Sunday, May 29, 2011


There's a review of a new book on boredom in the Times today (Boredom: A Lively History, by Peter Toohey).  One of the things I learned from this review is that there's simple boredom, the kind you get listening to a boring speech, and then there's existential boredom, the kind you get from being bored with life.  I don't think I have existential boredom -- I'd really like to live forever, and presumably if you feel that way you can't have existential boredom.  But man, do I have simple boredom. 

Did you know?  Simple boredom
"is typically transient for most people, though there are chronic sufferers for whom boredom is very frequent. Psychologists try to diagnose chronic boredom with questionnaires: the Boredom Proneness Scale, developed in 1986 at the University of Oregon, asks patients to rate 28 statements (like “Time always seems to be passing slowly” and “I am good at waiting patiently”) on a seven-point scale."
I googled "Boredom Proneness Scale" and I found a page with the questions but in my impatient and easily bored 21st century way I was all frustrated and annoyed that it wasn't an actual "click here" online quiz but just a list of questions you could ... what, print out?

I went to the Wikipedia page and found this message:
"Boring" redirects here. For other uses, see Boring (disambiguation). For the Buzzcocks song, see Spiral Scratch (EP).
Wikipedia:  always interesting in surprising ways.

We Anglophones have a way of talking about boredom in terms of understimulation but I've never thought that could be right, since surfing the internet is often massively boring while listening to a song you've heard a million times is not boring at all.

I've long thought the French had it right, with their word for "to bore" -- "ennuyer" -- meaning both to bore and to harass or annoy.  I thought they were trying to convey, correctly I think, that boredom in the sense of "I'm bored" is a way of being harassed or annoyed, even if it feels also like "having nothing to do." 

But now I read on the internet that it's not that they think these are related things, but rather that the word is ambiguous, just meaning two different things.

Can this be true?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Rand Paul On "Compromise"

Wikimedia commons drawing of a gadfly.
In describing his single-minded approach to Senate matters recently, Rand Paul asked rhetorically, "Is compromise the noble position?"

I guess the answer is supposed to seem like No, but I thought it was Yes.  Many of the noblest and most sensible things we do in life are compromises.

You want to protect your children and keep them safe.  But this would mean not driving them around, since driving is very risky.  You also want your children to do fun and interesting stuff in the outside world.  So you compromise between these two aims.  You drive them around, but you pay attention and you choose a car with safety features.

Noble?  Yes.  Compromise?  Yes.

You want to test a new drug.  It might have terrible side effects and it might not be effective, but it might work and it might save thousands of lives.  The aim of not harming people means you couldn't give them the drug.  But this would mean foregoing the benefits.  So you create a complex system that involves informed consent, together with a set of standards for how to implement the test.

Noble?  Yes.  Compromise?  Yes.

The reason we have to compromise is that there are lots of good and valuable things in life and they don't always fit together in easy or simple ways.  We want peace and we want justice, but they seem to recommend different actions in the short term.  In the long term, we try to get as much of both as we can.  It's a compromise.

The Times story with the quote mentioned Paul voting against a law that would punish people for aiming lasers at aircraft.  Apparently the lasers interfere of the pilot's ability to see and thus pilot the aircraft safely or something.  He was the only Senator who voted against it.

I mean, I don't know the particulars.  But this seems a good example of a noble compromise -- well at least a sensible compromise -- between the aims of protecting individual liberties and protecting unsuspecting and innocent people from a threat of harm and death they couldn't foresee.  If not, it's not hard to imagine how something like it would be a sensible compromise.

Compromise gets a bad rap because people think of compromise between a value and something that isn't a value -- like a whim.  So sure, if you compromise on your workout and do 10 pushups instead of 20 because you're just lazy, you might think Gee, better not to compromise.  Or maybe Paul was talking about compromising with other people you disagree with, just because they disagree with you, which can also seem unsavory.   

But many compromises are between values and other values.  And these compromises?  Totally essential to getting along in life.

So, Mr. Paul, I'm glad you're upset about the Patriot Act, because I am too, but I can't run with you on the whole Noble Uncompromiser business.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Mencken's "Mixed Martial Arts" For And Against Women

H. L. Mencken.  Funny, angry, and good-looking.  Why hasn't there been a major motion picture about this guy?
I knew going into it that reading H. L. Mencken's In Defense of Women was a high risk activity for me.  Not because it was written in 1918, and not because the writer is known for his brutal honesty, but because you just know when there's a "Defense" of that kind there's going to be trouble.  It's going to be "ironic," or it's going to actually be a defense of virginity, or it's going to be horrible in some other way you could never have foreseen.

And it's true: it is a mixed business, though not quite in any of those ways.  It's main good quality is that like all Mencken's writing, it's hilarious.  The main thesis is that women are smart -- really smart, like competent and intelligent and artistically sensitive.  Mencken hated posers, and he gleefully points out all the ways in which women are more realistic and open-eyed judgers of what is going on, unlike men who are blinded by vanity.  He thinks it's hilarious that women's superior judgment is called "women's intuition" instead of just, Hey, women are paying attention and have good practical judgment.

Money quote for this part of the book:
"If the work of the average man required half the mental agility and readiness of resource of the work of the average prostitute, the average man would be constantly on the verge of starvation."  -- Mencken, A Defense of Women.
There are some other good parts, like when he talks about the moronic myth that women don't actually enjoy sex and just submit to it in marriage.  He's merciless about the pretensions that keep the myth alive -- the way in which the myth functions in the pressures for monogamous marriage.  It's admirable the way he tries to provide evidence for his claim -- which, indeed, in 1918 in a book for publication is not easy.

The book is also full of rage and hatred.  Mencken was driven crazy by the ways in which he thought marriage benefited women way more than men, and furious about the fact that a woman who doesn't hold up her end of the marriage contract by cooking good meals and stuff wouldn't get in any trouble. 

Not that he supported any changes to the system.  It was appalling to him that women were so dependent on men and lived off of them like parasites, but it also was appalling to him that ugly,  mannish suffragettes were trying to fight for voting, equality, work and all those sorts of things.  That, for me, was probably the worst part of the book, that sense that sure, a woman could work, and could certainly be good at it, but only if she was going to give up on being attractive.  What a sucky choice that is.  And yet, I feel like you see it all the time, even now, people who think that way.

But the best aspect of this book is that in it, men and women both come off as The Other, both are The Second Sex, and truly, this is something only someone with Mencken's crazy clear-eyed and brutally honest approach can succeed with.  Even now, when you read about the sexes, women are always The Other sex -- always discussed as if men are normal, default, human, and women are somehow interesting in how they diverge from that.

It drives me nuts, and I was thrilled to see Mencken treating both men and women as if they were absurd deviations from anything that would make any sense.  I've already mentioned male vanity, which Mencken found preposterous and relentless.  He is also merciless on the subject of men's inability to govern their concerns with practicality, noting with scorn that any man with a mistress on the side necessarily gets into hot water  -- unless, as the French do, they simply let their wives manage everything.

The most striking example of this is when he talks about male nobility and honor.  He notices the way that men are constantly going on about fair play this and honor that, and acting like this proves their essential superiority to women who naturally just fight tooth and nail.  His theory about the source of this is that men feel manipulated in the marriage chase, in which women come after them with honed techniques, deception, and really, everything they've got.  They express their aversion to this practice in a confused way, by saying that "women have no sense of honor."

But men, he says, also have no sense of honor -- as long as anything real is at stake.  It's only in gambling and such nonsense that men really act honorably.  "The history of all wars is a history of mutual allegations of dishonorable practices, and such allegations are nearly always well-grounded."  As long as anything is really at stake, men fight just as tooth and nail as women.  One sees it in women's social interactions only because it is in social interactions that women's very lives are at stake -- in 1918, indeed, a woman's ability to marry was frequently her means of staying sheltered and fed.

Mencken admires the fighting spirit of women, which he takes as evidence that they're less civilized than men.  Since in true Nietzschean fashion he took civilization to be " a mere device for regimenting men," whose "perfect symbol is the goose-step," this seems to be high praise indeed.  

Mencken was merciless about the idiocy of marriage, saying that no man of any intelligence would ever get caught up in it, and that it represented "the end of hope."  So it is, of course, amusing that he did eventually get married himself:  to a woman named Sara Haardt, who was a writer, a professor of English (at Goucher college), and a gentle and genteel Southern woman.  They were very happy, and wrote lots of letters, and traveled around quite a bit, before she died a few years later at a young age of tuberculosis.

For some reason, Sara Haardt doesn't have her own Wikipedia page.  Surely if the minor characters of Beavis and Butthead can have a page, we can spare a few electrons for Ms. Haardt.  Can't we?

UPDATE, MAY 2012:  Anonymous Reader has solved the Wikipedia problem!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Is Amiability a Virtue?

Is amiability a virtue?  I think Yes.  Not only is it a virtue, it may be the most important virtue of the 21st century. 

I figure the canonical text for thinking about amiability has to be Pride and Prejudice, and what it teaches us is instructive -- indeed parts of the book read like a philosophical treatise.  Most obviously, we have The Moral of the Story -- or one of them anyway.  You remember Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, in an initially fraught relationship, teach one another a couple of lessons on their way to romantic happiness.  And you remember that throughout, Darcy, who is cold and proud, is contrasted with his friend Mr. Bingley, who is the picture of amiability.  The simple version might be:  Darcy starts off being less amiable, he becomes more so, and this is good. 

I think this is right, but it's a little complicated.  Because Darcy's qualities are complex.  His early qualities present a combination of things.  He doesn't ask after people; he doesn't dance at balls; he has total confidence in his own judgment and never seeks advice; and he has a keen sense of his own superiority. 

When Darcy changes, he doesn't change all of these qualities.  Far from it.  He learns to be gracious to people.  He asks after Elizabeth's family; talks to her friends -- indeed, makes her family and friends feel valued, welcome and respected.

But he is still a man who knows his own judgment and never seeks advice -- and we think he probably has a sense of superiority.  Even after the transformation, Elizabeth's father says something about how even if he had his doubts about the impending marriage (which he doesn't, really), Mr. Darcy is a man to whom one can refuse nothing.

So in this context, amiability need not mean being flexible or accommodating in any deep way.  This view is supported by the amusing and philosophical exchange between Darcy, Bingly, and Elizabeth about whether it is better to change one's mind solely on the urging of a friend -- a friend who offers no reasons or arguments one can assess for one's self. 

Darcy of course suggests not.  To which Elizabeth says, "To yield readily -- easily -- to the persuasion of a friend is no merit with you."  And Darcy replies, "To yield without conviction is no compliment to the understanding of either."  Elizabeth protests:  oughtn't friendship itself go for something? 

It might be thought that in Darcy's transformation, this is one of the things that he changes:  that he allows the persuasion of a friend alone to have merit with him.  But I don't think so.  This is, instead, one of Elizabeth's changes.  She trusts Wyckam, but when she yields to his persuasion of what to believe, she makes a fundamental error, and comes to see it as such. 

So I think the book presents the view that amiability is good, but amiability does not mean listening to your friends and taking their views into consideration without reasons. 

But neither is amiability merely a matter of nice manners.   It goes beyond nice manners, because in addition to being pleasant, amiability is a way of respecting people.  This, it seems to me is the sentiment expressed here.  Darcy's problem is partly that he doesn't respect people who aren't in his high class of society.  But his problem is also that when he does respect them, he fails to communicate this to them.  What he must learn is how to do this, and one does it by asking after people, dancing with them at balls, making people feel welcome.

The reason this is a twenty-first century virtue is that we're sorely in need of communicating respect for others through kindness, attention, and interest.  "Respect" for people has somehow come to be associated with leaving them alone, but everyone knows how it feels to be left alone -- it feels awful.  And I'd venture to say that the worst days of most people's lives come from being treated without amiability.  Someone is just dismissive, or ignores you, or doesn't smile back, or acts like they're in charge or better than you.  It's a horrible feeling. 

Being amiable isn't always easy, and sometimes it means being kind and attentive when you're in a bad mood.  But this just goes to show: it's not a trivial thing, it's an actual virtue.  Try it out for yourself:  at the mall, at the post office, at work, even -- gasp! -- on the internet.  You'll make the world a better place.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The One-Sex Solution, Or, What If Men Could Get Pregnant?

This statue is called Sleeping Hermaphroditus, it's a Roman copy of a Greek original.  Pretty, isn't it?
I've always thought that human life would be substantially improved if there was only one sex instead of two.  I don't mean doing away with the whole sex concept.  Au contraire.  I mean every person would have the full sexual equipment of both women and men.  As for pregnancy, you could mix and match it however you wanted:  in a partnership of A and B, A could be the pregnant one or B could.

Think of the advantages.  No gender inequality.  No books like that "Men are from Mars" book.  Shared magazine racks.  Total non-mystery about how the genitals of other people work.  With a full set of your own, you'd know just what was going on with everyone else.

One of the huge advantages, I think, would be the way things would change if everyone could get pregnant.  Because even just being in a state of being possible to impregnate -- a state most women live in for most of their lives -- gives you a particular way of relating to the world. 

For one thing, think for a second of the enormous trust women place in the social contract and in men.  Forget bars and late evenings:  every time we go out of the house we trust men not to rape us and get us pregnant against our wishes.  And sure, you might say, if you're raped you could have an abortion.  Sure, but obviously:  not everyone can, not everyone wants to, and jeez, that is not something that is a walk in the park under any circumstances.  And yes, there are laws against rape.  But not every guy is going to get caught, and not every guy is even going to care. 

To some extent, of course, there are parallels with men.  A man does trust other people not to assault and kill him.  But I think these only go so far.  A person has to be pretty dead set on mayhem to kill another -- it's always astonishing to me, actually, how often men who are brawling and fighting will defer to norms of "fair play" and fail to just annihilate each other.  Rape is so much less risky.  A guy can always say it was consensual.  And let's face it, it's way easier to rape someone than to kill them.  Unlike assault that doesn't end in death or dismemberment, rape can cause your entire life to change unalterably.  You may now be carrying, inside you, a small dependent proto-person who is actually related to your rapist. 

So right off the bat, I feel this colors how I relate to the world.  For my life to make sense I have to live in a community that is based on mutual trust and reciprocal respect.  Mutual threat containment isn't really going to be enough.  The actual social relations between people matter a huge amount. 

Then, too, in the case where you want to get pregnant, think of how immediately and closely you have to depend on other people in the early infant stages of the process.  Imagine trying to feed yourself, all alone, while taking care of a small infant.  I don't mean going to the ATM -- I mean if you were truly alone and not in a society.  Virtually impossible.  You're going to have to depend on people to help you out.

What these things have in common is a kind of vulnerability and interdependence.  They make me feel like being somewhat vulnerable to others and interdependent on them is a natural state of things, and not some pathological state that has to be negotiated and escaped from.  And I think this is true in a basic way of people -- it's just that being a woman it's more obvious.

By the way, of course this vulnerability colors how women approach having casual sex.  I'm always amazed at the way people assume that because women are more leery of casual sex, they must not want it as much as men.  Maybe they do and maybe they don't -- but you're not going to read that off from their behavior at bars.  Because for every act of casual sex women have, they go home with the possibility of a new proto-person growing inside them.  It's a substantial risk to take with a person you hardly know. 

Actually, I've always been a little surprised at how little the possibility of a proto-person seems to concern the average guy.  Because sure, the woman carries it, but assuming she carries it to term, you too could be parent to a new infant.  A lof of guys seem never to think about this or don't care.  Given the laws on child support this is really puzzling.

Anyway, the one-sex solution would solve all these difficulties, too, and make it all equalized.  Everyone would be a possible pregnant person, and everyone would be a possible mom.  It's a win-win situation.  Just think how we'd all get along!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

I'm A First-Derivative Sort Of Girl, And Maybe You Are Too

Here's what it's like to be me.

Suppose I start at a 0 baseline.  I'm not sure what we're measuring but maybe something like pleasure.  I don't know what 0 is but it doesn't matter.  Just say 0 is now.

Now imagine I have a glass of wine, and as I start drinking, I experience an increase in pleasure.  The whole time I'm drinking pleasure is going up.  This makes me happy and content.  In fact, as long as the pleasure is going up, I'm happy and content.

If the pleasure starts to go down, because I'm sobering up, I experience unhappiness and discontent.  Not, I think, because the pleasure isn't there -- it is -- but because it is going down.

This inclines me to say:  for me, it's the first-derivative that counts.

Remember the first-derivative? It's the rate of change of a function, or if you're looking at a graph, it's the slope of the line tangent to the function.  Like in this cute picture,

 the first-derivative is negative on the left hand side, gets closer to zero toward the middle and gets positive and higher as you go along the right hand side. 

So the way it is for me, my happiness and contentment correlate not with the pleasure -- in this case the parabola -- but with it's derivative -- whether it's going up or down.

It's not just pleasure it's everything.  It doesn't matter how much money I have; what I want is to be increasing.  It doesn't matter how fit I am, what I want is to be becoming more fit.  What I don't want it to be becoming less rich and less fit; even if the static measure of these is high, it doesn't help.  I'm a first-derivative sort of girl.

I guess you could say, too, that I'm a future-oriented sort of person.  It matters less where I am than where I'm going. 

This way of being has obvious and immediate problems, and you can probably see what they are right away.  You can't increase pleasure forever -- indeed, you can't even increase it much in any given day.  No matter how high your levels of wealth and achievement, there are going to be plenty of days when they're static or decreasing.  Indeed, it is often when these things are at their highest that they start to waver or go down a bit, meaning that negative happiness and contentment result from high levels of actual well-being.  What a pain in the ass.

When I get discouraged about it though, I always remind myself that at least I'm not a second derivative sort of girl.  Because think about what that would mean.  To feel happy and content, you'd have to not only experience your pleasure and well-being going up, you'd have to feel that the rate at which they were going up was increasing.  And you'd feel bad as soon as that increase started to slow down.

It must be really hard to be a second-derivative sort of person.  It's not only like you have to keep drinking and not sober up to feel OK (as the first-derivative person does); it's that you have to keep drinking more and more quickly.  Maybe this is what it's like for Robert Downey Junior, who just couldn't stop taking more and more drugs.  It sounds horrible.

So overall, I'm grateful for being a first-derivative sort of girl.  It's not so bad, and I bet if people were honest most of them would turn out to be first-derivative people too.  So at least there's a lot of company around here.