Monday, April 20, 2015

The People Of Finland Have Nice Things. Why Can't We?

I went to Helsinki last week, and on the taxi ride home from the airport, the driver said, "Oh, Finland! They have a lot of Buddhas there. Right?" I didn't know what to say.

But this post isn't about those famous Finnish Buddhas. It's about some Nice Things of Finland, some things Finland has that make life nice and that make you wonder, "Why can't we have that at home?"

First, consider these city statues. All around North America there are statues celebrating war people. Statues of soldiers. Statues of guys on horses. Phallic shaped statues commemorating war activities.

By contrast, in Helsinki we have things like this novelist:

and this Laplandian moose:

Don't these statues immediately convey a culture of peace and arts and quiet reflection? Why can't we have statues of people sitting around thinking?

Next, consider gender representation in the arts. I went to the big Ateneum museum, and I saw a bunch of paintings by the Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck. Here is her "Self-portrait with Black Background":

There were also tons of women in the museum of contemporary art. This doesn't seem to be some kind of gender initiative or whatever. It's just that there's a pretty gender egalitarian society, and in it some women paint and make art, and their art get into the big galleries. How hard is that? Why can't we have that at home? At the Pompidou, to get art by women on the walls, they have to to put on a big special thing.

Finally, how do the people of Finland just have things organized and comfortable where we cannot? The food is fresh and good. Everything is clearly labeled with respect to allergies, gluten, and lactose. When it's time to pay you say "I had the pea soup and pancake" and they say "That's 8 euros" and you pay and it takes two seconds.

The most striking example of this for me was at the Helsinki Philharmonic. The concert was excellent and fun along several dimensions, but what took my by surprise was how well set-up it was for the things you need at a concert. Knowing that in a cold climate everyone will arrive with large coats, there are armies of coat checkers at 40 stations, ready and waiting. Check it out:

Also, knowing people will be wanting to drink and snack before the concert and at intermission -- especially since the snacks are fresh and delicious! -- there are rows and rows of tables set up. This is just a small sample:

I don't know what it's like where you live, but the concert halls I go to fail these basic items in a pretty dramatic way. The food is packaged crap. At the opera house here in Toronto, there is almost no place to sit or set your drink down. This is especially ridiculous given the number of older attendees. It leads to the sad sad spectacle of dozens of people crowding around a few teeny tables leaning on canes as they try to eat ice cream, and seventy-year-olds sitting on the staircase looking uncomfortable.

Why can't we have comfortable tables and lovely snacks at home? Is that too much to ask?

When I'm in North America too long, I start to think, "Oh yeah, we can't have X, because X is so difficult." And then I go away and I'm like, "Wait. They have X here. And they make it look so easy. Our warlike, unequal, sexist, crappified qualities aren't some kind of default setting for modern life. They're actually a sign of real pathologies.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Flash Boys And Philosophy Redux, Or, Finance, WTF?

I guess the paperback version of Michael Lewis's Flashboys is coming out, so we're doing that thing where we revisit a book a year later to have the same conversation over again.

Actually -- in this updated discussion at the BBC news site, I was stuck by how the conversation not only hadn't moved forward but actually seemed to have congealed. I was also amazed by how this brief piece brings up so many central issues in conceptual thinking about economics, most of which we covered before.

1) Fairness versus efficiency

The standard measure in typical economics reasoning is efficiency of some kind. It can mean several different things, but all of them are some version of improving or maximizing how things are overall.

The philosophical knock on efficiency is that it's incompatible with justice and fairness. As E. F. Carritt put it decades ago, the pursuit of efficiency requires us to forget rights, to forget justice, and "to dump happiness whereever we most conveniently can."

Lewis and other critics say HFT creates a "rigged" marketplace that is unfair to investors. So from a philosopher's point of view, it's very amusing to see HFT defenders explicating in response that HFT has "brought efficiency to the market."

In one way, this reads like a complete non-sequitor, as if you'd been complaining about a stomach ailment and your doctor praised your hearing. In another way, it echoes centuries of debate over ethical reasoning: is it just overall efficiency that matters? Or is fairness a real thing?

2) Incentives for what?

Lewis says of HFT:
"When the incentives are screwed up the behaviour is screwed up ... "And it creates a culture where screwed up behaviour is normal, it is even praised because it increases profits... Unless you change the incentives, you won't change anything else."

All these statements seem plausible to me. But what's the criteria for screwed up versus non-screwed up behavior in trading anyway?

From where I sit, the whole idea of spending your day inputing decisions into a computer about something amorphous and trying to do it better than other people feels completely bizarre as a way to spend your time.

Even accepting that there could be a non-screwed up concept of trading, what makes "trying to be faster than the other guy" screwed-up? I'd have thought it was on a par with any other strategy for doing any other thing when you're engaged in some competition with some other people. Run out the clock. Pass the ball when the blitz is on. Try to be faster than the next guy. From what normative perspective are any of these any more screwed up than anything else?

3) What is the point exactly?

This question of screwed-up versus non-screwed up behavior brings us naturally to the question: what is the point of the whole practice? In professional sports, the rules are there to maximize entertainment. But what's the point of the finance enterprise?

From the rhetoric you'd think there was this clearly defined reason the practice exists from which you could deduce what's a "good" incentive for "good" behavior and what isn't. But what's good behavior? What's the whole thing there for in the first place?

Just as I was searching for a concise and clear way to suggest how profoundly iffy the whole thing is, the New York Times went ahead and did it for me, in a Sunday editorial by a Harvard economics professor, who argues that while the finance industry could, in some possible world, engage in activities that promote social value, at this point it's mostly just an elaborate kind of rent-seeking.

Of course, this being Harvard and the NYT, the solution to that problem isn't some massive overhaul of the whole system or doubt about the whole capitalist project -- no, it's just reminding your students how great personal "idealism and inventiveness" are.

As always in 21st-century America, the response to systematic ethical problems is an injunction to improve your personal morals.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Optimize This

While I was distracted doing things like reading books and thinking about things, somehow the categorical imperative of our time shifted out of the whole "do unto others" thing and into OPTIMIZE. It's like the central norm of our age.

"Optimize" sounds good. It's got that word part "opt" which sounds like optimism and optimal, suggesting once they're optimized things will be hunky dory. But most of the time people don't even know what they're optimizing. Ninety percent of the time I think it's a scam or a shell-game.

For example, the big thing in devices now is optimizing your health. But what does that even mean? What are you trying to optimize, exactly?

Are you trying to optimize your adherence to the guidelines for "normal" blood sugar blood pressure and so on? Low cortisol? Nothing against the medical science biz, but did you notice they're not always clear on how and whether those improve your well-being or even longevity?

Are you trying to optimize your well-being? OK, but what is that? Surely it's not just living longer. Many things that make you live longer, like certain medications, can make you feel worse. If you had a horrible illness, and it could be treated with a miracle medication which would make you feel great but would shorten your life a bit? Of course you would take it.

More broadly, as we've discussed before, people have priorities other than living longer. As I said there:

"There are trade-offs between medications and sex. There are tradeoffs between medications and other medications. Virtually all birth control entails trade-offs. And, of course, there are relentless constant trade-offs between things that "will make you live longer" and things that you enjoy doing that make you feel good."

Given the complexities of those trade-offs, how does the concept of "optimize" even apply?

You'd think moving into the economic sphere it would be more obvious what it means to optimize -- but I think even there it's pretty obscure. Say you run a business. Are you trying to maximize the amount of money that business brings in overall this year? Or over ten years? Or over a hundred years? Are you trying to maximize gains for shareholders, or profit for the owners?

Do you also have goals having to do with providing reasonable employment for people and goods that will make their lives better and not worse? How does that figure into optimization?

And what about ethics? Does the norm of "optimize" imply that honesty is something you're committed to only because you might get caught? Do you have no ethical commitments against defrauding people? Come to that, do you have any reasons against just killing off the competition with guns, other than the fact that you might get punished?

If you have any actual commitments against lying cheating and defrauding people, then what you're doing is not optimizing. It's weighing options and alternatives and making fine-grained decisions about how much things matter.

I was thinking about optimizing the other day while I was listening to some old songs, including Paul Simon's "Kodachrome," Adam Ant's "Goody Two Shoes," and the Clash's version of the song "Junco Partner." These songs all have these weird brilliant moments where the sounds isn't quite what you expect. Simon's voice gets all weird in one chorus when he sings about the "greens of summer" and whatever string instrument is in Junco Partner is crazy and wobbly.

Those weird moments are some of the best things in those songs and you don't hear that sort of thing much anymore. Sometimes people talk about what's lost as involving "authenticity" -- but that's never seemed right to me.

I think instead it's that much modern music is "optimized" -- but we since we don't have a good grip on what makes music so great when it is, we don't know how to optimize, and we're basically just optimizing away the things that are the best things.

In the end, every choice expresses decisions about what matters. That's why optimizing language is such a scam. It works like a cloaking device, making you think you have "reasons," when really you're just flailing around like the rest of us.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Self-Actualization: Fake It Til You ... Keep Faking It

Thomas P. Barnett, "In the Heart of the Ozarks" (MU Museum of Art and Archaeology), via Wikimedia Commons

Last Friday afternoon I found myself in a frustrating situation. I was determined to exercise, but for various reasons found my only real option was going for a run outside. I was at my friend's house in Buffalo, and "outside" in Buffalo last Friday was like 25 degrees F and snowing. I didn't want to do it.

It was late afternoon, and I was tired and hungry. I was in a grouchy mood, feeling all put upon that I was faced with this whole "running" dilemma and mad that it was so cold even though it was officially spring.

BTW -- while we're on that subject -- what is it with cold spring weather? For reasons I can never understand, there's something about 25 degrees on March 27th that feels so much colder than 15 or even 10 degrees on January 15th. Is this just a matter of expectations? I don't know -- but I do know that I've run happily in much colder temperatures, but this 25 degrees, it was killing me.

So I did what I often do in such situations, which is that I made myself a deal. I told myself, "Look, all you have to do is get on your exercise clothes. Then you can do what you want. Get on the clothes, and if you don't want to run, you don't have to run. But get the clothes on."

Because I was at my friend's house, I didn't have access to my one special-super-cold-running-outfit, so getting on the clothes meant piling on some long underwear, some weird and ugly exercise pants, a running shirt, an old turtleneck, a nylon jacket thing, a hat, and fleece gloves that prevented me from using my iPhone (gasp!).

Just as I'd expected, once I was dressed in all those clothes, I started to feel hot and itchy and fidgety. More importantly, it started to seem ridiculous to take them all off without actually going outside. I stood there in the front hallway, contemplating my options, and eventually I took off my gloves and got the playlist set up and put the gloves back on forced myself out the door.

You know what's coming next, because exercise narratives are always formulaic tales of loss and redemption. About five minutes in I was striding along, enjoying the pretty white snow, jumping around icy patches, a smile on my face.

Halfway through I had one of those particular Buffalo-type experiences that makes people love the city so much, where I noticed a framed photo nailed to a huge tree on the side of the road, with writing explaining that the photo was from 1890 and that it depicted the very tree it was nailed to, when the tree was itty bitty.

The person who wrote on the photo had taken pains to point out which house in the photo was the house right near the tree, and had also drawn in arrows with captions pointing out the "horse-drawn carriage" and "horse droppings" in the road, so everyone would know it really was 1890. I stood there in the cold, warmed by my run, and looked at the the photo and then at tree and then back at the house and then back at the photo again and I was like, "This is so amazingly cool."

The reason I'm telling you all this story, though, is because of the part with the clothes and the getting out the door. I think when you see someone out running in the cold, smiling, pausing to take in a cool picture, it's so easy to think, "Oh, that's that kind of person, totally self-motivated, massive willpower, yada yada yada."

But it's not true. Sure there are people like that. But a lot of people are just muddling through, and happened to find a cagey and clever way to get themselves to do something. Like putting on their clothes and going from there. 

As I ran, I got thinking about how changing my clothes had altered my perspective on "going outside" versus "staying in," and I was reminded of this post from a couple of weeks ago, where I talked about rational choice theory. You may remember from that post the lobster story, about the person who wants to eat lobster if they haven't seen it alive but doesn't want to eat it if they have. I was writing in the post about how you can't know from the outside whether the person was being "irrational" in allowing irrelevant factors to come into play, or whether they were rational because their preferences genuinely changed.

I think the version of the story where the person just has changeable preferences is often the one most true to life, and I ran I thought to myself that this was a pretty similar situation -- not wanting to go outside when you're wearing your indoor clothes and wanting to go outside when you're in your outdoor clothes.

It's a kind of changeability that I think is really at the heart of the human condition. It's nice to think of yourself as a stable set of preferences, pursuing this or that project, by making yourself do the things that move that project along. But often it's not really like that, and the way you see things is seriously altered by the tiniest changes in your surroundings or your mood.

The trick, if you can manage it, is to harness those forces for good. It's often impossible. But once in a while, something like the clothing trick comes to mind -- and voilà! You may not be the rational possessor of stable preferences with long term goals you're marching toward-- but you sure look like one from the outside.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Economics, Ethics, and Piracy: Why Downloaders are Homo Economicus

Det grå fyr (The Grey Lighthouse), painting of the lighthouse in Skagen by Danish artist Christian Blache, via Wikimedia Commons

To me one of the worst hypocrisies in the modern world is the way that people who'd roll their eyes about ethics in most domains then turn around and use ethical shaming against the people they want to control.

Generally if you try to bring ethical considerations into a discussion where people are using economics and business reasoning, there'll be a general mood of eye rolling. Oh, ethics. Don't get in the way please -- we are doing grown-up business here.

But once the little people aren't doing what they want -- no one hesitates to play the ethics card.

For example, when it comes to downloading and internet piracy, corporate representatives who'd otherwise be first at the extreme capitalism table suddenly turn around and show us their school-marm side. Oooh, downloading! You bad person, you!

If you think about it for even a minute, content downloaders are doing exactly what the economic model predicts that they would do. They are acting to maximize their own self-interests. Their interest is in getting content for the least cost, and that is what they are doing.

Content downloaders are homo economicus.

What I didn't realize until I started learning more economic theory is that there's actually a framework for thinking about the kind of things that make internet content susceptible to the effects that it is. You can read details at this post but I'll go through the basics here.

Basically, "rival" or "rivalrous" goods are ones where if one person's consumption of that good decreases the amount another can consume. Food is a rival good, and in a sense most physical objects are, since if one person is using them another can't, at least not at the same time.

Under this definition, internet content is non-rival, since one person's consuming it doesn't decrease another's ability to consume it.

A good is "excludable" if there are ways to prevent people from consuming it. You can put food behind a wall and lock the door so it's excludable - and same with most physical objects.

And it's very difficult to stop people from sharing internet content, even when you really really really want to.

Goods that are neither rival nor excludable are called "public goods," and the usual examples are national defense, fresh air, and lighthouses. Technically, at least, it seems internet content also fits the description of a pure public good.

Isn't it interesting how little discussion you hear about this? 

To propose this discussion is not in any way to deny that artists and intellectuals should be paid for their work. Of course they should be. It's just to point out that there are various ways of making that happen, and we sure do hear a lot about some of them (DRM, huge lawsuits against poor people) and very little about the others.

What are those others? Public goods can be supported through grants, through government funding, through payments from consumers who opt to pay in for various reasons. Maybe everyone could have a minimum income.

In a sense, the alternative model is how some intellectual content already works. Professors get salaries, and produce intellectual content -- adding to the already compelling reasons that such intellectual should be freely shared. You can read a further discussion of alternatives in the body and comments of this post.

Are these good options? Honestly, I don't know. But isn't it strange how seldom we talk about them? Instead, we're subjected to a barrage of moralizing, largely from giant corporations -- who obviously have a huge interest in the old models -- and who wouldn't hesitiate to crush or mock anyone who used ethical reasoning in any way against their interests.

What a bunch of hypocrites.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Forced Social Choices And The Rhetoric Of Individualism, Or, I Don't Want An Apple Watch -- Yet

On a scale of 1-10, my current desire for an Apple watch is trending near 0. I don't know about you, but I'm trying for a little less intimacy with my gadgets, not more. Certainly the Guardian's description of its new "Moments" for the Apple watch didn't bump me up. Moments from the news tailored for my needs? "Timely, simple, glanceable?" "If a reader wants more, they can turn to our phone app to get the full story"? WTF?

I speak of my desire "currently" trending advisedly, because we all know how changeable and easily manipulated consumer desires are. Maybe in five years I'll be the one with the watch connector embedded in my skin, stopping by the Mac genius bar whenever I get a rash or take an unapproved form of bubble bath. Who knows?

Anyway, I was thinking about the Apple watch the other day, and I got to imagining what circumstances would make me change my mind, and I got to musing about how massively socially influenced our decisions about such things are these days. "Influenced" is probably too weak a word, even. Basically when it comes to the fabric of life these days, there are lots of things where you can't realistically opt out at all.  

For example, many jobs now require not only cars and cellphones but also that you be on social media. I hate Microsoft Word and I try to avoid using it, but when there are these ubiquitous requirements to submit in .doc format -- what's a girl supposed to do? Just this morning there was an article in the New York Times about how online programs that are partly games and partly social media are going to force workers to bust their asses 110% or get canned.

Watch-wise, what's going to happen when your workplace tells you that it's a requirement that you wear a smartwatch so they can track your emotions and health so they can fire you for inefficient feelings and doing crazy shit like eating candy bars? Will we be glad to have the watch "option" around then? Isn't anyone else worried about these things?

I'm constantly trying in my tiny way to buck trends I think are awful, but sometimes I feel like a lone voice in the wilderness. As a person who is "carless by choice" catching or calling an occasional taxi is essential to my life. I live in dread of the time that "ride sharing" takes over, and traditional taxi service disappears, so that only smart-phone users can get rides and anyone who displeases their driver -- or is of the the wrong race/gender/sexual orientation/appearance/ability to afford a nice handbag -- can't get picked up. In hopes of supporting the old ways as long as possible, I ride the old-fashioned way. But I feel like it's a losing proposition.

I'm also freaking out about the possible disappearance of cash. I keep seeing these stories about how cash, being difficult to trace and antithetical to corporate interests in tracking customers' info, is going to be disappear. So I started trying to use it as often as possible. You may not know this, but cash is actually a pretty convenient form of payment. You can just put some "dollars" in a wallet or something, and then when it's time to pay you take them out and give them to the salesclerk. Voilà! It takes like two seconds. But -- call me crazy -- I don't see "cash" as one of the big twenty-first century trends.

Every time I think about the coming Internet of Things I remind myself not to buy any "smart" appliances that can track my Pinot Grigio consumption, my preference for full-fat yogurt, and so on, and share it with corporate and government interests. But then I think about how that's going to be -- about how to get repair or replacement parts you're going to have to go on eBay and connect with enthusiasts and get to know someone who knows a guy who fixes things in his basement. Maybe I should quit my job and become an appliance repair apprentice?

What changes all this from an interesting set of sociological changes and into something bizarre and confounding is that the new impossibility of social independence is happening alongside a huge recommitment to the rhetoric of individuality.

Aren't you sick of hearing that people can do what they want, and make their own future, and have to take responsibility for their choices? Aren't you sick of the presumption that if you chose a thing, you freely opted in, and you don't get to complain about the consequences?

The way people talk, you'd think we were living on a fucking prairie and keeping alive by  killing more small animals than the next guy, instead of facing, every day, choices like "play this ridiculous game and get nudged by your colleagues or ... starve." Thank you for playing!

Getting back to the watch. The one thing that might put me into positive watch desire territory would be if you could go out with just your watch. If your watch could function as your keys and your wallet and your phone -- and you didn't have to carry anything? No purse, or bag, or backpack? If you could wear a dress and shoes and a watch and that's it? Not have to carry anything? Hmmm ... if that were the deal I'd be crossing into dilemma territory.

But no -- the watch isn't even a replacement for your phone, which you still have to carry. It's just  kind of a way for you to be more intimate with your phone, which you then have to find a place for and not lose. Lucky, I guess, for all those surveillance companies that are using your phone to secretly track your whereabouts and share them with law enforcement.

But hey -- you phone users? You chose to have a phone, right? So you'll have to suck it up.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Rationality Theory And Phrenology

 I'm always wondering in what ways the people of the future will look back at us and wonder WTF we are thinking. What will be the phrenology of our time?

There are of course many possibilities. But lately on my mind is the bizarre pretence we seem to have that we've got a solid handle on human motivation, behavior, and rationality. Hearing people talk, you'd think we've got such a good grasp of this stuff that it's meaningful to go around using theories and data to analyze what people do, and why, and what they ought to be doing instead.

Because really: when it comes to why people do what they do, we are wandering around in an epistemological desert. You'd never know that, though, from the way people go on about stuff.  The way people approach some numbers about some stuff people did, you'd think they were analyzing the latest numbers from the Large Hadron Collider.

For example, how often in the last year have you read something that used data to claim that people are really "irrational" in certain systematic ways, or that to make "rational" economic decisions they ought to be doing such-and-so, or that the presence of certain distractions -- such as really sexy underdressed women -- causes people to behave irrationally?

Don't you find these "findings" are often pronounced in the comfortable and confident tone of a man who knows he's wearing the right suit? But if you even just scratch the surface, you start to wonder what the hell they are talking about.

The standard science-y theory of rationality they're typically referencing is something like rational choice theory, where "rational" just means taking taking the least costly approach to getting what you want -- that is, the rational person maximizes their preference satisfaction at the least cost of doing things they don't want to do.

Sounds good -- and sure, maybe it's internally coherent. But here's the thing. If you're trying to think about when people might succeed or fail at being rational, you run right into a brick wall. This is because if you don't know what a person preferred, you don't know whether they behaved rationally in getting it. And -- unless they're your intimate friend or your patient in psychotherapy, how do you know what a person preferred?

It's like we've mentioned before. If a person does a surprising thing, you can never know whether they acted irrationally in satisfying a set of unsurprising preferences or whether they acted rationally in satisfying a set of surprising preferences.

And as we've discussed here before as well, even when it comes to money preferences aren't obvious. I prefer a fixed-rate mortgage even if it results in somewhat larger payments overall, because I care about the peace of mind, straightforward planning, and other things associated with fixed rates more than I care about the financial loss. I've been accused by an financial industry insider of being irrationally risk-averse, on the grounds that my decision will result in paying more money overall.

Now: suppose all you knew about me was that I had turned down a variable-rate mortgage in favor of a more expensive fixed-rate one. What could you say about the rationality of my choice?

Nothing. You can't say anything. All you can say is that if I had one set of preferences, I acted rationally and if I didn't, I didn't.

But this applies across the board. From the fact that someone does something -- even a pattern of things -- you can't really infer anything. Oh, a person wanted lobster, but then on seeing live lobsters changed their mind? You think that's irrational? As Richard Posner says, "an alternative interpretation is that this person simply has different preferences for two different goods: One is a lobster seen only after being cooked, and the other is a lobster seen before, in his living state, as well as after." Voilà! Rationality.

If there's no way to judge from the outside whether a decision is rational or irrational, then what are all these people doing with their pronouncements?

The most likely possibility, to my mind, is that they are projecting onto the subjects the kinds of preferences they themselves would have, and then going on from there. For example, the financial industry insider who called me irrational was going on a simple assumption: that people prefer to have more money rather than less, and don't have other preferences conflicting with this. It's a nice sounding assumption. It just happens to be totally and obviously false.

If this idea about projection is at all on the right track, then the whole thing starts to seem deeply creepy -- because the people pronouncing on rationality are so often of a certain type -- comfortable suburban upbringing, ivy-type education, lots of time being a guy and hanging out with guys. It's not news that the rest of us might have preferences that are radically different from theirs.

As I understand it, back in the day it was common in social science to just go with a "rationality assumption" -- assume people are rational and make inferences about other things, like preferences, from there. That does, indeed, avoid the difficulty we've been talking about, since you never have to determine whether someone's been rational -- the answer is always Yes.

I don't know too much about the intellectual history of this topic, but I believe there was a move away from this approach because it seemed so implausible as a description of people and the rationality assumption risked being used as a non-falsifiable -- and thus non-scientific -- tautology.

Those are good reasons, as far as they go, but at some point we'll have to grapple with the fact that once you move away from the rationality assumption, you bump right into a pretty extreme kind of uncertainty. Because the truth is, big-picture-wise, we don't really know why people do what they do. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

In Defense Of Minor Bad Habits

Gerard ter Borch, Woman Drinking Wine, via Wikimedia Commons

There are, as I see it, basically two ways of understanding the human condition.

The first is that, absent some set of dysfunctions, diseases, problems, damage, human life is good in a pretty simple way. Heal yourself -- and before you know it you'll be out enjoying the beauty of the sky, appreciating the deliciousness of a red pepper, volunteering to turn puppies into the guide dogs of the future, you know the drill.

The second is that the problems of the human condition transcend all therapies. Heal your heart, heal your mind, have the good luck that the people you love all live long and prosper -- it doesn't really matter. Life will still often be boring, unsatisfying, and pointless, bad when it's packed with unquenchable longings, and worse when it's not.

Unless you're new here, it'll come as no surprise that I hold the second view. My feeling is, you don't have to have been locked in a room as a child to have grown up into an adult who often feels fussy or angry or massively impatient or whatever. You just have to be a human being.

There are, of course, people who hold the first view. They're always talking about how if you just stopped eating sugar or found the right therapist or something, you'd be fine. Somehow -- and this is the part that always bugs me the most -- there seems to be this idea that solving one life problem will help you solve all the others, because you'll finally get it all together.

Often I find it's the opposite. Master one thing, another thing bothers you more. When I stopped smoking, I started drinking more.

If these people-of-the-first-view just had this opinion for and about themselves, that would be totally fine and they and I could live in peace. I could complain and drink too much pinot grigio, and they could go camping and exult about the views, and while we might not be best friends, I wouldn't feel like their existence is a problem for me.

But somehow the people-of-the-first-view often seem hell-bent on applying it globally. This is a problem, especially for those of us who don't fit the first-view experience of life. Also, I think it goes beyond the scope of oh-some-people-were-annoying-on-Facebook, because it gets into everything, and no one can just enjoy a minor bad habit anymore.

A few days ago the New York Times had a story about how Vermont is taking more urgent steps with respect to dealing with the heroin problem there. The story featured a guy who seemed like your basic dad type guy and how he'd become addicted to heroin; at first the clinic couldn't fit him in, and then with the new programs they could, and he figures that if that last-minute opening hadn't occurred, he probably would have died.

Reading about all the people with heroin problems in this article made me feel so fucking sad. And I thought to myself, "If these people were all smoking lots of cigarettes and drinking too much beer and using pot all the time, wouldn't that be so much better from any conceivable point of view?"

I mean, wouldn't it? Isn't it always better if someone is muddling through with some relatively safe crap, some minor bad habit, even if it's bad for them, than if they're doing a drug that can easily kill you, like heroin?

One major problem with the hegemony of the first view is that when the rhetoric of War On Minor Bad Habits gets out of control, you take away the one tool that people who experience the second-view-human-condition people have to manage their bad habits. Sure, they might give up their bad habits. But if they're sad or going through a divorce or out of work, you know what happens to those minor bad habits. They become a heroin addiction, and then they kill you.

So sure, if someone you love has a minor bad habit, give them a nudge and a nag every now and then, but don't get on your high horse about it -- and don't act like there's some magic Rubik's cube of treatments and habits that once you lock in, you're good. For a lot of people, that's never going to be true.

Monday, February 23, 2015

When Updating Opera Means Blandifying It; Or, Why I Hated The COC's Don Giovanni

From the COC production.

Let me start by saying right up front that I have nothing against updating opera productions. Sure -- put your characters in a modern board room. Make it be about the Iraq War. Use business suits. I love it.

However, a lot of updating I've seen lately I have hated. And the reason I've hated it is that, contrary to what is often thought, the effect of some updating is not to make opera more disturbing, relevant, thought-provoking, or edgy, but rather to make it more bland, more mushy, and more irrelevant. 

When someone complains about an updated opera production, the standard line is that they're some kind of traditionalists, who want to be lulled by opera's beauty and tradition, and that presenting them with disturbing contemporary commentary is too jarring for them.

Let me just say: for me that is the opposite of the problem. What I see in some updating is, instead, a kind of gutting of the themes of the opera. (#notallupdating).

The worst updating involves seemingly disconnected "cool" aesthetic choices, minimalist staging, and "interesting" effects like "Oh, the whole thing is happening inside a play inside a nineteenth-century garden!"

Often, I find the effect to be one of distancing the audience from the themes of the opera -- themes that, given opera, are often profoundly disturbing in themselves when the production is straightforward.

For example, I recently saw the COC's production of Don Giovanni. I kind of love Wikipedia's quick synopsis of the opera itself: "Don Giovanni, a young, arrogant, and sexually promiscuous nobleman, abuses and outrages everyone else in the cast, until he encounters something he cannot kill, beat up, dodge, or outwit."

In the recent COC production, several elements of the story were re-imagined. It was set in the 20th century, and the characters' relationships were changed so that everyone in the story who is not part of Don Giovanni's family is part of the same extended family. Don Giovanni is dressed like an ordinary schlump, usually in a ratty overcoat. About his re-imagining, the director says that it's not really about Don G. being a "bad person." Instead:

"The main clash here is between two radically different ideas about how to live a good life ... Don Giovanni here is not a seducer or a playboy; he is an older man, somebody who has experienced heartbreak and disappointment. He comes in with something of the messiah complex, but his utopia of a new kind of community unsettles everybody in the family."

I thought this approach destroyed the opera by undercutting its most interesting and important themes, without being bold enough to suggest other ones. Here are just three examples.

1. Power, money, and coercion.

In the traditional story, Don Giovanni uses his status and money as a nobleman to get what he wants at huge costs to everyone else. Because marriage to a nobleman would transform most people's lives beyond belief, young women -- such as the servant Zerlina -- will go along with him whatever he proposes. By falsely suggesting marriage will result, Don Giovanni is able to coerce and deceive women into having sex with them, even though in the traditional cultural setting, this could ruin their lives.

But in this production, any reflection on how massive wealth inequality impacts social relations is completely lost, since Don G. is just some guy, the family is presented as well to do, and Zerlina isn't a servant at all but rather the daughter of one of the family members.

Disturbing commentary on money, class, and society? Gone.

2. Love, Sex, and the Seductiveness of Evil.

Even if you gut the social commentary, you still have the extremely interesting possibility of presenting the theme related to the drives of lust and affection and how those can point in the opposite direction from the drives of good sense, love, and other nice things. It is utterly bizarre to me how in the massive suburbanization of modern life there's this party line that lust and sex are nice parts of love and go along naturally with it, while meanwhile there's this whole other thing happening with rape and sexual assaults and people in public life being completely undone by their non-monogamy.

In the traditional story, Don Giovanni is a bad guy. But he's an attractive guy. Part of that is his money, sure, but it's also because sometimes, evil is attractive -- that's one of those universal and universally interesting things about the human existence.

But in this production, Don G. isn't "evil," he's just some guy with some other ideas about living, and his charismatic effects are a total mystery. Was I the only person watching and thinking, "Who on earth would be sexually attracted to this slouching, arrogant asshole in a dirty coat?"

If you can't show why he's attractive, you can't even start with themes, because the story doesn't make sense. Plus, if Don G. is just a person with other ideas about "the good life," that suggests the update would present the opera as a reflection on the problems of modern monogamy and the possibility of something else.

You know what? That would have been AMAZING. It would have been an opera about something different, but something actually interesting, relevant, and possibly destabilizing to the audience. But I didn't see anything like that.

3. Unrepentance and Fate.

Everyone who talks about Don Giovanni seems to mention the fact that at the end ghosts appear and give him a chance to repent, and he refuses, and then goes to hell. I love that the opera traditionally has been seen as having comic elements, melodramatic elements, and supernatural elements.

But once you've gotten rid of Don Giovanni being a bad guy, the whole thing with the ghosts and supernatural elements doesn't really make sense. Is he psychologically persecuting himself? If he just has other ideas about "the good life," why would he do that? If the forces against him are that he's being ganged up on, that whole punishment and refusal to repent thing just doesn't make any sense.

Weirdly, with respect to the whole re-imagining the story idea, this Toronto Star review suggests that somehow, as traditionally told, the themes of Don Giovanni wouldn't make sense in our modern world:

"If you come to Don Giovanni to see a swaggering specimen of macho humanity break the hearts of numerous women without impunity, you will be disappointed. In this post-Ghomeshi, post-Cosby, post-Dalhousie Dentistry era, it’s hard to see how an old-school reading of this opera would fly any more."

This is mystifying to me. You're saying the themes of rich and powerful people using their influence to get other people to have sex with them -- sex that ends up being destructive or damaging -- are irrelevant to the modern world? That the stories alluded to show that that theme is passe? If anything it's the opposite. The traditional story is too relevant. It's presenting it straight that would really disturbing, destabilizing, and edgy.

It's not the traditional opera that's somehow a safe bet, a mushy, comfortable, inert bit of aesthetic fun. It's the update.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Sustainable City Living FTW, Or, Pod-Life, I Has It

Yesterday morning I woke up and learned it was -11F. That's, like, I don't know, some way-below -zero temperature in Celsius. I've adopted many of my new country's habits but for some reasons Celsius, no can do. 

I learned how cold it was cold from my iPhone. Because there is no way I would have known otherwise. Because I enjoy the special condition I think of as "life in the pod" -- the pod being my condo apartment, which, being surrounded on five of six sides by other apartments, isolates me from almost everything going on in the outside world.

For some reason people have a lot of negative associations with living in small spaces, one person on top of the other, but I don't know what is wrong with these people because I think it's the best. The small space means I don't accumulate a ton of stuff. It's easy and convenient to clean. If there are problems, there's always someone to call.

And most of all, the pod is always comfortable and cozy, in one of the most eco-friendly ways around. On the coldest day of a Toronto winter, I can, honest to god, turn off my heat for the whole day, and when I come back at five, the temperature is hovering around 70. Even keeping the place toasty, the heater only comes on rarely.

There's something so life-affirming to me about how in this context, being right up close with other people, having lots of them right around you, actually enables you to live a more comfortable life, a life that would be unsustainable otherwise. It's just like public transportation. Other people, instead of being in your way, are part of your path to happiness.

Sometimes I encounter the idea that there's something antithetical about big city living, on the one hand, and environmentalism or being into the protection of nature, on the other, but nothing could be further from the truth. Because if the people are all crowded in together into small spaces, then there's way more space where there are no people messing everything up. It's spreading out and sprawl that destroys the environment.

Even the recreational activities of urban life may be more environmentally sustainable. Just the other day the New York Times had a story about how recreational activities like hiking, camping, and back-country skiing are seriously damaging to the environment. Money quote:

"Impacts from outdoor recreation and tourism are the fourth-leading reason that species are listed by the federal government as threatened or endangered..."

If only all those people could be herded into an art museum!

Anyway, all this means that when I see environmentalists protesting urban development, I want to say, you got the wrong end of the stick, guys. You should be herding everyone into big tall buildings, where can share the footprint, share the heating bill, create demand for public transportation, and hang out in coffee shops. Giant wilderness spots and the animals who live in them -- they'll be left alone in peace.

For me, the icing on the cake in terms of the eco-friendliness of urban living is the fact that, contrary to what you may have thought, elevators are among the most energy-efficient means of travel around. As the New Yorker explained in an article years ago, that's because of counter-weights. Once you put the counter-weight on, the energy required to move people up and down is actually pretty small.

When you're feelingl down about the human condition, think about that for a few minutes. What a wonderful display of human ingenuity and cooperation! Engineers came up with counter-weights, architects and builders put them into nice big buildings, and people like me use them to get to our apartments -- after we've taken our energy efficient subway or bus ride home, of course.

TL;DR: city living FTW.