had to decide whether to keep them all or share them. If you shared them, the total number of tokens would go down. The idea is that more equality meant less overall prosperity.

Among Americans, about half shared anyway. They valued equality as well as efficiency. But when they ran the study at Yale Law School, 80 percent of people did not share. They valued efficiency over equality. The lead author of the study speculates that people at Yale Law School are disproportionately among society's winners and future-winners, and they don't need to worry about how the distribution pans out. Because they'll be OK no matter what happens.

6. To me, one frustrating aspect of these discussions is the way projected and losses gains are treated as obvious and inevitable -- as if predicting the economic impact of decision-making was simple and straightforward. I'll try to put this nicely: prediction-wise, economics is a work in progress.

In conclusion: All this means that when someone is skeptical about overall efficiency, and questions a policy like the TPP or eliminating rent control or whatever, there can be lots of good reasons. It may be because the policy is sure to have some winners and losers. It may be that the winners are going to people who already have a ton, while the losers are the worst off people. It may be because the predictions of overall gains are uncertain or based on questionable assumptions.

The Times piece concludes by saying that modern politics is teaching us that "dynamism and efficiency sound a lot better to people who are confident they’ll always end up being winners." I think that is correct.

So if someone questions a policy, and the people doing the questioning are poor or disenfranchised -- we would do well to listen to them attentively, and refrain from assuming they're stupid or ill-informed.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Fiction, Investment Banking, And The Creation Of Reality

Last month I read this amazing novel called The Mark and the Void, nominally about a French guy who works in an investment bank in Dublin in the wake of the great financial crash of 2008, but really about global capitalism, the Greek economic crisis, the culture of banking, the fictional philosopher François Texier, simulacra, the creation of reality, climate change, art, literature, and love.

There are many varied plots, subplots, and metaplots, but the basic theme is how fucked up modern banking is and how that fucked-upedness affects and even creates our world. In the classic way that the fiction of literature can represent reality more effectively than the truth of something else, the book shows how the finance industry makes the world we are living in. The book is hilarious and you should read the whole thing -- but here are a few examples to whet your appetite.

Claude, the hero, is an analyst for the Bank of Torabundo -- "Torabundo" being a fictional island with longstanding indigenous culture that is now a tax haven. The Bank of Torabundo (BOT) survived the crash of 2008 because it had a cautious and careful CEO. So of course their next step is to fire that guy. How can you have a cautious and careful CEO in the context of modern banking?

To usher in their new era of growth, they install instead Porter Blankly, an aggressive lunatic who sends mass emails like "think counterintuitive" and has already destroyed several other huge banks. When someone naively asks, "Aren't they worried about history repeating itself?" Jurgen confidently replies: "History has already repeated itself with the last crisis. We do not think there will be any more repeating."

But just to make sure that "there is no more repeating," the bank finds they must avoid caution and care at all costs. Blankly's strategy is to acquire other banks, regardless of their status, thus pushing BOT further and further into debt -- so that eventually it can become too big to fall. As the banker Jurgen says: "A sufficiently large bank would create its own reality as opposed to simply reacting to consensus." Sound familiar

There is one softy in the bank, a woman named Ish. Ish studied anthropology in school before becoming a banker, and she knows about Torabundo and the people who live there. She also knows that climate change is likely to destroy the island soon through rising water levels and that the people who live there are going to be wiped out.

She's such a softy that she decides to email Porter Blankly about it directly, hoping to persuade him to take steps or offer aid. This, of course, shows radical misunderstanding of the bank, of her place in it, and really of everything. Or, as her colleague puts it, "We're in the middle of not one but two giant takeovers, and she's writing the CEO letters, like my fucking eight-year-old asking Santa Claus to save the rainforest?"

Ish is clearly going to get fired for sending this absurd email -- until her friend Howie steps in. Howie, who is in charge of the creation of new economic instruments, immediately realizes that they can monetize the whole thing. In fact, they can hedge it so that the island's destruction gives then a direct profit. All they need to do is "monetize failure."

As Howie says, this is basically the concept behind credit-default swaps. At first, they were used to insure loans against defaultin. But then people started using them to bet on other people's loans defaulting. All BOT has to do is create, and then deliberatively target, losing propositions.

With Torabundo, it's easy. You set up a bunch of conventional investment to make people thing it is worth something -- hotels, a golf course (Ish: "A golf course?"). Then you put in your money in ways that create a bet on the failure of the investment. As Howie says, it's the ultimate hedge. If climate change wipes out the island completely -- you win big! And if it doesn't -- well, you still have the hotels and the golf course and all that crap.

As the plot moves along, our hero, who is sort of a cipher, becomes caught up in various things and in particular finds himself becoming more and more enamoured with an artist, Ariadne. Ariadne runs a restaurant, has family in Greece, and often brings leftovers to the diehard protestors who gather near the bank to try to convince the government to take action against the the forces of capitalism that are ruining their society.

Claude is slow to put it all together, but over time he comes to see the connections -- how the bank, through their chains of investment and the incentives those chains create, are causing the world to be a worse place. If you're too big to fail and you've monetize failure -- well, you see the problem. Eventually he comes to believe the bank is responsible for the suffering of Ariadne, and her family, her friends, and many other people, including the poor inhabitants of Torabundo.

At one point, Ariadne tells him with despair that her restaurant is going to have to close. The landlord has raised the rent, astronomically. She can't understand it: "I don' know who does the landlord expect to move in and pay his crazy rent. Or does he jus' want to force us out"?

Claude: "I start to explain the logic of upward-only rent review -- that the value of a building as an asset is based on the rent that could be charged for it, meaning it often makes more sense to keep that rent high and the building unoccupied than to lower the rent and have to mark down its overall ... " Ariadne just stares at him in bewilderment and horror.

When I read that I thought of all the empty storefronts in the poorer cities I've lived in, and how they'd often had thriving business in them, which had suddenly closed, and how often I had wondered to myself, "What the hell happened there"?

And now, maybe I know.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Pernicious Illusion Of User-Generated Neutrality

I feel like this there's this dream in late-capitalist societies that somehow you can write a neutral set of rules for human interaction -- that is, a way of setting up a set of rules or procedures that doesn't rely on contentious and messy stuff like what matters and why, or what is or isn't harmful, or what people do or don't have the right to do.

Of course that isn't true. There's no such thing as a neutral set of rules for human interaction. If you're going to talk about how people should treat one another, you're going to have to base that on all kinds of value-laden beliefs.

But there's this tenacious implicit idea or hope that somehow, if you just wrote the right rules, and got an effective enforcement mechanism, you'd be good to go. On the internet, this often takes the form of letting users determine everything. The dream is we can introduce a ratings system, step back, and let it all sort it self out.

I feel like it's getting more and more difficult to ignore the fact that this dream is an illusion. You can't make things work without some dialogue and agreement about what's important and what's sort of OK and what isn't OK.

It's long been known that the sharing economy has a race problem. But I was reminded of this issue when I read this recent article on "Broadly," about discrimination and the gig economy. It starts with the story of a trans woman, who wants to rent a room on AirBnB. When she informs her potential host she is trans, she is refused because the host doesn't want her son to feel uncomfortable.

The article also has this other story, where a young woman hires a cleaner through a gig economy site. When he shows up, he becomes aggressive and angry and tells her off for how messy her place is. She can't get him to leave, and eventually gives him an extra 40 dollars to go home.

Then there's also discussion of how, when women let out rooms to men, they end up feeling uncomfortable in their homes -- not threatened, just uneasy, because of the way the men take up a lot of space, put their stuff everywhere, and help themselves to the music collection.

The focus of the article is on women, people of color, and others being "safe" in the gig economy, but it also touches briefly on the deeper problem: that having an app "ratings" system -- effectively punishing bad guys -- really just doesn't cut it. Proper resolution of all of these cases requires not "ratings" from customers but rather informed judgment about what is and isn't appropriate in the way we treat one another.

It's complicated. People get to feel comfortable and not threatened. But sometimes -- as in the trans case -- if a person feels unsafe or uncomfortable it's their problem. Other times -- as in the cleaner case -- if a person feels unsafe or uncomfortable it's the other person's problem. Still others -- as in the case of guys "taking up space" -- I'm really not sure whose problem it is.

To say that everyone can rent to whoever they want and that people can go ahead and "rate" one another really doesn't address the relevant difficulties. You actually have to make judgments about what's fair, not fair, OK, not OK. And then you have to have some system for putting those judgments into practice.

It's the same thing for social media. You can't distinguish protected speech from abusive speech without making value judgments about what kinds of things are OK and not OK. For example, did you read about how Facebook banned a plus-sized model who was advertising a thing about positive and healthy body-image? 

Though the reversed the decision later, Facebook banned it for showing "body parts in an undesirable manner."

Explaining their decision, Facebook wrote: "Ads may not depict a state of health or body weight as being perfect or extremely undesirable. Ads like these are not allowed since they make viewers feel bad about themselves. Instead, we recommend using an image of a relevant activity, such as running or riding a bike."

Leaving aside all the other baffling questions this passage raises -- like, you're going to ban all ads that make people feel bad about themselves? WTF? -- obviously it's a value judgment to say that making people feel "bad" is worth banning and it's a value judgment to say when making people feel bad is OK and when it isn't. Anti-smoking campaigns make people feel bad too. So what?

In reversing the decision, Facebook said that the policy was meant to guard against the promotion of anorexia and eating disorders. A worthy goal, but again, not a factual one, not a value-neutral one, and not an obvious one to put into practice -- as the kerfuffle itself shows.

At the end of the Broadly article, an expert on the gig economy is quoted as saying,
"It's not really fashionable to be in favour of bureaucracy and rules, but equal pay for equal work, minimum wage laws, employment standards that limit employers' right to fire at will, and anti-discrimination laws were the results of years of struggle by feminists, unionists, and anti-racism groups," he says. "I don't think they should be thrown away just because a new app has a rating system."
I think this is spot-on. I've never understood the depth of antagonism to bureaucracy. If you're falsely accused, it's bureaucracy that's going to save you. If you want safe drinking water, it's bureaucracy that's there for you. And if you want fairness -- in education, in employment, or even just in your gig economy -- it's bureaucracy that's going to do that for you.

But it's not because they're value-neutral that bureaucracies do this. It's because, at least when they're working well, they encode values that we care about, and they put into place systems for making things happen. Systems that epitomize what tech companies seem to be trying to get away from.

An user-generated ratings system does neither of these things. It just allows everyone to put into concrete practice all the crappy, racist, sexist, transphobic, hate and phobia that they're carrying around. It's not "user-generated neutrality." It's like an amplifier for all of our worst qualities.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Are Internet Trolls Otherwise Ordinary People?

Trolls from a kinder, gentler era.
I used to think that people being horrible assholes on the internet were, generally speaking, people who were horrible assholes off the internet. I thought they were exceptional, unusual -- the kind of people that if you met them in real life you'd be like: "Oh my god, get me away from this person."

But I keep reading stories -- true ones -- where people got to know their trolls, and these stories share feature that is, to me, really disturbing. Namely: that trolls are otherwise ordinary people -- ordinary people who somehow feel entitled to act out wild murderous rage when they feel like it.

The first one that sticks in my mind is from 2012. This guy -- a writer and blogger in Ireland -- started getting relentless messages on Twitter calling him a "dirty fucking Jewish scumbag" and sending images of concentration camps and dismembered bodies. The abuse went on and on, his Facebook account was hacked, violent racist messages, etc etc. Eventually it escalated, with parcels of ashes arriving at his home with notes like "Say hello to your relatives from Auschwitz."

The writer was understandably freaked out. He hired a friend to try to figure out the IP address of his troll, and -- long story short, it ended up being the 17 year old son of an old friend of his. He talks to the friend. They decide to all go out to lunch, and toward the end they show the kid printouts of all the abusive and threatening messages. Kid bursts into tears. Pressed, he says "I don't know. I don't know. I'm sorry. It was like a game thing."

Then in 2014, there was this great piece about the classicist Mary Beard in the New Yorker. The story covers many topics: Beard's scholarly approach, the general misogyny she encounters whenever she does anything, her boundless energy for engaging with, and showing up, people who say hateful and stupid things to and about her on the internet. And there are a lot of hateful and stupid things. This, for example, from a university student: "You filthy old slut. I bet your vagina is disgusting."

Instead of ignoring the trolls, Beard engages with them. She retweets, calls out, talks to the press. When she retweeted the university student, someone who knew him offered to tell his mom; he later apologized. To the BBC, she said, "I’d take him out for a drink and smack his bottom."

When she was on Question Time, commenters vilified her online, and one posted an image where a woman’s genitals was superimposed over Beard’s face. Later, she posted the image to her blog at the Times Literary Supplement website. The site was overwhelmed with traffic, and the story made international news.

Then, what happened was this: the man who ran the site where the image originally appeared contacted Beard to apologize, via a long and personal letter. He said he never should have done it. He said he was in difficult circumstances: he was married with kids; he wanted to move to Spain; he couldn't understand the bureaucracy. Mary Beard looked up the documents he needed and sent them along. Now, whenever she gets in "internet trouble," he gets in touch with her -- to make sure she is OK.

Understandably, Beard resists the interpretation of these stories as "happy endings" where a wise and maternal woman takes men to task and teaches them a lesson. What the attacks show, she says, is the persistence of misogyny and the way gender hierarchies persist. Still, she finds the outcomes emotionally satisfying. That university student who called her a slut with a disgusting vagina? After he apologized he took her out to lunch, and she's going to write him a letter of reference. After all, when you google his name, calling Beard a "filthy slut" is what comes up, and he is going to need all the help he can get.

The final story is from 2015. Lindy West is a writer who often deals with feminism and body size issues -- and so receives a ton of vitriol, abuse, and threats online. In this essay, she describes how she usually deals -- by deleting, by useless blocking, by trying to ignore. But then eventually, a troll set up something that reached a new level of awfulness, by setting up a Twitter account in the name of West's recently deceased father -- with a photo of him, and a username like "[Lindy's father] Donezo."

West found she couldn't ignore it. She wrote an essay on Jezebel about the issue and mentioned the account. Astonishingly, she then received an email from the troll, apologizing. He said he was wrong and he shouldn't have done it, and that his trolling hadn't been caused by something particular she said. He wrote in part, "I think my anger towards you stems from your happiness with your own being. It offended me because it served to highlight my unhappiness with my own self."

Later, West invited him to participate in an episode of This American Life, talking about what happened. He said he'd felt fat, unloved, passionless and purposeless." Though he was unable to explain why this made generalized rage at women seem like a good idea, he did say that he had changed. He'd become a teacher, and he took better care of his health. He apologized, again, for the hurt he'd caused: as a teacher, he could now see how hurt and sad his students were when other kids were mean to them.

There's so much to say about these stories -- and I agree with West and Beard when they call attention to the special role that misogyny plays. But among the other things, I'm still just astonished at the way these trolls all seem like ordinary people who got caught up in something even they don't really understand.

It's destabilizing to me to think that otherwise ordinary people who are sad, or bored, or self-hating can get something out of abusing and threatening other people on the internet. At the deepest possible level, I just don't get it. Even a playground bully at least gets status, or attention, or something. But these internet trolls are mostly anonymous. What motivates them to act this way? What positive feeling for them makes them do this?

It's like finding out I live among people of a completely different species.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Medical Metaphors, Mistakes, and Metaphysics

Years ago a friend of mine got a dog -- a tiny puppy. I didn't see my friend for a while, and the next time we got together, the dog had grown enormously: he was now a largish-sized dog. When I commented on this, my friend put his hand down near the dog's neck, and said, "Yeah, isn't it weird to think that all this part" -- from the neck to the tail -- "is made of dog food?"

I think about that story often lately. Because I used to think of my body as a thing that was its own thing and not another thing -- so that what went into it would nourish it, but wouldn't literally constitute it. I had what felt like a commonsensical metaphorical idea that my body was a thing was existing through time in a relatively stable way. So, for example, whatever I might eat or do with my body might cause changes to it over time, but they wouldn't be my body in any literal way. I thought my friend's joke about the dog was just that -- a joke.

But it turns out that this is not really the right way to think about things. For example, think about the human microbiota -- all the bacteria that live in and on a person. Is that part of you or not part of you? If you have the metaphor of bodies as metaphysical discrete objects -- the kinds of things that exist through time with clearish boundaries -- it seems like not part of you. And yet it's as essential to your health as any of your main parts.

And what you eat isn't just incidental to the microbiota. It has an intimate connection, immediately affecting how the microbiota is constituted. The idea of microbiota for me has had immediate practical implications. It used to be that if I would eat junk food, I would have the idea that my body before I ate the junk food and my body after I ate the junk food was basically the same -- except for just having more calories in it. I knew, of course, that eating a lot of junk food was unhealthy, but I pictured that as a causal effect happening over a period of time -- something that came about as the result of habits. I thought that when you get immediately sick from food, it's because a foreign bacteria -- not part of you -- makes its way in.

But that's not really right. The bacteria that live in your digestive system are essential to health in an everyday way, and we now know that in a healthy system, there is a wide range of different bacteria. Eating a typical western diet of processed foods ruins that -- it kills off some beneficial bacteria and feeds some not-so-beneficial ones, and undercuts the variety.

This research is still developing, but it seems like part of it is that what you eat provides nourishment for some bacteria instead of others. So if you eat Doritos, the bacteria that thrive on Doritos will flourish, and if you eat turnips, the bacteria that thrive on turnips will flourish. So it's not really true that your body before you eat the junk food and after is the same. It actually changes as an immediate effect of what you eat. My friend was sort of right: all that part was made of dog food.

Anyone following the health-related news will see why I had the wrong implicit metaphor. The language of modern health advice is generally steeped in the traditional metaphysics of objects. "A calorie is a calorie." Weight loss is "thermodynamics." We think of illness as invading what would otherwise be a conceptually isolated and distinct healthy self.

I realize it is very speculative to suggest that some of the mistakes of modern medicine have to do with mental habits steeped in western logic and metaphysics. But I think there is something to it. We are taught to think in terms of objects that are self-identical -- they are themselves and not another thing. We are encouraged to see divergence from that norm in terms of pathologies like "vagueness" and "ambiguity" instead of that just being the nature of things.

Doesn't it seem like this kind of thinking would make it more challenging to recognize the role of bacteria as occupying this strange zone of not-a-body-part and yet also yes-a-body-part?

Let me emphasize: I understand the phenomenon in question is not inconsistent with object metaphysics. I mean, on some level you can conceptualize the whole shebang in terms of things that affect your body, rather than constituting it, and you can describe what's going on in terms of a list of discrete objects, all of which affect one another in a complex causal chain.

All I'm saying is that when you have the object-vs-not object metaphor deeply structuring how you approach the world, these things might be a bit harder to see. You might leap to thinking that if something isn't part of the body, it's not part of the body, and can't therefore play the same kind of role in the body that an actual body part -- like a stomach or a kidney -- can play. And just like "a calorie is a calorie," or "it's all just thermodynamics," you'd be mistaken.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Internet And The Problem Of Context-Free Communication

Have you noticed the way modern communication is becoming weirdly context-free? I mean, have you noticed how on the internet every thought can be regarded as simply expressing something in itself, regardless of how and where it appears? And how weird and bad that can be?

I guess one more obvious manifestation would be the cases involving internet shaming for people who were plausibly trying to share something with a few friends. You know that story about the women who had a running gag with each other doing the opposite of what signs say to do? They took a photo of themselves pretending to be loud and disrespectful in front of a sign saying to do the opposite at Arlington Cemetery (for veterans) and put it on Facebook. Then, basically, their lives were over.

There's a lot to say about that story obviously, but I think part of it has to do with context. If you imagine sharing that photo before the internet existed, it seems to me there are huge differences in various sharings. Imagine sharing it just with your friend then putting it away. Now imagine sharing it at a large party. Now imagine you use it as your yearbook photo because you think it says something important about who you are. Now imagine it on a flyer for a pacifist organization, critical of the military.

These sharings are completely different. But on the internet, there's no context. There's just the photo, sitting there, being interpreted by the viewer however they want.

It's not news that being offended on the internet has something to do with expressions taken out of context. But I think the context problem is very broad. Suppose you're trying to say something serious about an important and complicated topic. In the real world, the first think you'd do is think about your audience.

I know when I am teaching this is a huge part of what I do. In selecting readings, in framing a topic, in deciding what to emphasize, in figuring out what examples to use, and in thinking up questions for discussion -- in all of these things, I have to think first about what the context is -- about where the students are coming from, what they already know, what their experiences are likely to have been, and most importantly, what is on their minds.

For example, in my Intro to Ethics and Values class last year, we spent a week discussing sexism. I selected two contemporary readings that focused mostly on two things: 1) whether you can define sexism in terms of individual irrelevant appeals to sex distinctions, or whether a definition has to appeal to the idea of a gendered hierarchical system, and 2) the gender wage gap, rational decision-making, and preference formation. We talked about examples having to do with sexy dress requirements for female restaurant employees and about gendered child care expectations.

Everything about this is contextual -- relevant to life in a 21st-century liberal capitalist democracy. Imagine that instead, with no explanation, I had spent the whole time talking about whether it is OK that women work, earn money, and play on sports teams. Wouldn't that have been weird?  But obviously there are contexts in which that wouldn't be weird: contexts where those things are thought to be inappropriate -- not that far in the past in some parts of Western history, BTW.

Conversely, if you were going to give a talk on feminism and equal rights to a group of domestic abuse survivors, and you spent the whole time talking about that time Larry Summers implied that women aren't as good at math as men, and then got deeply into the evidence, wouldn't that be peculiar and even offensive? But for a talk on feminism and equal rights to a group of science students, it might be just the thing.

On the internet, you never know who your audience is, or what they think is important, or what they're experiences are, or what they are trying to learn. And maybe it's just the sites I tend to look at, but I feel like there's this ongoing thing of criticizing ideas because why are we talking about this thing instead of this other thing, or framing things in this particular way? Often it's legit, but other times I think it's just context: not everything has to be the Encyclopedia Britannica, trying for that impossible universal context, inevitably failing.

You can try to create context. You can make a site or a blog with a specific purpose, and put up a ton of stuff to show who you are and what audience you are trying to reach and how the background is meant to help people interpret what you are saying. But you can't really control it, because on the internet anyone can come along at any time, and just look at the thing you wrote, and be like, "WTF is that person talking about and why are they talking about it that way?"

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A Life-Affirming Moment By The Side Of The Chicago River

A sailboat waits patiently.

Last week I was visiting Chicago, and I was walking around with my friend, and just as we got to crossing the Chicago River over a bridge, alarms started going off. Lights were flashing, cars had to stop, and guys in reflective outerwear started shouting and telling everyone to get off the bridge.

We soon understood that the bridge was going to open. That is, the two sides of the bridge were going to go up, so that something could pass underneath. After the obligatory selfie-takers were finally shooed away, we all stood waiting in anticipation. And waiting. And waiting. And then: nothing. The alarms stopped; the cars were allowed back on the road.

As we crossed -- a bit nervously -- we chatted with our fellow citizens, and learned the basic fact that that the bridge goes up and down to allow for sailboats to cross from one side to the other. In fact, as we learned on the internet, this bridge opens twice a week during the fall and spring, so sailboats can move between their winter resting places and their summer sailing places.

But why didn't it go up? A reflective outerwear person told us that something had malfunctioned and that they were going to try again. We decided to wait and watch. A few minutes later, the alarms started going off, lights were flashing, cars had to stop, and so on. A larger crowd buzzed around, all of us waiting in anticipation. And waiting. And waiting. And then: nothing.

My friend was tired and decided to go in, but something about the scene transfixed me. I talked to the guys, and they said they were going to try one more time. So I decided to wait.

It was a pretty awesome spot, actually. It was May, and cool and windy, but the sun was shining down. On the corner, some street musicians including a saxophonist were playing incredible music, including classics from The Jackson Five. I looked down, and saw the people in their sailboats, waiting for the bridge, and hoping it would work. Soon they tried again, the whole rigamarole with stopped traffic and get the selfie-takers off, and -- nothing.

It was so nice, standing there, I decided to stick around to see what would happen. Would they give up? Eventually I saw a repair truck down in the lower level of the bridge, and I figured they must be trying to fix something. Down below, about half a dozen sailboats were meandering around, just drifting, waiting for the bridge.

I figured I'd hang out and wait. Something about the whole scene was so pleasant and satisfying. Part of it had to do with the bridge and the problem themselves. I don't know how to else to phrase this, but it was so refreshing to be encountering such a straightforward situation. Boats are too tall to pass under bridge. Bridge usually goes up, but isn't working. Let's try to fix the bridge. It all seemed so ... real, so non-virtual, so embedded in the world of things.

I got to thinking about how many of the things I deal with -- in life, and in academia, and in philosophy -- have none of these qualities. My things are complicated, and nuanced, and mixed. When there are problems, it's often not obvious what a "solution" would be, or even if there is one. Things that are better from one point of view seem worse from another. There are a lot of perspectives to take into account.

This bridge situation had none of that. Boats are too tall to pass under bridge. Bridge usually goes up, but isn't working. Let's try to fix the bridge.

As I waited, I thought about how amazing the engineering of a bridge like that is. This bridge -- the "DuSable Bridge," as I learned -- opened in 1920, and back in the day it would open around 3,000 times a year. I thought about how amazing cities are, and how so many people had to cooperate on a massive scale to get the bridge made but also to organize the opening and closing and making sure the sailboat people were ready when the bridge was going to open.

Around me, the city was bouncing with life. A street performer dressed all in silver with a bright silver hat wandered over to where one the sailboats was lolling on the side of the river, so he could talk to the sailboat people. A woman with a baby in a stroller stood beside me and listened to the musicians and watched the water. Eventually, a gang of high school students came by, and two of them started dancing together -- like, real partner dancing, with dips and swinging around and the whole nine yards. The reflective outerwear people and everyone else whooped their appreciation.

Finally, the alarms went off. I was surprised how invested I'd become in this bridge going up. I wanted the sailboat people to be happy, but more than that I wanted to experience this miracle of this huge and heavy bridge from 1920 just lifting up into the air, like it was nothing, like we do this all the time.

Cars off, selfie-takers whisked away, a pause... and up it went! Only on the right hand side. I don't know if that was intentional or what, but it didn't matter, it was plenty of space. Sailboats used their motors to zoom on through. Boats I hadn't seen that were lingering behind a curve came into view, and they too zoomed on under the bridge.

Merriment and happiness. People clapping and hollering. Total life-affirmingness. As I sauntered away, the musicians shifted gears into Guns 'n' Roses, and much as I love GnR in their own weird way, this wasn't the moment. I picked up the pace and scampered off into the city.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Two Faces Of Branding

A couple of months ago I read Eddie Huang's book Fresh Off The Boat: A Memoir. If you haven't read it, it's about his life growing up as an Asian-American in the US and doing all kinds of different high-intensity activities like getting into fights, going to law school, and opening a restaurant. The book was the origin of the TV sitcom with the same name, though as I understand it the book and the show are quite different.

Of the many interesting and funny things in the book, one topic that really got me thinking had to do with brands. Brands are a big deal in this book. As a kid, Huang discovers that hip-hop culture, and the clothing associated with it, give him a way to challenge Asian-American stereotyping and racism.

Huang grows up in Florida, where his social experiences are constantly reminding him of the fact that he is seen as Asian and thus seen as being a certain kind of person with certain kinds of qualities -- many of them qualities he does not have or want. He talks about how in American movies Asian men never get the girl, and how Asians are stereotyped as deferential and non-assertive.

The racial stereotyping take many different forms, many of them social and peer-oriented, some of them professional. When he expresses his dream to become a sportscaster on ESPN, his father says, "They'll never let someone with a face like you on television." Huang thinks his father doesn't know what he's talking about. But later he has an interview with a newspaper, to do sports journalism, and the "big white guy" doing the hiring takes one look at him and says, "Oh, wow, that face ..." which turns out to mean that no athletes are going to talk to him with "that face" because he looks "... so young." He doesn't get the job.

Huang is a wound-up aggressive guy who likes to scrap with other guys, get into people's faces, and get into all kinds of trouble, and at one point he realizes that his being that way is a big problem for people. He says, "I was a loud-mouthed, brash, broken Asian how had no respect for authority in any form, whether it was parent, teacher, or country. Not only was I not white, to many people I wasn't Asian either." 

Early on, Huang gravitates toward hip-hop music, style and culture, and as he grows up and learns things, he comes to realize that connecting with black American culture allows him a way into a mode that is both embracing genuine identity -- not trying to be white -- and also outspoken and non-apologetic.

And wearing clothing brands associated with hip hop culture is a big part of that: it allows him to connect with people he wants to connect with and also show people he's not the stereotype they are putting on him.

That, of course, is part of what branding is all about. I mean, if you ever read the business section of the paper and you get a glimpse in to what companies are doing when they talk about "creating and and maintaining brands," that is exactly the kind of concepts they use. The  idea is to create a set of feelings and ideas around your brand so that consumers will connect with it and see the brand as representing who they are.

Somehow, when I read about branding strategy from the corporate perspective, it usually seems so dumb. I mean, the idea that some company is going to use fashion models and ad guys to link up their brand of car or vodka or shirt or whatever with some set of impressions and feelings, and the idea that you would then use those brands to express yourself -- it all seems so cynical and ridiculous, like one of those debased aspects of consumer culture that is too stupid to enter into and yet in some ways unavoidable.

But then when I read Huang's book, using brands to express yourself didn't seem stupid -- it seemed clever and interesting. Of course, part of that is because what he's using brands to do is clever and interesting, and isn't your run-of-the-mill I-have-more-money-than-you. Still, the basic concept is the same.

I guess in a way it's not surprising that you can use the tools of capitalism to sometimes do cool things. After all, sometimes the tools of capitalism are the only tools we have.