Monday, April 21, 2014

Missing Airplanes: The Five Stages Of Commentary

Sun Tower Airplane by Robert Delaunay 1913, via Wikimedia Commons

1: Shock and Confusion
Where is the plane? How could we lose a whole airplane? Weren't there people on board with phones? Why did no one try to call or text? Can't they use "find my iPhone" to find the plane? Why not? What about radar and satellites? How could we lose a whole airplane? What about cell phones, didn't someone try to call or text?

2. Commentators Turn On One Another
People posting about cell phones don't understand the first thing about how the world works and shouldn't be allowed here on the comment boards. Where's the moderator? Even the dumbest child knows that radar isn't always on, it's not that sort of thing. Who are the idiots who keep coming in here to ask about radar and cell phones? If I have to read one more post about cell phones I'm going to kill somebody.

3. Epistemology Seminar
The official story doesn't add up. If that's what happened, how could this other thing also have happened? It doesn't make any sense. What are the odds of that particular thing happening at the exact same time as that other particular thing? Sure, they said that. But these people said this other thing. So who do you trust more? Governments have interests in saying certain things. Governments have interests in not keeping certain secrets. Governments have interest in perpetuating certain lies. Corporations have interests in keeping secrets and perpetuating ignorance, half-truths, and certain lies.

4. Questioning The Official Story Makes Some People Really Really Mad
You doubt the official story? You think governments don't always tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Where's your evidence, you tin foil hat wearing conspiracy theorist? You tin foil hat types make me sick. An absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns. You think corporations have interests in keeping secrets and perpetuating lies? Where's the evidence for that, you tin-foil hat wearing conspiracy theorist? You conspiracy theorists disgust me.

5. Comments Go Meta
You people who are so mad about "conspiracy theorists," don't you know there have been many actual conspiracies? How does asking questions about the official story make someone a tin-foil hat wearer? What's your interest in defending the official story, anyway? Are you astroturfing? What's astroturfing? What do you mean, "what's astroturfing?" They haven't found anything; how is this news? What do you mean how is this news, aren't you here commenting? Having comments open on this story is dumb. You coming here to comment to say that is even dumber. Shut up. No, you shut up.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Flash Boys And Philosophy: Truth, Justice And The Nature Of Capitalism

Last week I read Michael Lewis's Flash Boys, you know, the book about High Frequency Trading. Like a lot of people I was struck by the way the narrative is all Good Guys versus Bad Guys and Truth, Justice, and the American Way. 

I'm no expert on the stock market, but I do know something about Good and Bad -- and even something about Truth and Justice. So let me make a few quick observations.

In case you haven't read it, the narrative goes basically like this. At some point some people realized they could have an advantage in trading if their connections were faster; part of that advantage included "seeing" other people's intended trades before those trades got made; this advantage was exploited in a variety of ways, some of which allowed people with faster connections to wipe the floor with everyone else, and some of which seemed to pit the interests of firms against those of the clients they represented. Some good guys called "shenanigans" on grounds that the system was "unfair," "rigged" against those with bad bandwidth.

1. Fairness? WTF?

I was surprised to see the concept of fairness invoked so often to explain what was wrong with using speed to beat out others. Because fairness is often thought, in economics, to be kind of a mirage concept. Among other things, it's vague and ambiguous, we're told.

The efficiency concepts used in economic reasoning don't appeal to fairness, they appeal maximizing or Pareto optimality -- how things are overall. Efficiency doesn't doesn't talk about how the costs and benefits are arranged, only about how they stack up overall. Even the liberty concepts used in economic reasoning -- the freedom for consenting adults to make exchanges as they see fit -- don't appeal to fairness either.

To see how low in our cultural estimation the F-word is, look at our current discourse about inequality. Even people who are upset about inequality can't bring themselves to talk about fairness. They just talk about "consequences."

Try to use fairness to talk about social justice and Serious People will shut you down. The economic perspective tells you there's no such thing. But now suddenly markets can be unfair?

2. Truth, liberty and efficiency are also vague and ambiguous

A charitable interpretation of the "unfair!" complaints would be something like: "this market isn't working to do what markets are supposed to do."

That seems to me possibly a fruitful and reasonable thing to say about this situation. But if it is, one thing this shows is that despite the assertions we sometimes hear to the contrary, the hows and the whys of markets are not simple or straightforward.

For example, for an exchange to be legitimate, everyone needs a certain amount of true information about what is being exchanged and how it works. But how much information? When is it a duty to disclose and when is it buyer beware? Do banks have to reveal what, exactly, they do with client money at all stages? Can they have no proprietary processes?

Given that opponents of GMO labeling tell us revealing the truth is a grave misstep and contrary to capitalist values, clearly what is required for transparency and truth-telling is non-obvious. You might even say these are vague and ambiguous concepts.

When you get into the possibility of beneficial effects of markets things are even murkier. As Lewis describes, the benefits of HFT are sometimes described in terms of increased "liquidity." Naturally, there's disagreement about what is good about that, when it's good, how much is the right amount, etc. The difficulty of measuring effects might even lead you to say that "efficiency" is a vague or ambiguous concept.

In any case, if the issues are transparency, overall benefits, functioning markets, why use the language of fairness and injustice?

Interestingly, even this article defending HFT says that "flash trading" --  i. e., "trading firms paying money to have their computers and servers right next to those of the exchange" -- is "repugnant."

Repugnant why? If moving your servers makes people better off and there's no rule against it, what's the economic principle under which they're supposed to refrain?

3. H. L. Mencken, the language of honor, and the true goal of lording it over other people

Encountering the moralizing and indignation-oriented language in the HFT debate reminded me immediately of H. L. Mencken's discussion of the concept of "honor" among men. As I described before, in his Defense of Women, Mencken regards with contempt the way men talk of women having "no sense of honor," when they themselves appeal to honor and fair play only in contexts like gambling and games, when nothing meaningful is really at stake. When the chips are down, he says, everyone fights tooth and nail, and honor and fair play go out out the window.

This was, of course, relevant to a Defense of Women in 1918 because women were dependent on marriage for survival. Unlike men, of course they had to fight tooth and nail in the love and romance arena.

The point here, though, is that Mencken thinks concepts like honor and fair play are especially likely to be used in contexts like gambling and games. It is, of course, not news that the stock market can seem more like gambling and games than it does like like engaging in meaningful exchanges of goods.

And here I have to say, from the point of view of a total outsider, the glimpse into the culture of Wall Street of Lewis's book does nothing to dispel such ideas. The way it comes off, the prestige of a bank is everything, more important than even whether money is being made. It's almost like the money is just an imperfect tracker for what really matters to people, and what really matters to people is some vague sense that they can lord it over someone else.

If lording it over someone else is what they're in it for, it's no mystery about the language of injustice. The "advantage" to the speedy would then be analogous to the advantage of a cheater in sports. And we all know what to say about that: it's repugnant.

If you really want to hear indignation and the language of fairness and injustice, forget poverty and war and people dying pointlessly. Because sports is where the REAL action is.

So: as I see it, if the debate over HFT is laden with Big Concept Value words, that's because economic reasoning is shot through with Big Concept Values, even though people don't like to say so. The issue isn't HFT, but rather the nature and justification of capitalism itself.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Signs Of The Times: True Secrets Of My Inbox, Revealed!

Dear Friend,
We're putting on a thing and we would love you to join us! Our thing will be lame and sad if people don't come. Plus, we're under a lot of pressure from our funding agency/higher-ups/other to show how popular we are, and we can do this by having a successful thing. We're hoping if you come to our thing, we can eventually get you to like/follow/add us on social networking and thereby be on our lists for future things.

We realize that you have other items on your to-do list, including getting on with your life. But without Real People (tm) at our things, we will cease to exist, and that will make us very sad. You wouldn't want that to happen, would you?

Tireless Organizer

Dear Scholar,
We've started up a weird journal that sounds like a respectable one, and we're hoping you'll be confused into submitting something. We wrote this email to sound vaguely like you have been targeted by our community of researchers because we found your work interesting, but really that's just wordplay; in fact we sent identical emails to millions of people.

We're new and we're open access, so we're hoping it takes you a while to figure out that we're in this to make money in ways you didn't even know were possible in publishing. For example, maybe if your article is accepted, we can charge you a fee to get it published, and you'll pay. That would be awesome for us.

Maybe you're wondering about the people listed on our editorial board, whose names you've never heard and whose universities seem obscure. Don't waste your time thinking about it. We don't know what their deal is either.

Hoping to con you in one way or another,
Sketchy Open Journal of X

Dear Blogger,
We hear you have a blog! That is awesome! We are a PR company representing a person who had an experience and then made a thing. We all know that having an experience and then making a thing means nothing in today's world without fans, so we are reaching out to you. We're so excited you have a blog where you could talk about this thing!

We realize you are one tiny blogger with a very tiny readership, but we are so desperate for the crumbs of attention that you might be able to give us that we are emailing you directly. Given that you are on our list, just imagine how deeply into obscurity our list goes! We are just hoping against hope that if the right person can just give a shout out, we can go viral with this amazing story. And since you are on the internet, you might be that person!

In fact, we're so excited about the possibilities, we're willing to offer you a live interview/meeting/viewing/lunch with the creator of this thing, so you can tell your readers first hand about its awesomeness.

Please, please, get in touch!

Best wishes and hope to hear from you!

Desperately Seeking Any Publicity Whatsoever

Monday, March 31, 2014

Balance In The News Of The Future

Double Octuple Newspaper Press [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Save Lives With This One Easy Trick?
March 31, 2034

Researchers at Mikewa State University have announced a breakthrough in curing the virulent and often fatal strain of Vole Flu that's been sweeping the nation. "It's amazing," said Dr. Sanura Ade, head of the research team. "We found that a cheap and safe treatment made of water and cranberry juice worked in 99 percent of cases."

The question does remain of how to ensure the nation's limited cranberry supply gets properly distributed. A spokesperson for Nice People Without Borders suggested that the problem was a simple one to solve, explaining that "it just costs a few dollars to ship a box of cranberries" and that larger effects would be limited -- at most, some people might have to go without cranberry sauce this Thanksgiving.

Some, however, have expressed skepticism that our limited cranberry resources should be "distributed" in any organized way. "In a case like this, where you're comparing one person's side dish and another person's medical treatment, there's really no way to make a direct comparison" said Jane  Q. Capitalist. "If one person is willing to pay more for his cranberries, it's not our place to judge how they get used. Those who can't afford the going cranberry rate should really have been better prepared. We know from past experience that cranberry redistribution programs result in waste and inefficiency."

The spokesperson for Urinary Tract Health of America could not be reached for comment.

New Subatomic Particles Found
The New Chicago Desert
March 31, 2054

Scientists at the New Institute For Novelty In Forward-Thinking and Exciting Neo-Innovation have found evidence of new subatomic particles. In their new Large Moron Collider, they were able to conduct experiments that show the existence is pretty much settled, or, as researcher Dr. Chang Lee put it, "is the Pope Catholic?" "

Some, however, have expressed skepticism that the laws of science should be accepted uncritically. "If you look into it, you'll find that most of the reasoning used in physics is based on abstract principles and mathematical equations written down in books and articles. And where did these come from? They're just the product of human minds. To which I say, "who died and made them headmaster? We cannot simply let the elites decide these things."

Karl Popper could not be reached for comment.

Oceans Rise, World Ends, As Global Temperatures Increase Fourfold
Planet Earth
March 31, 2074

The world's rising oceans engulfed almost all remaining land on Tuesday, in a dramatic flood reminiscent of biblical times. Greenpeace held a memorial service for life as we know it, and conducted a mock court case putting on trial Western Civilization, Consumer Culture, and Modern Individualism. All three were found guilty and sentenced to death.

Some, however, have expressed skepticism that humans had anything to do with the changing climate and end of the world. "It's important to look at the data, and the data say that this flood is the result of several natural factors," said John T. Nihilist, spokesperson for the American Enterprise Competition Prosperity Institute.

"Also, people are talking as if we've never seen a flood of this magnitude. But this is absurd. A very similar flood occurred before. And you know what? It all ended up fine. Noah built his arc, and put on the animals, and everyone lived happily ever after."

The dolphin named "Smiley," expected to be new King of the Earth, could not be reached for comment.

Monday, March 24, 2014


I don't know about you but I am sick unto death of people talking about how great science and technology are and how kids ought to all major in science disciplines and how if only the kids could all become engineers all the intractable problems of modern young adulthood would somehow cure themselves.

In the US and Canada there seems to be this idea that if you could just get all the kids to study SCIENCE instead of sociology or english or art history or whatever, those kids would all get nice scienc-y jobs and the under-employment of college kids problem would go away.

Right off the bat you know is a CRITICAL THINKING FAIL. The production of more engineers or microbiologists is not going to create more engineering and microbiology jobs. It doesn't work that way. Conversely, whatever people major in, someone is still going to be making your Starbucks Chai Latte, someone is going to be watching your kids at daycare, and someone is going to be emptying the trash in your workplace. The logic of "just change your major, kids!" is the logic of highly educated baristas. And, I would add, at least if the baristas major in film studies they'll have something interesting to talk about while they foam your soymilk.

It's like someone looked at a graph that showed "income ten years after graduation" plotted against "major," noticed that scientists and engineers tend to do pretty well, and inferred that if more people became scientists and engineers the more people would do pretty well. Which is so dumb it makes you want to say, "What did you people study in college, anyway?"

This whole thing is even more annoying from the big picture view. Because despite the steady drip of implications to the contrary, most of the world's most pressing problems just do not have science or technology solutions at all. They are human and social problems.

Look at international conflict and war. There's violence in the Middle East, there are Syrian refugees, on whatever day you're reading this I'm sure you can open the paper to find some horrible situation in which people are dying and there doesn't seem to be any workable solution. Huge world problem. What's the science angle exactly? New weapons, robots? Oh - I know, we'll make a giant shield to protect us forever! Awesome!

OK, maybe that example is too easy, like shooting fish in a barrel. All right, well what other problems do Earthlings have? Surely one of them has to do with the creation of wealth -- how does it happen? -- and the appropriate sharing of the goods that result from prosperity. Developing countries don't have enough of most things. Countries like Greece are falling into serious economic hardship where people can access basics like food and medicine. Rich countries are trying desperately to recreate boom time conditions. Given the global effects of the 2008 economic crisis and how ill-prepared for it we were, it would seem we have a few things to learn about how, exactly, all this works.

Where's that knowledge going to come from? You know, crazy as this sounds, I'm guessing it it won't be from the microbiology department. In fact I'm guessing it might have something to do with the social sciences and humanities. You might need some economics. But because you'd be thinking about what people do and why you might also need some psychology. And because you'd be thinking about which of the many impossible trade-offs are the right ones to make, you might need some philosophy. And because you'd be thinking about how things work not in some magic unicorn place but rather in situated social groups, where things happen in certain particular ways for certain particular reasons, you might need history and literature. I could, obviously, go on and on.

Because when you've got a hammer everything looks like a nail, people like to offer technological solutions to problems you might have thought were largely social in nature. Whenever anyone questions some new biotech food technology craze on grounds that no one has any idea what the long term effects of altered crops and so on are, you always hear the same indignant response, that there are hungry people and they need improved crops and who are you to stand in their way?

But in fact, as a species, we're producing more food per capita than ever. From what I understand the world produces enough food for everyone. The problem is who has it and who doesn't. What would you study to try to solve that problem? Nanotechnology? Chemistry?

Listen, I've got nothing against science. Intellectual curiosity, production of major great things, massive improvement in the comforts of life, etc. etc. Who could forget the great gift of hand-washing to prevent the spread of disease? That really is genius.

But it's not everything, it isn't the key to unlocking utopia, it isn't even useful for many of the things we need to figure out.

Meanwhile, everyone's falling all over themselves about the benefits of learning to code. Right -- because if there's one thing we need more of, it's apps. For example, it's good to know the best and brightest minds of someone's generation have recently busy producing an app called "Secret" that will allow people to gossip anonymously.

Finally, someone is doing something about our limited options to gossip online! Whew!

Monday, March 17, 2014

I Have A Problem With A Pleasant Day

Silvestro Lega, A Walk in the Garden, via Wikimedia Commons

Yes: I have a problem with a pleasant day.

My problem is not the well-known Future-Freak-Out problem -- that you can't enjoy a pleasant day today because you're too worried about what will happen tomorrow. For whatever reason that's not my thing. Generally I'm probably not worried enough about what will happen tomorrow.

My problem also is not Mindfulness-Or-A-Lack-Thereof. I know there are people who can enjoy now because they're distracted thinking about something else. But I don't think that's me. Generally, if the day is pleasant, I can enjoy it.

No, my problem with a pleasant day is more perverse, and has to do with OK-What-Was-The-Point-Of-That? I mean, that AFTER a pleasant day, I can't see the point of having had the pleasure. The pleasure over, the day feels wasted, spent or given way for nothing, something I was cheated out of. Somehow I can't enjoy the pleasure after it's ended. And then the fact that I'm going to feel this AFTER infects how I feel NOW.

If you think about it, it's surprising this doesn't come up even more often. I mean, one of the main elements of folk psychology of our time contrasts the impulsive feeling and pleasure seeking parts of ourselves with the rational planning parts of ourselves. 

But how is the rational planning part supposed to factor in pleasure? In this previous post I expressed my mystification at the idea that the planner could have any way of adjudicating how much pleasure is the "right amount" - it's like needing an answer to an ill-formed question.

But then there is this whole other problem, which is that from the point of view of the planner, how is the pleasure of the past any use at all? At least with the pleasure of the present and future, you can see how that would get a grip on a person, capture their motivation, feel meaningful. But the pleasure of the past?

It feels like in terms of the past, the planner can only evaluate how well certain goals were achieved. Like, if you're trying to finish writing the Great Canadian Novel and on Tuesday you spend five hours on it and you get 10 pages written then the planner inside your heart has a clear way of entering this information into the system. But what if you knocked off on Sunday and sat around watching TV or even just going for a nice walk? What can the planner say about that other than, Oh Well.

For me this problem is most acute when it comes to A Pleasant Day. Because if something is really fun, exciting, super-pleasurable,  you just kind of get swept up in it and you tell the planner to go to hell. But a garden variety pleasant day: it's harder to figure out.

It seems to me the planner can only make sense of a pleasant day by working in some idea of a "goal" of having pleasant days in one's life. But why would that be a goal? I mean, insofar as something is a pleasure, it'd seem you'd want it. But that seems almost like a tautology. It's not a thing you'd come to think because of reasons.

If you ask me, the problem is the whole feeler versus planner metaphor, which seems to misconstrue the relationship between how you feel about something and how you decide whether to do it, by seeing these as two separate things.

If that's part of the story, then it would seem the reason I've got a problem with a pleasant day is that I've somehow internalized the feeler versus planner metaphor, despite its difficulties. And I think that is possibly true. Doing a little armchair psychology we might observe that the subject -- me -- spent her young adulthood as one of the worst planners in the world, routinely missing class to drink, take drugs, and "just hang out."

It wouldn't be surprising that such a person, faced with the prospect of life as an endless succession of doing nothing, would over-develop her planning capacities, and adopt, even if subconsciously, the metaphor of the all powerful planner who knows all and controls all.

As long as the subject hasn't shut that planner up with some pinot grigio, anyway.

Monday, March 10, 2014

I Have An Anger And Negativity Dilemma, And Maybe You Do Too

The Governess, by Emily Mary Osborn (1834 - 1925) (British) (Artist, Details of artist on Google Art Project) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I don't know how you feel, but I am sick unto death of people and their constant anger and negativity. Everywhere you go, people are expressing their indignation, calling other people out on shit, making fun of people for doing dumb things, and generally bitching and moaning.

Of course, if you're on the internet -- well, yeah, of course. We all know about "comments" -- but it seems even the mildest things these days seem to provoke people. Friends are angry on Facebook that other friends don't post the right kind of things -- too much humble-bragging, or too many pictures of the kids, or the video someone thought was cute is actually pernicious because Some Reason The Person Didn't Think Of.

But it's not just the internet. I feel like people are complaining all the time, about everything. The other day I was at my favorite exercise class, with my fave instructor, who is awesome, and after as we were all walking out, I happened to be behind three people who had been trying the class for the first time. Man, were they upset! "Oh, she thinks you can stretch your adductors with a twenty second stretch! WHAT BULLSHIT." As one of the other people pointed out, the class is pre-organized by someone else -- but you know what? Even if it wasn't -- wtf? News flash: not everything in the world is going to suit you perfectly. Suck it up.

Often I find myself thinking, "Please: if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." And I honestly think a little shutting up would make the world a better place.


On the other hand, I also often feel like things are so fucked up in the world that not to be angry and negative is somehow ridiculous. I often feel like I should be more angry. What with the whole broken world and politics and stupidity and the new "books? who has the time??" it seems like anger is the only reasonable response.

In fact, sometimes when people are relentlessly mild-mannered I want to shake them, like Why Aren't You More Angry??

So there it is, the classic dilemma: To be angry or not to be angry, you're screwed either way.

Now maybe you're thinking it's not really a dilemma, because righteous and deserved indignation is different from petty squabbling, and it's the former where anger is justified, and the latter where it isn't.

Surely that is right in some sense, But in practice it doesn't really help, because for me anger is as much of a mood and general stance toward the world as it is anything. I mean, if I want to feel less angry, what I usually do is adopt a more forgiving and easy going attitude about the world in general. I remind myself that people are flawed and confused, and that they need a lot of love and care that they're not getting, and that it's not their fault if they weren't taught how to think things through.

And this way of feeling angry really does work. But then it has the other effect as well, that I can't muster up the requisite anger when it probably makes sense.

Conversely, I can go around being touchy and easily pissed off, and this is a good state of mind to be in when you really ought to tell someone, assertively, Dude, You Have Problems. But then I can't turn it off, and I find myself becoming enraged by asshats who eat and talk in the library, or stand on the left hand side of the escalator -- and even by those who are trying, but failing, to do something nice, like the people who stand *in* the doorway as they're "holding the door," or the stranger who alerted me that I wasn't carrying my backpack on both shoulders and "did I need help"? (??)

Probably non-anger mode is the best for one's individual health and well-being. But how can you be a philosopher if your attitude toward the world is "Oh, it's OK, it doesn't really matter, love is all you need"?

Monday, March 3, 2014

To Assume Or Not To Assume?

It's old news that people say offensive, annoying, and insensitive things to one another when they're trying to ask simple questions.

People of color get asked "where are you from? No, really, where are you from?" as if "Canada" can't be the real answer. Gays and lesbians get quizzed about dates and hot prospects of the incorrect sex. Women get grilled over when they're going to have children. I'm sure you can multiply the examples.

It's sometimes suggested that the underlying problem that explains this kind of oafish behavior is that people make assumptions about one another -- which they ought not do.

I get the appeal of this idea, and certainly it's partly right, but I don't think it can be quite the whole story. Because I think failing to make assumptions can be just as offensive as making assumptions.

Imagine if you were introduced to someone of a different race or ethnicity or background or sexual orientation from yourself and you started asking questions like "Are you a person? Do you breathe air? Do you have a mother and father?"

These questions would be the height of offensiveness, not because they make assumptions, but because they fail to acknowledge what ought to be obviously correct assumptions to make.

These examples are extreme, but I think the same applies to real and ordinary questions. Since I'm a prof I often talk to students I don't know. Whenever we turn away from the scholarly and toward the personal, I try to ask them open-ended questions to learn about their life and point of view, to let them guide the discussion. But in doing so I'm often struck that even asking a good open-ended question often requires some kind of assumptions -- and hopefully understanding -- of their likely situation.

For example, if a student is considering majoring in philosophy and wants to talk, they're often not even sure what questions to ask, so I find myself asking questions to draw them out. I generally assume that they'll want to know about job prospects, that their parents will have some opinion about the matter, etc etc.

It seems to me it would be more offensive and annoying to start the conversation back one level with questions like "will you be planning to work for a living as you grow up?" "Are you in touch with your parents, do you talk to them?" I mean, the answers to these questions might be "no," and yet, if I were talking with a student different from me it seems to me those questions would open, not close, conversational distance.

If you're not going assume, you have to ask. But questions make their own assumptions -- about what's common knowledge and what isn't, about what the asker thinks significant and worth discussing and so on.

An acquaintance of mine recently emailed and happened to mention he was writing from a middle-eastern country known for a turbulent history. Since he brought it up, it seemed to me it would be weird to not mention it in my response, weird to assume somehow that violence or threat of it were affecting his visit, and perhaps weird not to assume that violence or the threat of it were affecting his visit. Even a question would, it seemed to me, goes one way or the other. I'd recently learned about some aspects of this place not associated with turbulence and politics, I asked about those. Probably best, but who knows? In circumstances like that, it seems to me you could be stereotyping if you ask about violence and annoyingly ignorant if you didn't -- depending on details, context, and so on.

I don't think there is any blanket strategy for avoiding the problems of offensive and annoying questions, by which I mean -- the only way to avoid them is to know what they are and know how to avoid them. Listen to other people, take it seriously when they talk or write about what's on their mind, use it to inform your next conversation, and go from there.

It's not about avoiding making assumptions, but rather about knowing which assumptions are apt and sensitive to make -- and this seems to require actually knowing something about the world and the other people in it.

Monday, February 24, 2014

How Modern Capitalism Perverts The Moral Law, Or, "Can Implies Ought?"

Dividend Day at the Bank of England, By George Elgar Hicks, via Wikimedia Commons

It seems like every morning you wake up and read about some new sinister, awful, or just plain stupid thing happening in the worlds of employment, business, and finance.

Why so awful, Modern Capitalism?

Seems to me that in addition to the usual suspects, there's a quieter one lurking around, which is that the structure of modern capitalism is such that any possible awful thing, if it's likely to make a profit, has to become an actual awful thing.

That is, because of the nature of capitalist competition, obligations to "shareholders," and so on, anything you can do to maximize profit becomes something you "ought to do." That is, if you can do it, you ought to do it. Can implies ought.

This turns on its head the familiar Kantian dictum "ought implies can." This principle (confusingly expressed IMHO, but whatever) just means that you can't be morally obligated to something that is impossible to do. Like, a doctor can't be blamed for not saving someone's life if there's no known medical treatment for the illness.

We could argue 'til the cows come home about whether "ought implies can" is a foundational principle of ethical behavior or a spandrel of Protestantism but it doesn't matter here, because no matter what you think about "ought implies can," its opposite, "can implies ought," is nuts.

Example 1: Worker Surveillance. You can read here about "Businesses Going Into All Surveillance All the Time Mode" -- but really the title says it all. With the new technology, you can watch and record and analyze every single thing your employees are doing, how they're doing it, and even what emotions are revealed by tone of voice. The company described in the post offers ways to monitor "stress in your voice," and "changes in your relationships with your peers," and how long it takes you to commute to and from work.

At first you might think, as I so often do these days, "weren't these people made to read any dystopian fiction in high school?"

But you can see how these things get off the ground. In a world in which intense competition is considered a hallmark of a well-functioning market, you really can't afford not to exploit any available technique for increasing productivity, even if it's a small increase at the cost of treating people like human beings.

If you don't maximize profit for shareholders, they will get rid of you. If your competitors do it, and you don't, then you're out of business. So you have to do it. Can implies ought.

Example 2: Suicidal Financial Risk Taking. Remember back in 2008 when the financial system imploded? In the years since, it's been frequently said that banks and others systematically underestimated risks and tried to mislead the purchasers of both new economic products and old ones like mortgages.

Shenanigans? Sure. But so what? If other banks are making massive returns on investments by pursuing short-term instead of long-term interests, everyone has to, or they'll disappear.

Example 3: Environmental Damage. Suppose your company has a production mechanism that pollutes the environment. Suppose your company discovers a new way of producing energy that has potential for great environmental harm, like fracking. What should you do?

We already know the answer. It doesn't matter how much any particular person at the company cares about the environment, because in the logic of modern capitalism, the obligation to use the new techniques is embedded at every level.

Through these examples we see that "can implies ought" can create obligations to do awful things in several categories. You have to be awful to other individuals you employ, dangerous to the global financial system you're part of, and you have to help break the planet.

So now, when you do something awful, you don't even have to say you were just following orders. You can say you you were just following the logic of modern capitalism. Can implies ought! What could I do?!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Uncooked Thoughts On (Half) The Hunger Games

I'm just getting around to reading The Hunger Games. I know, I know what you're thinking: if you're going to read a book like that, why not read it when eight zillion other people are reading it? Why wait?

I don't have an answer. All I can say is: I seemed to always have something else to read. I'm still in the middle of book 2 -- so these thoughts are raw, and they're only on half the trilogy.

You probably know the basic story. It's a dystopian future; every year the powers-that-be run the Hunger Games, in which teenagers have to fight to the death -- partly as an expression of political power, partly as reality-TV-to-the-max; we follow the story of Katniss, a tough, fatherless, no-nonsense girl from a poor part of a poor district who hunts illegally to help feed her sister and mom.

These thoughts aren't about the political aspects of the book -- interesting as those are -- but more about the personal aspects. The Katniss aspects.

One thing about the story I think is really good is the depiction of living under the gaze of public opinion. In the story, this aspect of life is carried to an extreme, because in The Games, public opinion can make or break you. In The Games, if you appeal to people they'll donate or sponsor you, providing you with medicine or food you need to live. Katniss ends up having to present particular narratives not of her own choosing -- a romance narrative, a personality narrative, an emotional narrative -- just in order to survive.

This seems to me an interestingly exaggerated form of something absolutely characteristic of human life. Because we all make decisions with an audience of public opinion. Its easy to think of this as a particularly modern problem -- with social media and all -- but I think it's just that form that is particularly modern. Really, people have always had massive and intense opinions about how other people live, and just like Katniss we are living among those opinions the way we live among air and water.

One of the things I thought was really perceptive about the way Katniss has to construct her public identity is that her public identity is not necessarily opposed, or even really distinct from, her own identity. It's more subtle that that.

A cruder novelistic investigation into this issue would present the-true-Katniss, and then the-fake-Katniss, using interior thoughts to show us the difference and opposing them in stark contrast.

But what these books do is more subtle. As you maybe know, Katniss has to play up and often simply fake her romantic feelings for her fellow Games participant Peeta to engage her public in the right way. But instead of the cruder version, which might be along the lines of "I don't love Peeta and I have to pretend to love him and that's an awful trade-off" Katniss often says she isn't sure how she feels, that sometimes it's real and sometimes it's fake and sometimes she can't really tell the difference herself.

I thought that was smart. Because isn't life sometimes like that? If not about romance, then about other things? You make these choices, about your career or how many kids to have or where to live or whatever and you're making them for yourself but you're also making them in the context of a social world -- and who really knows the degree to which those things feel right because they feel right in context or because they reflect some true inner self. It's not like the two things are really separate.

A second thing I was struck by, though, is that when it comes to one of the central conflicts of many people's lives -- people young and old, and especially girls and women -- the story kind of avoids the whole thing and evaporates the issue. I'm talking about appearance.

Having grown up often not having enough to eat, Katniss is quite thin. It's a ritual for The Games participants to be fed the most luxurious foods in the few days preceding competition ... and of course it's in Katniss's interest to put on a few pounds. So Katniss prepares for being in the public eye by sensibly stuffing herself full of food and sweets. It makes sense in context, I just thought it was an interesting choice, given that in 21st century North America this is the complete opposite of what most girls and women would be doing to get ready to have the eyes of the world upon them.

It's also worth noting the way most of Katniss's decisions about her appearance are made for her. Again, it makes sense in context: Games participants have teams of handlers who make every decision: what to wax, how to do the nails, what to wear, what hairstyle to have. Again though, I thought it striking that decisions many of us would be agonizing over -- how to dress for just the right form of necessary feminine attractiveness and also for essential freedom of movement -- aren't even things Katniss has to think about.

One last thing: sex. WTF? How can a book have multiple scenes in which two teenagers sleep all night in the same bed together and this is not an issue? If you interpret the book literally, they're not having sex (so far, anyway). How can their not having sex not be an issue in some way for either of them? Am I being naive? Is there metaphorical sex happening? Are we supposed to interpret the kisses and "time alone," as sex, as we might do appropriately do when encountering novels from past centuries? I don't think so, for various reasons. But isn't this weird?

OK, I'm getting back to reading. And no, I'm not planning to see the movies. Are you kidding me?