Monday, October 8, 2018

The Pointlessness And Paradoxes Of Responsible Consumerism: Apple Edition

I woke up this morning and one of the first things I saw was this headline "Apple’s New Proprietary Software Locks Will Kill Independent Repair on New MacBook Pros."  

This is bad. It's bad for sustainability. It violates the "right to repair." It put small repair shops out of business. It's bad for schools, who fix computers at large scale, and people in rural areas who are not well-served by Apple's own technicians. 

I had one of those vaguely admirable but ultimately ignorable impulses toward responsible consumerism, and I started thinking about breaking my Mac habit. I had long been toying with the idea of learning to use Linux, as a small way bucking the consumer tyranny of the big tech companies. And I thought this could be the moment, the thing that set all that in motion. I felt the momentary warm glow you get when you see some disturbing news item and form some half-baked plan to Do Something.

To learn Linux, I thought, I might buy a used or cheap laptop to learn on. The only computer I have now is my work computer, and for all kinds of reasons I didn't want to use that one. Already my plan was going the way so many responsible consumerism plans go, where you start off wanting to save the planet and you end up buying something. But whatever.

To think about what kind of laptop would make the most sense for this project, I went to iFixit.org. This great site not only has guides for how to fix things, they also rate products with respect to how repairable they are.

I quickly found ratings for phones and tablets, but they didn't have one for laptops. What they did have, though, was a link to Greenpeace's guide to greener electronics.

At the guide, I learned that no consumer electronics company gets an "A" for environmental impact. The only company that gets a "B" or above is Fairphone. As we've discussed before ("I Went Down The Ethical Cell Phone Rabbit Hole,") Fairphone is just phones and they're not even available in North America.

After Fairphone, the best company for environmental impact was ... Apple, with a "B-."

It's a testament to the power of consumer culture how powerfully it hit me that I might be able to satisfy my impulse to responsible consumerism by actually buying something I wanted. I could get a used Mac, and use it to learn Linux. I could even tell myself that this plan was most rational, because if I did ultimately shift over to using Linux all the time, having a Mac would allow me to access the documents I've created in software like Pages, which is Mac only. 

I went to the Apple website to check out what refurbished laptops they had. The have no refurbished MacBook Airs available -- probably because these are affordable and reliable and everyone wants one. What they do have is MacBooks, the fancy high end super thin no-ports machine. I had wanted a MacBook when they came out. Hmmm...

I don't know what to say about the ridiculous of starting with an I'll-show-you-Apple Mac-avoidance plan and ending with MacBook shopping, except that it doesn't feel like a one-off to me. It feels sort of like an experience I have all the time.

I guess the moral of the story is that when you live in a society where people are paid millions to convince you that shopping is the answer to your problems, you tend to think that shopping is the answer to your problems.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

This Blog Is Shifting Gears

This blog is going to change from regular once-a-week posting to occasional, irregular posting when I have something to say. If you want to stay connected, you can sign up to subscribe to the blog by email using the feature on the right hand side, or you could just check in occasionally when you feel like it.

The main reason is that I seem to lack the mental energy for regular blogging right now. Maybe it will come back at some point. Thanks for being awesome readers : )

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

No Post Because Chairing

I don't know whether to say I lacked the time, or whether it's not enough mental energy (an understudied concept, IMHO), or maybe it's an issue of Life Force, or perhaps it's related to the (difficult to replicate!) concept of ego depletion. But I wasn't able to write this week. See you all again next Tuesday!

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

My Favorite Beatle: Past And Present

When I discovered the Beatles I was eleven years old. I know because I found out about the Beatles by going to see the Bee Gees movie Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and some older person must have taken pity on me and kindly explained that in fact, those songs weren't really the Bee Gees, they were, in fact, this other band.

I got really into the Beatles between ages eleven and thirteen, and even though I don't listen to the Beatles any more, I'm happy for this phase of life, which I feel was an appropriate introduction to the world of English Language Pop Music.

Given my age, it was inevitable that I would form deep opinions about My Favorite Beatle, and also that My Favorite would basicall correlate with the one I thought was Cute and Attractive and Someone I Would Like to Date.

For me, that Beatle was Paul McCartney.

I know that people like me are supposed to like other Beatles best. Intellectuals and politically savvy people are supposed to like John. Non-conformists and introverts are supposed to like George. I'm not sure who has Ringo as their favorite and maybe I'm not alone: this quora question says "Who is your favorite Beatle if it is Ringo explain why" and none of the answers are "Ringo." But Paul is considered the sillier choice, the obvious choice, the lightweight.

Over the years since, I have occasionally thought about the Beatles about my interest in Paul as my favorite Beatle. For a while I was very dismissive of my former self. I wanted to like Wings, but I couldn't even get interested. OK, maybe "Live and Let Live," but you know what I mean. Meanwhile, John was making art with Yoko Ono and being Mister Interesting. While I have always agreed with the sentiment that when it comes to Silly Love Songs,  sure, "what's wrong with that?" I also felt like "Really, is that all you got?"

Then for a long time I didn't think about the Beatles, as I got obsessed with The Cure (not embarrassed to admit this), T. Rex (still think they are the best), The Velvet Underground (talk about obsession) and Pavement (not trying to be pretentious, just like their music).

Then around the time that Linda McCartney died (in 1998), I remember thinking: maybe I wasn't crazy to have Paul as my favorite Beatle, at least if I was thinking in terms of romance. I mean, this guy got married to an interesting woman, Linda Eastman, who was an artist and activist, and stayed married to her for 29 years until she died of cancer. OK, things didn't work out with Heather Mills, but then immediately after divorcing her he married Nancy Shevell. Paul seems to enjoy family life and spending time with his wives and kids. I thought to myself: "Paul could have actually been a good person to be in a romance with. He seems like kind of a romantic guy."

Lately, though, I've soured on the idea of Paul as a favorite Beatle. Paul is boring, and the older I get, the more I feel like boring is not OK. This sentiment was reinforced when Paul appeared on the WTF podcast, which I listen to obsessively. Usually, Marc's interviews get people to talk about some things that are painful, or conflictual, or that they just feel weird about. Paul's interview, by contrast, was like a PR plug that went on for an hour. Crushingly dull.

With respect to the other Beatles though, I'm not sure. John's particular brand of humorless activism feels kind of smug to me, and George is still a cipher. Ringo, perhaps? Songs like Octopus's Garden are weird, amusing, and lighthearted -- and isn't weird, amusing, and lighthearted in short supply these days? On the other hand, as one of the manifestations of the weirdness of modern life, I just learned that Ringo is a Brexiteer.

Maybe the moral of the story is that the more you know about pop idols, the less they can be pop idols -- something that seems obvious once you think about it a bit, but something the emotions of fandom never wanted me to admit.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

I Was In Hannover Germany

I didn't have time to write a proper blog post this week, and one reason is that I was giving a paper at the joint conference of the ENPOSS (European Network for Philosophy of Social Science) and the Philosophy of Social Science Roundtable. The conference was good: I was reminded how in areas like philosophy of social science (or philosophy of science more generally), there's something to talk about beyond philosophy. I mean, in ethics, it's often just you and your arguments and I sometimes feel like convincing people is partly force of personality. But with philosophy of science, there's ... science!

One of the things that struck me about Hannover was that there was a fair amount of graffiti. I had trouble interpreting or classifying or understanding the graffiti in Hannover, which seemed to cross a lot of genres in ways that were opaque to an outsider. I tried to talk to a Parisian about it, and he said "Oh, there's a lot of graffiti all over Europe, isn't it like that in North America?" and I said "No, not exactly, there are areas with a lot of graffiti and then areas with none." Then I asked him if he thought the graffiti in a place like Hannover was more created by disenfranchised or poor people expressing their discontent or whether the form was somehow broadened so that more people participated. He said he didn't know.

I don't know either. Some graffiti seemed to me like what I'd think of as conventional tagging. Some seemed more explicitly political, like anarchist signs. Then a lot was just -- impossible for me to classify, with words or style that I couldn't understand.

Here are two pictures of graffiti in Hannover -- both of these pictures were taken right near the University building where the conference was held. In the first, you see a range of styles. In the second, you see words -- "iron," "reset," "Mandy." WTF?



 I really don't know, so if you have interpretations, I'd be interested to hear them.

One other interesting visual thing I encountered in Germany was at the airport, where I saw this sign that said "Keep off this plain!" Sure, the word "plain" could just be a bad translation. But a bad translation for what? What is this?



I guess it's good there are still some mysteries in the universe. See you all next week!

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Is Everyone's First Job Now Public Relations?

Since I write a blog, I get an amazing number of PR emails. I get emails about books, research findings, new movies, and things like that, but often it's more of a vague invitation to interview a person or write about a thing so people will pay attention to it. For example, I recently got an email line with the subject heading "55% of Sugar daters prefer to meet over coffee for the first date." It's a bit of information, an invitation for an interview, all in the service of publicizing a service for I won't name here since that would be, in effect, providing public relations. These emails are all from senders like "Brianna Smith," PR coordinator for "XYZ media."

I used to be amazed that it was worth the while of so many people to seek out PR from this minor blogger. I know it's all automated, but someone has to click through to my website to find my email address. But as time went on I realized: PR is now everything. PR is getting people interesting enough in your thing so you can do your thing. PR is getting people on board with your start up so you can make a company. PR is getting your side out there, as Amazon did recently when people on Twitter said they should pay their employees more ("No, we're very well-paid," someone was paid to say).

I know PR has always been sort of the essence of capitalism. If you've read Trollope's great Victorian novel "The Way We Live Now," you know that hype has been the linchpin of economic activity for a long time. The novel tells the story of a huge finance boon-doggle in which rich guy August Melmotte uses schemes to increase the share price for a massive railway project -- a project that no one ever really intends to complete, but that everyone wants to profit on through the manipulation of other people's beliefs. It's all a big PR job.


But for a range of complicated reasons, I feel like PR has seeped into everything. Enrollment in the humanities is down, despite the fact that why people believe what they believe has become the main question of the early 21st century -- and despite the fact that employers say that communication and cooperation skills are the skills people need for modern jobs. Everywhere I turn, I hear that we need to do better at PR: Philosophy needs to tell its story, humanities needs to explain and justify itself more effectively, courses need to be advertised, everyone needs to court their alums to give money, so we're not dependent on the money we get from servicing our customers -- that is, from teaching our students.

Now, it feels like it's not only that the goods of a system that have to be advertised, but even the role that a particular person or part plays in the system. Instead of just competition among systems, it's that systems themselves are increasingly based on competition. For example, it used to be that the book industry worked on the concept that a publishing house would have an array of kinds of titles, and they would use the established success of some titles to support the work of less-known authors. Sure, publishing houses competed with one another, but with a house, you could have some judgment calls. Now it just feels like it's just every individual person is evaluated based on their immediate prospect for money-making, so the competition has seeped down, and everyone has to do PR, to convince other people that the thing they're doing is the hip new thing.

At an individual level, as we've discussed before, with the "entrepreneurial self," everyone has to be their own PR person, and whether you are likable has a profound effect on your prospects in life. Likability acts as a conduit for other forms of discrimination like racism and sexism, but it has a dimension all its own: if you're just kind of an unlikeable person, well, too bad for you.

I don't mind doing a bit of PR. But it can't take over everything. How can you have a thing, if all your time is spent on advertising?

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The World Is Ending. What Should I Wear?

Since a young age, I've had a keen sense of living in a radically screwed up and unjust world. I remember when I learned in elementary school about the American enslavement of people from Africa, about killings in war, about the brutal genocide of Native Americans, and about the likelihood we were all going to die in nuclear war, and I was like Gee we are fucked up. I'm not saying I understood the proper range of things -- I was a white kid in the US suburbs -- just that I knew things were deeply not OK.

When I was a young adult, you would have known from just looking at me that I felt this way. My self-presentation was ... weird. I guess style-wise it was mostly a mix between punk and something like goth, but it was more non-conformist than that. My clothes from the thrift store were often shabby and falling apart. I wore boots with my summer dresses, which for some reason drove people crazy. I let my hair become knotted into permanent tangles -- not like dreads, but like just a person who doesn't brush her hair. I had a lot of piercings, before that became a normal thing.

Looking back on my arrival at philosophy PhD school years later, one mentor said, "Well -- we thought you were really out there."

Over the years since, my self-presentation has become much more conformist. For one thing, I found that teaching undergraduates pushed me way toward conformism. There are many things that make teaching stressful and anxiety-producing, and for me one of them has to do with relating to a pretty wide range of people. I've never been that popular person, I'm not an extrovert, and the things that interest me often don't interest other people (and vice-versa!). Navigating the student-teacher relationship alongside the complexities of self-presentation non-conformism is too emotionally complicated for me.

Another pressure toward conformity has to do with my relationship to femininity and the way that changes with getting older. I've always been somewhat a girly-girl, and I love dresses and feminine clothes. Some of my earliest memories involve trying to talk my mother into buying me various skirts and cute crop-tops and heels -- her style of feminism pushing hard in the direction of denim and "clothes you can do things in."

It's one thing to be both girly and non-conformist when you're young, but I feel like it gets complicated when you get older. I'm a professor, but sometimes when I'm not "dressed up," strangers ask "Are you a student?" I know, whatever, but it gets annoying. Plus, it's easy to look good when you're young, even if you're wearing weird clothes, because duh -- young people are cute. Not so easy as time goes on.

Now that I look more conformist, though, it's disturbing to me that people might look at me and think that I'm a happy part of the system, or that I think things are mostly just peachy, or that I'm optimistic about the future. As time has gone on, I feel like more people now share the feelings I had back in the 1980s, that things are radically not-OK, and maybe I'm also more aware of people who feel this way. Racism and police brutality continue to be outrageous. Workers in the US need to earn $22.10 per hour to afford to rent a modest two-bedroom apartment; according to Forbes, the median US hourly wage is $16.71. Looming climate change has made dystopianism a mainstream mood. It's not just for goths anymore.

Whenever I'm on this train of thought, at some point I think to myself: why are you thinking about self-presentation, when action is what matters? Isn't it silly to be worrying about how you look, when what matters is what you do?

But I think they both matter. Years ago a student came up and asked me something about a slightly non-conformist thing, and I was like "of course!" and she was like "well, I didn't know, because you you look so normal." And I was like "Hmmmm." Plus, in our Instagramish age, where everything has to come with a photo, self-presentation has become a central form of communication. 

I'm not really sure what would be next. On the one hand, I hardly wear makeup, and I don't dye my grey hair, and it's a measure of how bizarre the world is that these things really are seen as non-conformist. But on the other hand, I'd like to do more. Maybe I should learn to sew and start wearing jeans with brightly colored fringe. Maybe I should put sparkles on everything I own. Maybe I should become that kind of ultra-femme who transcends conformist femininity. Maybe I should start wearing only sports-wear -- which would be conformist for some people, but pretty non-conformist for a woman in academia. Obviously, I don't have an answer or a plan, and hence the question of the title is really a question. The world is ending. What should I wear?

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Anthony Trollope And The Texture Of Human Unhappiness

As you may know, I am a fan of the novels of Anthony Trollope. For those of you who aren't Victorian-novel-enthusiasts, Trollope was a contemporary of Dickens -- and, in certain respects, sort of an anti-Dickens. Partly because of the political overtones of their differences, Dickens is far the more popular writer these days. And I get that. But I still think we need Trollope.

Dickens and Trollope are different in topic and style. Topic-wise, Dickens's books often feature poor and lower-class characters, and often have a sort of point to make about them. The poor are downtrodden; they are noble and worthy; they deserve better treatment. Trollope's books feature aristocrats, and they focus on family, money, and politics. Who will marry? Who will inherit? Who will prosper?

Style-wise, Dickens's books are often humorous, and I hope I'm being fair to Dickens when I say that they feature characters who are painted in vivid and simple colors. Good people. Bad people. Angry people. Grateful people. Trollope's books, on the other hand, are psychologically realistic and, as a result, full of ambiguity. There are people who are kind but also weak. People who are loving but also scheming. People who are torn between their commitments and their longings and, like all of us, bumble through as best they can.

Nathaniel Hawthorne said that Trollope's books were so realistic, they were "just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were made a show of." Trollope's books are so realistic that even though Trollope himself was sort of an anti-feminist, the books are plausibly feminist: they are full of complex, multifaceted female characters who think and reflect, act on their own internal motivations, accomplish a wide variety of things, and often bridle at the limits of their social roles. It's like Trollope found himself forced to tell the truth about women's inner lives and social status -- even when that conflicted with his beliefs.

So part of Trollope's unpopularity is the potentially suspect nature of writing only about rich British people. It's also that Trollope's topics are seen as soap-opera-ish and light. And Trollope's reputation took a hit when it was revealed that he made himself write a certain number of lines every morning -- for most of his life, every morning before starting his day job working for the postal service. This seemed to people unserious, workmanlike, and not consistent with literary genius.

I feel these views of Trollope are unjust, but I don't spend a lot of time talking and thinking about it. I mean, we're hardly lacking for stories about rich British people. But Trollope was on my mind recently as I was thinking recently about our bizarre cultural climate.


One thing I feel we learn from Trollope's books is the vast range of misery-sources that have nothing to do with money and social status. You can have money, status, even servants, and still feel not only unhappy but also cruelly shafted out of the good things in life. Maybe you're oafish or unattractive to others. Maybe you're a figure of fun. Maybe the person you love doesn't love you back. Maybe you're inextricably attached to someone who is driving you crazy. Maybe you devoted your life to a project that the world, moving on, decided was pointless. Maybe your life is predictable and dull. Maybe, despite -- or because of! -- your privileged life, you just can't get your shit together. 

I think this lesson is crucially important. First, it's important to know for yourself, so you can think about your life. Yes, you need a certain amount of money and social status to live. But more of those things is not a ticket to happiness, and neither is anything else, really. Instead of trying to get to misery-elimination, why not aim lower? Misery-management is, perhaps, a more appropriate goal.

I don't know if you remember when the DVD of Sesame Street was first issued, and it came with a warning: "These early ‘Sesame Street’ episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child." Writing in the New York Times, Virginia Heffernan wrote that "People on 'Sesame Street had limited possibilities and fixed identities, and (the best part) you weren’t expected to change much. The harshness of existence was a given, and no one was proposing that numbers and letters would lead you 'out' of your inner city to Elysian suburbs. Instead, 'Sesame Street' suggested that learning might merely make our days more bearable, more interesting, funnier. It encouraged us, above all, to be nice to our neighbors and to cultivate the safer pleasures that take the edge off -- taking baths, eating cookies, reading."

An era in which we're constantly told to live our best life and be thrilled about it could use this kind of acknowledgement of the basic principle-of-conservation-of-unhappiness.

A second reason we need to be reminded that people can have money and social status and still feel miserable and shafted is that these days, a lot of people with money and social status feel miserable and shafted. And sometimes because of this, they're making a certain amount trouble for the rest of us.

I'm not saying "oh boo-hoo for them" and I'm not saying "oh the poor rich people" and I'm not saying "oh, we should care more about rich people's problems." It's more like: we should remember, as we think about human nature and how we're all going to live together, that this is, in fact, a thing.

I'd never deny that books should give us insight into the lives of others and that -- duh -- when those lives are only those of British aristocrats, something has gone off the rails. But with all the stories and narratives out there, I hope we can make some room for the Trollopes of the world.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

No Post Because Chairing

Those of you who know me know that I became chair of my academic department in July. It's fine, but it's hard to combine with blogging, and this week I got nothing. Hope you are enjoying August and I'll see you next week!

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Metaphysics and Politics Of "A Calorie Is A Calorie"

I've always been fascinated by the staying power of "a calorie is a calorie" and the way people enjoy deploying this phrase.

In some literal sense, this statement is true -- but that sense is the one in which it is also a tautology, which means that it is true but empty of content. It may be true by definition, but it doesn't tell you anything about the way the world is.


When people say "a calorie is a calorie," though, they definitely mean to say something about the way the world is. They mean to say that what foods you eat doesn't matter for your weight, as long as you eat the same number of calories. Or they mean that your weight can be calculated through finding the difference between the calories you consume in food and the calories you burn in exercise and living. Or they mean that if two people eat the same way and move the same way, they will have the same experience in terms of weight gain or weight loss.

Stated this way, these things seem obviously false. I have an acquaintance who was in a bad car accident years ago. His digestive system was damaged, and he had to have a lot of surgeries. Now he is fine, but for a long time he struggled to keep his weight up, even when eating a lot of food, because his system didn't work well. Obviously, his condition contradicts the previous statements.

Maybe you're thinking, Well, those are exceptional circumstances. But there are many ordinary examples. Regular readers know that I'm a fan of the work of Dr. Jason Fung, whose book The Obesity Code proposes that weight is a matter of hormones and biology, not thermodynamics, so that you have to look at how your body is reacting to food and not just at its caloric content. Roughly speaking, frequent small meals mean your body produces a lot of insulin; this can cause insulin resistance, which causes the body to produce more insulin, which changes how your body responds to food. Even short periods of fasting can counter these effects.

Right at the start of his book Dr. Fung mentions several obvious examples of the how the calories-in-calories-out model obviously fails. Prior to puberty, boys and girls have the same body fat percentage. After puberty, women have almost 50 percent more body fat, despite eating less. Pregnancy induces weight gain, beyond the effect of eating more. Various drugs are known to cause weight gain, regardless of food intake. If you give people insulin, they gain weight; in fact there's a thing called "diabulemia" where people with Type 1 diabetes deliberately give themselves less insulin than they need, in order to lose weight.

Given all of these complicated factors, what is the point of "a calorie is a calorie"? I wrote before about why this strange tautology might be so attractive to people. But there's also an interesting kind of metaphysical way to look at it. I was recently reading Philip Mirowski's More Heat Than Light, about the relationship of economics and physics. In an early chapter, he discusses the work of Emile Meyerson, who Mirowski says proposed that "a sweeping postulate of the identity of things in time" was "central to all human thought." Things are always changing, but we can't understand things unless we take them as, in some sense, fixed.

In a passage I really like, Mirowski says that the story goes like this: "Someone proposes some hypothesis, and then a mathematical savant constructs an "equivalent" statement H*(x) of the hypothesis, highlighting some mathematical quantity x. The Meyersonian tendency then exerts its sway, and x begins to be treated analogously to the general philosophical category of substance: Namely, it is thought to obey some conservation laws [e. g., -- "a calorie is a calorie!"]... These conservation laws, in turn, provide the accounting framework that enables quantitative manipulation. Somewhere along the line, entity x gets conflated with object x', which becomes associated with all sorts of metaphysical overtones, such as the permanence of natural law, the bedrock of phenomenological reality, the identity of mind and body, and so forth."

That is, the whole concept of a calorie might just be a reifying projection of the fact that the science of thermodynamics works well with one mathematical formalism rather than another. We then make the leap, possibly unjustified, to the idea of reality that is conserved and unchanging, so that a calorie is a calorie. 

Of course, statements like "a calorie is a calorie" also take on a life of their own because they fit into people's social and political commitments and allow them to blame "individual responsibility" for things that, as Dr. Fung elegantly explains, have nothing to do with choices and everything to do with the social and political aspects of food and nutrition science -- for example, the fact that "eat small frequent meals" and "a calorie is a calorie" both allow for nutrition "advice" that doesn't harm the bottom line of large food corporation.

In fact, in "The Foreign Policy of the Calorie," historian Nick Cullather traces the emergence of the calorie framework through its use as a social, political and cultural tool, arguing that the calorie framework "popularized and factualized a set of assumptions that allowed Americans to see food as an instrument of power, and to envisage a 'world food problem' amenable to political and scientific intervention."

Well. After decades of calorie-is-a-calorie bullshit, the New York Times just ran an article saying it might not be just "what" you eat, but also "when" you eat that matters. In my opinion, the focus of the article on circadian rhythms makes no sense -- as commenters pointed out, many cultures have late night dining habits and excellent health. But at least they will willing to break away from the ridiculous metaphysics and get into the fact that there are, in fact, many variables in play, and they may well interact in complicated ways that we just don't understand.