Monday, May 25, 2015

Favors and Gender and Helping: It's Complicated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 18, 2015

Life-Planning: The Anti-Theory Theory

From the US Dept of Transportation website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honestly? I have no idea.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Accidental Philosopher Photographs Some Things, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 4, 2015

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

A proposed settlement from the Mars One website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Ridiculous Rise Of Individualism In Response To Complex Social Problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.