Monday, August 24, 2015

Grexit "Plan B" And Our Dreams Of A Frictionless World

Like so many people I was fascinated by the whole "Plan B for Grexit" idea. Did you follow this? The former finance minister Varoufakis and some pals had this idea for what to do in case Greece suddenly became expunged from the Eurozone. As has been noted, it reads like something you'd cook up if you'd been sitting in your room bingewatching bad TV spy thrillers.

Basically, the group said they had hacked into government servers to get the financial information for citizens and companies, and they were going to assign PIN numbers and systems for moving money around. The example Varoufakis gives involves the state "paying" a pharmaceutical company on behalf of the national health service, but I from what I understand the idea was that if you were just an ordinary person hoping to buy a loaf of bread or something -- well, there'd be an app for that. Having set up a parallel banking system, the currency could be flipped to the drachma "at the drop of a hat."

I'm the last one to argue about the wisdom of having a "Plan B." Of course: how can you negotiate unless you actually have other options? What's wild to me is the idea that you can create a currency system in a kind of seamless, quick, off the cuff kind of way.

The difficulties seem obvious. Only about a third of Greeks have smartphones. The introduction of massive software requires coding, de-bugging, and beta-testing, and is not, as Bertie Wooster would say, the work of a moment. You need teams of coders and bureaucrats and communications people, not five guys sitting in a room thinking about things.

This post from Naked Capitalism has a round up of the whole thing, and I couldn't get over some of the comments. Someone says: what's the big deal? Can't they just use checks? As if the check processing industry were something you could "poof" into existence with a computer. I'm no expert, but I was under the impression that the check processing aspect of the Fed in the US used to be an enormous branch employing thousands of people who had to be educated and trained, with massive systems in place and actual buildings for the checks to go to for processing.

The whole thing reminded me of this post from a few months ago at the Archdruid Report. Setting aside the claims about the "death of the internet," the part that interested me was about the internet's costs. Like a lot of people, I had been seduced into thinking of the internet as a kind of seamless, non-material, non-friction space. Doesn't it seem that way? Like the "Plan B" team, we think that if we do something on the internet, it's somehow an instant, zero-cost thing. A space where things really do "poof!" into existence.

Of course, debacles like the IT problems of the Obamacare rollout show how delicate and difficult good website organization and coding really is. But at a deeper level, things really aren't seamless and zero cost at all. The Archdruid Report says,
Let’s start by looking at the costs. Every time I’ve mentioned the future of the internet on this blog, I’ve gotten comments and emails from readers who think that the price of their monthly internet service is a reasonable measure of the cost of the internet as a whole. For a useful corrective to this delusion, talk to people who work in data centers. You’ll hear about trucks pulling up to the loading dock every single day to offload pallet after pallet of brand new hard drives and other components, to replace those that will burn out that same day. You’ll hear about power bills that would easily cover the electricity costs of a small city. You’ll hear about many other costs as well. Data centers are not cheap to run, there are many thousands of them, and they’re only one part of the vast infrastructure we call the internet: by many measures, the most gargantuan technological project in the history of our species.
The Archdruid Report goes on to outline the Ponzi-ish scheme that keeps the whole thing moving along. Huge companies spend more and more, failing to make a profit but buttressed by venture capitalists who are looking for the next big thing. It's about the least seamless, frictionless thing you can imagine, but it's presented to use as seamless and frictionless because someone is making money when we see it that way.

When I think about these things, I wonder about the role that seamlessness and frictionlessness life play in people's dreams and fantasies. In this previous post I wrote about the dream of the "singularity": a post-human time, when people will transcend human bodies and materiality and live on in some completely seamless and frictionless way. And as I said there, I can't even understand what these people are dreaming of.

If popular culture is any guide, what we really love are things like food, sex, sports, and hanging out. None of these are seamless or frictionless activities, or things you could do if you were just a brain downloaded into a computer. In fact, the things computer brains do well -- like math and playing chess -- well, for most people they're not even registering on the fun scale.

So while there are obvious aspects of wishful thinking with Plan B type planning, in a deeper sense there's a question of where our dreams of a seamless world are coming from, and how those dreams lead us to the errors they do. And there I don't really know the answer.

Monday, August 17, 2015

What Is Femininity, Anyway?

Back in July, Laura Jane Grace was the guest on Marc Maron's WTF podcast, and one of the things she talked about was her "experiences as a trans woman in a punk rock world." I'd never heard of Laura Jane Grace and I don't know much of anything about her music -- but as usual it was an interesting discussion.

At one point Laura Jane and Marc got talking about gender dysphoria. Laura Jane described being a little boy and seeing -- I think it was Madonna? -- on TV and hoping to grow up into that kind of person, and slowly becoming aware that that wasn't the way things were heading.

Later she described how much more recently she began hiding her gender dysphoria experiences. She talked about how she was trying to keep it a secret, and so she would hide that part of herself away from people, and act on it only when she was alone, on tour or something. 

Marc asked about what that was like -- like what texture did that experience have, what did it involve? And she talked about wanting to wear women's clothing, and how sad it could be to have to settle -- to settle for the first thing you could grab at Target or whatever, instead of being able to have things you really like, in your own style.

And at one point she was elaborating on the clothing point, and -- I'm just recounting this from memory of course -- she said something about how she would want to wear feminine clothing, like either specifically feminine items like a dress or clothes styled in a certain way. For example, if she was going to wear a tank top, she'd want it to be a tank top cut in a particularly feminine way.

When she said that, I felt like I knew just the kind desire she was referring to. I love to wear feminine clothing, and sometimes I feel a strong desire to do so. And I've had just that feeling. Sure, a tank top. But can it be cut in a certain style, please?

There's something about this kind of desire I've never really felt I understood though, and that is: What's femininity got to do with it? What is femininity anyway?

I mean, if someone has a strong desire to wear one kind of tank top rather than another, what is that about?

Is it just that we live in a world that socially constructs gender strongly through clothes, so that a desire to feel like a woman manifests itself as a desire to wear certain kinds of tank tops?

That could be it. But that answer's never felt sufficient to my own experience. I'm a cisgender woman with a pretty curvy bod. Even when I wear jeans and a hoody, I feel like a woman and I look like a woman and people -- usually -- respond to me as a woman. But I don't feel feminine. And sometimes I want to feel feminine, and I want to wear the clothes associated with that feeling. So for me it seems to go beyond gender identification.

Another answer that insufficient to my personal experience is the "sexiness" answer. When I want to wear feminine clothes, it's not the same as wanting to wear a sexy outfit. On me, a low-cut shirt and snug pants often conveys way more sex appeal than a dress. But that outfit is not feminine. And it's the dress I often find myself wanting to wear.

About a year and a half ago I was on a plane coming home from Paris and I watched this movie "Les Adieux à la reine" -- "a fictional account of the last days of Marie Antoinette in power seen through the eyes of Sidonie Laborde, a young servant who reads aloud to the queen." This movie, incidentally, passes a double-secret reverse Bechdel test: as far as I can recall, there are no scenes where two men talk to one another at all. It is all women all the time.

From Les Adieux à la reine
The clothes in this movie -- the clothes! I haven't felt so stirred by a something on a small screen in a long, long, time. Yet even as I was filled with strange emotion and longing, I was unclear what exactly the emotion and longing were about. Why did these lace gowns, elaborate hairstyles and cinched waists speak to me in this way? What were they trying to say?

I don't know the answer. I think it's something about femininity, but what, exactly, I have no idea.

None of this, of course, is meant to speak to Laura Jane Grace's experience -- it's just my story. But if the bridal gown industrial complex is any indication -- I am not alone.

Monday, August 10, 2015

La Dolce Vita Bella Donna, Or, The Problem Of Narrative Female Promiscuity

A week ago I went to see La Dolce Vita at the Bell Lightbox. I'm a huge Fellini fan and I can't get enough of Marcello Mastroianni so of course I loved it and thought it was brilliant.

Among the themes of the movie is our modern celebrity-obsessed, reality-TV drenched, pictures-or-it-didn't-happen culture -- which, given that it was made in 1960, really shows the crazy prescience and brilliance of Fellini himself. This is the movie that literally created the concept of "paparazzi."

Paparazzi in La Dolce Vita
 Among the other themes of the movie is the ambivalence of our hero -- also named "Marcello." Our hero flits from party to party, photo-op to photo-op, babe to babe, with a vague sense that he ought to be doing something deeper and more sensible with his life. On the other hand, his one sensible intellectual friend is suicidally depressed with the boredom of family life. And Marcello is tormented by his fiancé and how she only talk about what they're going to have for dinner, what kind of house they're going to live in some day, and how mad she is that he isn't at home.

Marcello and Maddalena go for a drive
I feel like when a woman says she loves a movie that deals with themes of male sexual promiscuity and big-breasted babes like Anita Ekberg, there's always suspicion. Isn't the movie sexist and misogynistic? What's a woman doing liking a movie like that? Is she really engaging in some misogyny of her own? Is she really just crushing on Marcello Mastroianni and wishing she was Anita Ekberg-- thus exemplifying her own sexist bullshit?

Marcello and Sylvia
But I think this kind of suspicion is deeply misplaced. Women, too, struggle with ambivalence, with the dilemmas of the boring versus the stupid, with the attractions of vapidity. God knows they struggle with being turned on sexually by qualities and people they would otherwise find revolting. Of course they want to see these themes explored in movies and art.

So what's a girl to do? You might think, Well, why can't there be the female version, and why couldn't you go see that? You know -- like how they're doing Ghostbusters with an all female cast? You could have La Dolce Vita starring Catherine Deneuve as Marcella: a beautiful but conflicted journalist who traipses around Rome having sex with rich and famous people, going to their parties, apologizing to her cute but boring guy back home, going with her mother to a strip club --

Oh wait. No, you couldn't actually have that movie. I don't just mean that that movie would never get made -- which is of course also true. I think it goes deeper than that -- because I think you actually could not make a movie about a woman who acts like that and have the movie be about the same sort of things at all. No matter how you tried to do it, it would not come off that way.

For one thing, in our time and place you simply cannot present a promiscuous woman and have her story be about the human condition. Because of our various modern cultural obsessions and because of the meaning we assign to women's sexuality, promiscuity in women just can't be interpreted that way. 

When it comes to narrative female promiscuity, there are several common interpretive tropes.

-- There's the obvious reactionary trope: "What a slut, she deserves to have something awful happen to her."

-- There's the surprisingly common damage trope: "She runs around like that because she was hurt as a child/is desperate for love/wants to get back at someone/is looking for attention.

-- There's the objectification trope: "The author/filmmaker/director is just pandering to the desires of male audiences to see sexy and sexualized women."

Obviously these are different: it's often true, for example, that the author/filmmaker/director is just pandering to guys in the audience. As useful as this can be to point out, however, it basically guarantees that a story about a "Marcella" could never be understood as a story about the conflicts between glamor and home life, about the attractions of the awful and the stupid, or about whether it's worth trying to do something with yourself or whether it's all pointless anyway. It would be interpreted as being about something else.

So that movie -- about the female Marcella -- is a movie that couldn't really exist.

This means if you're a woman and you want to watch a movie about those things, you have to go see one in which a guy experiences them, and then project yourself into the main Marcello Mastroianni character instead of into, say, the Anita Ekberg ingenue character or the Anouk Aimée bored heiress character.

If you are doing that, you'll thank the Forces That Control The Universe that not only does Marcello have beautiful, soulful eyes with luxurious lashes, he also wears amazing clothes, rides occasionally in the passenger seat, and likes to sit around cafés drinking and talking. It's not so far away, after all.

Monday, August 3, 2015

What Do People Think About All Day?

This question isn't a joke and I don't mean it metaphorically or as an indirect way of implying something else. I mean it literally. What do people think about?


A couple of months ago, I was diagnosed with a cracked tooth just before I was going to travel to Paris, and the specialist I saw said I absolutely had to do something about it before I could go. If I didn't, there was a danger the pressure changes of air travel would exacerbate the crack and cause terrible pain. I imagined landing in a European city in intense dental pain and immediately decided to take his advice.

He recommended a root canal. I'd had one before, and it was pretty bad, but he assured me that there would be no pain. They'd do whatever they had to do to make sure my mouth was numb enough and it would be fine.

I was skeptical. I have this thing where novocaine or lidocaine or whatever it is they use these days is ineffective on me without some other drug, like nitrous oxide. I've always been this way. Shot after shot after shot, it never really works. My regular dentist gives me nitrous -- since he treats a lot of kids he always calls it "the magic nose" -- and that works amazingly. As we've discussed, for me nitrous mostly changes a frightening and painful experience into a fun opportunity to take legal drugs.

The specialist didn't use nitrous, though. I trusted him about the pain, but still: it was just going to be me with the needles and the drill and the whole unpleasant experience.

I had like a week in between arranging the appointment and the actual event, and in the meantime I tried not to think about it. When I did think about it, I kind of freaked out. The whole mechanism of a root canal -- well, look, I'm not even going to into it, because if you're at all like me even the description of it is so disturbing, so much the sort of thing that would cause you pain, so much the kind of thing that seems like it's damaging you rather than helping you, you don't even want to think about it.

As in the nature of things, the more I tried not to think about it, the more I thought about it, and the more I thought about it the worse I felt. Being by nature and by training an overly reflective person, I started to think about why I couldn't put it out of my mind, which got me thinking about what other things I think about on a daily basis and why I couldn't substitute some of those things in for thinking about the root canal. 

And the more I pondered that the more weirded out I got. What do I think about? Once you bracket the obvious planning and internal complaining, what is there? I was appalled to notice that while happy thoughts about the past could barely hold my attention for a nanosecond, unhappy thoughts about the past could stay festering in my brain over long and recurring moments.

Once when I was in ninth grade, I was hanging around some kids I thought were cool including a boy I thought was cute, and they were being funny, and I was laughing. And that boy turned to me and said, "What is it with you anyway? You'll laugh at anything."

How is it memories like that can really catch hold and stick with you, while nice thoughts about people who love you just drift away like the seeds of a Cottonwood tree?

I don't if everyone is like this, but I found some of my happiest and most absorbed moments, moments when I could successfully not think about the root canal, were spent musing about possible future projects -- not, like, realistic projects like finishing my book manuscript or learning to make spanakopita, but just-beyond-realistic projects, like getting into bodybuilding or writing a successful comedy-drama screenplay.

I'm usually a very reality-based person. WTF?

Eventually I started casting around for other things to fill my mind, to block out thoughts of the root canal. And that's when I started wondering: what do other people think about? I see them sitting quietly on the subway, or standing around before exercise class, and their expressions look pretty placid. Are they obsessing about the past? Are they daydreaming about the future? What else is there?

In the end, I thought about that root canal all week all the time, and I fretted about it and worried about it, and finally the day came, and though the doctor was as good as his word in terms of dental numbness, it's also the case that I had to have shot after shot after shot of novocaine, and after each one they had to test my tooth with a super cold thing that made me jump out of the chair, and there were complexities which meant they coudn't finish it in one three hour appointment so I had to come back.

But it all ended up fine and my teeth feel great. So all that suckiness and difficulty? I try not to think about it.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Do Universities Need Departments Of What The Hell Is Going On?

I assign pretty contemporary stuff in class, so I was surprised and amused recently when my students recently started complaining that the texts I was assigning were too old -- so old, in fact, that they were having trouble reading them at all. "We can't read this!" they said. "It's written in a style we can't understand! Help!" I didn't say this out loud but I thought to myself, "We are not talking about Middle English or something here. These are articles from the 1970s! WTF."

Beyond just the complexities of understanding, I feel like there's a broader thing going on, a thing about wanting to learn about there Here and Now.

It's a trend away from learning old languages and deciphering old handwriting, away from studying the culture of Byzantium, away from curiosity about the writing system of the Shang Dynasty. It's a trend toward the study of, say, "American films of the 1980s," a trend toward interviewing English-speaking 60-year old living people as a kind of human primary texts.

In certain obvious ways, the study of the here and now is, well, easier than the study of the far away and the old -- and there's a certain kind of person who always gets a little eye-roll-y about this sort of thing. Sure, doesn't it seem like less work and more fun to go around interviewing people with questions like "And when you first saw Casablanca, how did you feel?" than it is to learn a new language or new way of thinking or whatever.

But I think there are actually good reasons for the surge of interest in the here and now. The main one is a widely shared feeling that these days, the here and now themselves feel foreign, obscure, confusing, and strange -- our own culture feels like something you'd need to really buckle down and do some serious research before you'd get a glimpse into what is happening and why.

As always with this sort of thing, I don't know if things are more complicated, or if they just seem more complicated because we know more, or if we're setting the bar higher, or what. But I do have a thought, which is that more than ever, "understanding what is going on" is not something you can outsource.

There used to be a sense that if wanted to know what is going on, you could look at an encyclopedia or the news. But now we're acutely aware of the ways in which various starting points, biases, and blind spots figure in. In fact, it might be in part the easy access we now have to the knowledge sources of the past that gives us pause about the knowledge sources of the present. It wasn't that long ago that we were measuring people's heads for racism.

Sometimes it seems like the deep complexity and elusive objectivity of thinking undermines the humanistic project, but in my mind it's exactly the opposite. The more complicated things are, the less likely that data and facts are going to help you understand, and the more you're going to need judgment and thinking.

If that's right, then to understand what the hell is going on in the here and now, you need to actually learn things, study up, read opposing views, get a backstory, ask some people, and think about things.

From that perspective, the obsession with the here and now would be a sign not of laziness or screen addiction but rather a proper recognition that we really don't understand what is hell is happening and someone better get on it.

Since higher education these days is all about catering to the customer base, how about it? Personally, I think a major in WTF Is Happening would sell like hotcakes.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Economic Concepts And Normative Entanglement


Don't you think it's kind of weird from the economic point of view "exercise more" could be a preferred weight loss strategy to "eat less"?

I feel like economics should have nothing to say on the subject. And in one sense, I'd say economics agrees with me: as a study of what causes what, as a set of theories or models about what happens when you do X or Y, economics just sits there. It can't have any particular normative content -- that is, it can't, by itself, say that one thing is better than another or that we should or ought to do something rather than something else.

In this way of seeing things, economic theory itself is neutral: it doesn't recommend any particular course of action. It's not until policy makers articulate goals that you can then put the theory to use in figuring out how to achieve those goals.

Theoretically, I think this is correct, but I'm often struck by how tangled up things get in practice and how difficult it is to keep the descriptive and the normative apart. It's a complex matter, but I think at least one important part of it has to do with concepts like "rational" and "efficient." Yes, in a sense you could use these concepts merely as descriptive terms, as devoid of evaluative or value-laden content. But it's not easy. How is calling something "rational" or "effiicent" not a way of recommending it? Or, even more strikingly, how is calling something "irrational" or "inefficient" not a way of criticizing it?

One reason it's very difficult, in practice, to use those concepts in the neutral descriptive way is that they are actually ordinary language concepts with deep connections to our lives. If a physicist says that the table is made of atoms, that doesn't give me any feelings about tables, particularly. I mean, it's interesting and maybe useful but I don't have any deep historical personal relation to the concepts involved. But if my mortgage broker tells me that preferring a fixed-rate mortgage is "irrational" -- how can I possibly interpret that as a neutral statement?

Some neutrality defenders I've spoken to have pointed out that each of these terms has a technical definition in economics which means they're not the same concepts as the loaded, normative ones we use when we're arguing with each other about whether it makes sense to eat cake or go to the gym or whatever.

I get that -- and theoretically, I think it's correct. But the problem is this: if the technical concepts aren't in some way connected to the ordinary concepts -- if they're really formal technical definitions like "atom" that have nothing to do with our lives, then how can we use the conclusions? There has to be some way of explaining how the formal definitions are related to things we want to do, like bringing about prosperity and justice and liberty through rational and efficient methods -- where these concepts are the ordinary concepts, not the technical ones.

So one thing I think happens -- and this happens not at the site of economic theory but out in the world where we're all just talking and thinking about what to do -- is that instead of thinking through the possibly fraught and complex relationships between the technical concepts and the ordinary ones, we just substitute in as if they're the same.

And that's where the strange things happen. If you think economic efficiency is good, and economic activity tends to produce it, you look at weight loss and you see immediately that, other things being equal, exercise tends to increase economic activity while eating less tends to decrease it.

Exercise often means gym memberships, special shoes, etc etc., while eating less tends to mean not buying extra cupcakes at the store. Weirdly, even following food guidelines for healthy eating seems to mean feeding yourself with less economic activity -- since you're eating less processed food and eating at home.

So, yes, in a sense, from the economic point of view "exercise more" could be a preferred weight loss strategy to "eat less." Given that there seems to be converging agreement that eating less might actually be a more successful strategy, it might be the case that what is good from the economic point of view might be opposed to our own individual good.

This is, of course, but the tiniest example, but I think similar mechanisms are at work in the large ones as well. Efficiency measures how things are overall and says nothing about individual rights or justice or whether the status quo is itself acceptable. If you take a society of rich people and poor people, and you just make the rich people better off, you have, in a sense, increased "efficiency."

Sure -- theoretically, you can use the term "efficient" in the technical sense in which it's a formal, value-neutral, concept and to say that something increases efficiency isn't a way of recommending it, and then you could go on to have a whole discussion about whether increasing overall efficiency by increasing the well-being of the well-off is a good thing to do in the given case or whether other things should happen.

But, for all kinds of reasons, that's often not how it goes in reality.

Monday, July 13, 2015

What Happened In The 80s, Anyway?

From the 1970s.

The other day a friend of mine mentioned they had something to show me: it was an economics text, they said, from the 70s, and it presented as obvious things like "economics is a moral science" -- meaning, I take it, that economics is inherently concerned with well-being and distributive justice and so on.

I immediately thought "Oh, yes -- of course. That was the 70s I knew." And then I thought, "What happened to that world, anyway?"

I mean the world with ads like the one at the top of the post, showing a little girl in overalls interested in building stuff with lego.

That's the world in which people talked about peace and justice all the time, dressed in goofy clothes like bell-bottoms for fun, and thought that, even though there were a lot of problems, it was possible things were going to get better and that someday we'd all be able to live in diverse neighborhoods in happy prosperity.

This might just be me, but I feel like now in 2015, after so many political and economic problems of the last few years, it's easy to slip into thinking of the narrative as essentially a simple expansion and contraction sort of thing. Like: idealism, following by tough times, producing widespread grasping self-centeredness.

But it's pretty obvious that that isn't it at all. In fact, there's that huge time in between: the 80s and 90s. It's crazy to me now to remember that when I quit math to do a PhD in philosophy in 1997, the world was in the middle of its dot com craze -- people acted like even pursuing a safe-course secure quiet job in scholarship was kind of nuts when you could make a fortune doing something else. Someone in my grad program actually quit to make money day trading.

No, the end-of-the-70s mood was something more complicated. I was born in 1966 and I went off to college in 1984, so I was the wrong age to be a reliable narrator. But what I remember most about that time was the sense that massive social forces had decided that Fun Was Over and it was time to Get Serious.

Hanging around the dorm one day, someone showed me an image that had been going around. It showed one Brooks Brothers' ad from the late 70s and one from the early 80s. They both showed a well-dressed white man from the back, and they were virtually identical, except that the earlier one had slightly longish rakish hair and the 80s one had a perfect, clipped, conservative cut. I remember we all thought, "Oh yeah: that about sums it up."

Half our class was going off to work for Goldman Sachs. Is it any wonder so many Gen-Xers became slackers?

So what happened? What was so great about Hungry Like the Wolf and Dirty Dancing that we had to give up KC and the Sunshine Band?

I'd been pondering these questions lately while listening to some disco, and I happened to read Arthur Chu's excellent essay linking the old anti-disco movement to the new #gamergate one.

Chu reminds us that that even in an era in which Christians "literally believed rock bands were Satanic cults who used backward masking to hypnotize people," the worst and most destructive violence against music "was wrought by guys who just didn’t like disco."

Indeed, people freaked out against disco. Chu mentions us of record burnings and the event in 1979 at Comiskey Park where disco records were burned and the crowd got so riled up they trashed the stadium and the cops had to be called in.

I remember at the time being confused. I wanted to be cool, and the anti-disco people were positioning themselves as the cool kids. But I loved disco. I thought disco was fun and great for dancing and an expression of the Life Force. I was concerned and upset: how could cool figure into my life if cool required being anti-disco?

Chu argues in his essay that the anti-disco force was in a deep sense a force of angry white guys, enraged at the empowerment of women, black people, and gays, and targeting disco because it was a vehicle of expression for just those forces.

The 70s, Chu says, were a time of great conflict and change, and were thus deeply disturbing to the people who stood to lose out somehow through those changes. Those who had a social status to lose lashed out, struck back, not because "disco" was somehow "fake" but because they didn't want the change they thought was coming.

I think he's right. And I think that if he's right, part of the answer to what happened in the 80s has to do with fear and hatred.

It's less a story of tough times leading to renewed self-interest, and more a story of rage and backlash -- a story of people desperate to hold onto and reassert their relative importance over other people.

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Dream Of The Fundamental Law Of Human Behavior: WTF?


One of the trends in modern thinking that really mystifies and annoys me is the dream of the simple fundamental law of human behavior. What is up with that?

In fact I'm mystified and annoyed both by the credulity -- the belief that there is a simple fundamental law of human behavior -- and also by the desire -- the hope that there's a fundamental law of human behavior. What kind of person sees humanity this way?

I mean, it's one thing to think we're like overgrown mice -- the kind of animals whose behavior might be well understood through a massive data-oriented approach with mazes and observational studies and NHS funding. Though I've always had my doubts about the fruitfulness of this style of thinking, I don't find it alienating. I mean, in some ways we are like overgrown mice. I understand the appeal of an animalistic self-conception.


But the dream of the simple fundamental law seems to requires seeing humans not as overgrown mice but more like ... I don't know, planets or something. Large, inanimate bodies whose movement through space and time can be charted with trigonometry and laws like F=ma.

What kind of person wants to see humans -- wants to see themselves -- this way?

In a recent Facebook Q and A, the physicist Stephen Hawking asked Mark Zuckerberg which of the big questions in science he most wanted to know the answer to. Zuckerberg said, reasonably enough, that he was interested in questions having to do with people, like how they learn.

He then went on to say this:

"I’m also curious about whether there is a fundamental mathematical law underlying human social relationships that governs the balance of who and what we all care about. I bet there is."


He's surely not alone with his dream. But WTF?



For one thing, why think there's a law like this? While it's true we have some simple fundamental mathematical laws in physics, the fact that such simple laws work is widely regarded not as commonsensical but rather as a kind of miracle.

In 1960, Eugene Wigner wrote a classic article "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in Science." Toward the end, he says:

"The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve."

If it's a mystery and a "miracle" that mathematics works so well in describing things like planets and F=ma, why would you think it'll work in the same way for people, who seem so complicated?

But for another thing, why is this someone's fantasy or dream? I don't even get what's appealing about it. Suppose you did find some law like that. Now you see humans not just as part of the machine of the universe, but as a predictable part of the the machine -- a part you could use a pencil to work out where we're going from where we've been.

What's to like? Suppose you did find some basic law, so that what seems like the vast multiplicity of human feeling and culture and motivation, what looks like the incredible fabric of life, it really all comes down to the X factor. You go about your day, and instead of seeing kindness and anger and art and food and cooperation and conflict and music and flirting, you say smugly to yourself, "well, sure -- but it's really X, X, X, X, X, X, X, and X."

Who can see this as a dream come true?

Monday, June 29, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 22, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Château Rouge: just like home!

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

Well anyway -- I like it.