Monday, December 28, 2015

Why Hasn't Traffic Been More Neo-Liberalized?


If there's one thing I do over the holidays that I almost never do otherwise, it's drive. In my normal life I take the bus, but -- I know this will shock some people -- there are some places in North America where public transportation is sort of impossible.

In my experience, there's nothing like driving to make you contemplate driving -- at least, once you get past the weird anger issues that driving seems to bring out in people. Driving recently, I started to think about carpool lanes, and that reminded me about the temporary "car pool lanes" we had in Toronto last summer for the Pan-Am Games.

The "car pool lanes" weren't really car pool lanes. They were nominally "car pool lanes" that would encourage car pooling to reduce traffic congestion during the games. But to use the lanes you had to either have three people OR you had to be a Pan-Am dignitary -- so everyone quickly understood the lanes were really there for the big shots to be able to get around without the little people getting in the way.

I remember thinking at the time: traffic elitism, eh? Not too surprising. It's actually surprising you don't see it more often.

Then this month the Toronto Star reported that they're taking the whole thing to the next level. New lanes on one of the GTA's busiest highways are going to be "high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes" -- meaning, you can drive on them if 1) you have two people in the car 2) you have a green energy car or ... 3) you are willing to pay.

That really got me thinking. Partly, sure, I was thinking about the fact that this is yet another step  toward the marketization of everything. It's kind of hilarious that a CRITIC of the plan put it so mildly:
"We're concerned about whether or not this is just a way for people who have a lot more money to pay their way to get to work faster than the rest of us, or people who can't afford to get to work quicker."
Um, yeah, that seems to sum it up pretty well actually.

More than that, though, I started thinking about the weird egalitarianism of traffic up to now. I mean, it's kind of weird if you think about it: rich people might have helicopters, but otherwise they're pretty much in the same traffic jams we all are. Someone else might be driving, but they're still stuck. I remember when poor Tracy Morgan got hurt in that awful car crash, and I was like "Oh that sucks. But also: celebrities, they're just like us!"

In a world in which you can upgrade any experience, join the Star Alliance Gold or whatever, how has traffic stayed for so long the one experience you really can't upgrade? Or, to put it another way, why haven't these kind of toll lanes been spreading like kudzu since forever?

Is it that in terms of pure practical materiality we didn't have the technology to monitor the permits so traffic markets couldn't function properly?


Is it that traffic somehow speaks to people of some prelapsarian Wild West, so that even when you're stuck in traffic you tend to see the solution in terms of "more roads" instead of the more obvious "keeping out the hoi polloi"?

Is it something to do with actual old-fashioned democracy, where actual political people who put these into place would get voted out of office?

I don't know. I did find it amusing that the person criticizing the plan felt the need to put the word "fairness" in quotation marks -- like, you can't be concerned just about the fairness of HOT lanes in general, you have to be concerned about the "fairness" of HOT lanes.

Like fairness is some kind of weird quasi-literary concept, rather than an actual thing.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Guest Post: The Special Warmth Of Social Approval

This guest post is by my former co-blogger at Commonwealth and Commonwealth, Captain Colossal

For fifteen years I smoked a pack of Malboros every day. Then, a little over five years ago, I quit. After that I started exercising and also started taking Prozac. This was because without smoking the (pretty precarious) accommodations I had made with the world completely fell apart.

My life got better after I made these changes, exactly the way you would think. When I don’t want to go to the gym, I remind myself of how happy and triumphant and okay I feel walking away from the gym, totaling up the number of times I’ve worked out that week, reliving my most recent victory over the forces of inertia.

And I try not to think too hard about how that mechanism (wherein I feel better) works. There are real physiological analyses of the effects of exercise and Prozac on the mood, and it’s possible that we’re in the realm of the purely physical here.

But I also think about how much society endorses going to the gym. And not smoking. And although there are pockets of weirdness around Prozac, I would say in general society smiles on people taking active pro-social steps to address their mental health issues. And I wonder whether what’s making me feel better is the knowledge that I am living squarely in the sunshine of social approval.

I tell people I used to smoke and they say, “You did?” They say, “I never would have pegged you for a smoker.” I have always wanted to be a little bit mysterious and opaque and so there is something thrilling in that, and then also a little sad, because smoking was so much a part of who I was, and now it is not.

I think about social approval a lot with driving. I live in California, where driving is a thing most people do. And after I quit smoking and started working out and taking Prozac I decided to deal with the fact that I was too terrified to drive. And I took driving lessons and I bought a car and now I drive every day on the freeway and I’ve driven myself to Yosemite more than once and it’s great — it makes my life so much easier and grocery shopping is so much easier and also I never have to explain to a single person ever again why I don’t drive. And yet me driving is not actually a net gain for the world in the ways that you could argue (sort of) that my other changes are. I’m consuming more fuel and producing more pollution and taking up more of other kinds of resources because one thing that driving really makes easy is consumption of various kinds. And yet, being a driver rather than a non-driver makes me less of a conspicuous eccentric, and that in itself, without taking into account all the other ways in which driving is convenient, makes my life so much easier.

Once, before I made any of these changes, I was in a car being driven somewhere by a guy that I knew a little but not all that well. Because when you don’t drive third parties tend to bully other people into driving you places. Especially when you go to a picnic that’s all couples and people with children in Los Angeles. Those people often worry about you taking the bus across town; it makes them feel bad for you and concerned for you. I’m being a little mean here because I had such mixed feelings about it at the time. Part of me wanted the concern and the arrangements and the being-tended-to, and part of me just wanted everyone else to treat the way I lived my life as if it was normal.

So I was leaving this picnic filled with really nice people with really nice families and I was being given a ride by the one guy who was also single and we were talking about that and I was saying that it was a little hard for me to meet guys who wanted to date me, being as I was a smoker and having at the time really short hair cut in an ostentatiously unstylish way and never doing my dishes or cooking anything healthy and this guy said, “Look, there are a lot of guys who like exactly that in a woman,” and I knew immediately what he meant and I said, “Yeah, but those guys don’t want somebody like me.” And what I meant was that I had those attributes, but I wasn’t rebellious and cool in a way that would go along with them; I worried about hurting people’s feeling and I cared about being nice and I didn’t even jaywalk. And he thought about it and he was like, “I see what you mean.”

When I think about that conversation now, I think that I was not very good at understanding that we all contain multitudes, that what I was trying to say is that I was complicated and human and I was assuming that it was less than true of other people, who were either straightforwardly in compliance with the world or defying the world in a perpendicular fashion. And of course I was wrong about the other people.

But I wasn’t wrong in thinking that I was paying a cost in being weird. And I thought it was a cost in terms of opportunities lost but what I didn’t know, and what my current line of thinking suggests, is that it was also a cost inside my tangled self. And what I sort of knew then, and know clearly now but try not to think about too much, is that the value of being weird is directly related to that cost. Smoking is a bad thing, and I am glad I don’t smoke, and yet to the extent I am less visibly a weirdo now it seems like a loss of some kind.

Sometimes I dream that I am smoking. In the dream, I think, “But I quit! What am I doing? Now I’ll have the whole thing to do all over again!” And then in the dream I realize that I never quit, that I’ve been lying to people all along, that I am still a smoker.

Monday, December 14, 2015

If We're So Rich, Why Do We Feel So Poor?

For the last class in my course on ethical theory this term, we discussed some passages from a book called Ethics for a Broken World. This book has a brilliant concept: it takes place in a future world that has been broken by catastrophic climate change, and presents imaginary lectures that discuss, as we do other historical periods, the philosophical writings of our era.

In the book, our world -- the world of 21st century western liberal democracies -- is called "the affluent world." Clearly, relative to the broken world, we are utterly affluent. In the broken future, there aren't enough resources for everyone to live. There are "survival bottlenecks," which necessitate "survival lotteries."

Looking back from the future, the affluence of our world seems astonishing. We have enough resources for everyone to survive, and we frequently spend enormously on gratuitous entertainments like flying around just to see new places.

Of course, you don't have to look back from a broken future to realize the affluence of 21st century western liberal democracies. We are richer than we were in the past -- maybe richer than ever before. We are richer than some countries, and way, way richer than others.

According to this, if you make more than $34,000 USD, you're in the top one percent of the world's richest people. If that's even sort of right, then in some sense, relatively speaking, we are living in an affluent society.

So why, if we are so relatively affluent, do we feel so economically crunched? Why does it seem like everyone is freaking out about not having enough money? Why is everyone so indignant about the bits of money that go into sensible projects like fighting climate change, improving elementary education, and helping refugees?

The obvious answers have to do with cost of living, changes from the status quo, and inequality. Yes, things cost a lot in modern liberal democracies, so what seems like "a lot of money" may not translate into a lot of buying power. Plus, what feels like "a lot of money" is often relative to some previous point in time, and since the economic crisis, we feel we're doing less well than a few years before. And rising inequality means "we" experience non-affluence in very different ways.

But I think there are also some subtler effects.

First, when it comes to living human life, it's not the case that "everything is relative": there are things and activities that everyone needs to survive and there and also things and activities that everyone needs just to feel part of their social and cultural world.

In our society, you need food and shelter, but you also need other things: to feel part of our social and cultural world, you have to be able to get around, you have to have access to the internet and other forms of news information, you have to have access to banking, and so on and so forth.

And here's the thing: in our society, when it comes to these things we need, it's not like there are a range of ways to do it and if you're poor you do it one way and if you're rich you do it another. It's more like -- there are pretty expensive ways to do it or you're just SOL.

For example. You want a TV? There used to be old technology that made TVs pretty expensive. Then new technology came along, and the old technology got pretty cheap. For a while there you could buy a TV with the old technology for almost nothing. Then they stopped selling those. Now it's back to a TV is a pretty expensive thing.

Same with cars, which are astronomically expensive and which you need to get around if you're not lucky enough -- and rich enough! -- to live in a densely populated area with public transit. Same with housing. Houses are bigger and nicer, so you can get a nice one if you have the money or ... not.

This is where rising inequality makes such a difference. If enough people over a certain level means consumer demand shifts, and the only version of things you can do is the expensive one. If you can't afford the expensive one, you're in trouble. This is one way we are so deeply economically interdependent, even when we don't want to be.

I think this phenomenon is part of why the post-economic crisis time feels like such a huge problem rather than a dip in an already affluent set up. When times are even a bit flush, we ramp up -- we create systems in which the things we need to do work in a certain kind of way and demand a certain level of resources.

Then when things shift down -- even a bit -- we can no longer use those systems. It is, legitimately, a crisis, even if in some sense there is still a lot of money around.

Of course, another reason that virtually everyone, at all points up the economic ladder, feels like OMG we don't have enough money has to do with this obvious but usually unspoken fact: in advanced capitalism, the whole point of the system is to make you feel like you don't have enough money.

Especially in an affluent world, where you have to convince people to buy, what is advertising, except a massive scheme to convince people that they're inadequate as they are and that they would be less inadequate if they had this or that thing? 

You put it all together, it's really no wonder we're all feeling so poor. In a way we have so much, and in another way, we don't have what we need. Those things seem contradictory but in a deep sense I think they're not.

Monday, December 7, 2015

When Life Is Work, Who Can You Flirt With?

With whom is it appropriate to pursue a sexualized or even just flirty relationship? Who is in and out of bounds for hooking up, asking out, and so on?

We know from sexual harassment law and from intuitive reflection on sexual autonomy that there are some obvious guidelines. Don't do it with the people you supervise at work. Don't ask anyone over and over, because that is harassment.

There are, however, more complicated cases. Recently MathBabe had a very interesting discussion about "Romance and math meetings," prompted by a question about asking people out on dates at math conferences. A woman was at a math conference talking to a fellow mathematician, a guy, about math. The guy mathematician asked her out. She was upset, because she'd hoped to be regarded in the light of a mathematician instead of possible date material, and hoped to be able to collaborate with him in the future -- something she felt was off the table if she turned him down.

MathBabe initially said she didn't think the issue was so serious. Why can't you collaborate with people who've turned you down? And given that many couples meet under similar circumstances and live happily ever after, wouldn't it be a shame to put the kibosh on such activities?



This, of course, generated a lively discussion, which you can read all about here. People pointed out that if you're one of a few women at a conference with a lot of heterosexual men, then even if no one asks you out twice, you might get asked out a zillion times. You feel like you're at a bar, not a conference, and you feel like you're of interest only for your potential as a romantic partner. Plus, in that case have to micro-navigate every situation to avoid giving someone the wrong idea-- added to all the other burdens of being a woman in a professional and guy-centered environment. Bad.

Other cases, including colleagues who aren't in direct power-relations, can also be complicated. Some times people who work at the same kind of thing you do can seem like equals one minute and gate-keepers the next. Suppose A and B flirt or have sex and then A gets a prestigious job while B remains under-employed. Now A is, in a sense, in a position of power with respect to B. What if A starts rewarding the people who continue to respond sexually and shunning people who reject their advances?

What if, as happens so often in the modern world, there happen to be a bunch of hetero male As and a bunch of female Bs? You know what happens. Women don't get hired unless they're willing to play along, flirt when they don't feel like it, or worse. Indeed, MathBabe ends her discussion with just such a warning: it's not OK to be sexual with someone "whose career you influence."

But here's the thing: in the modern world of 24-7 work and the "entrepreneur of the self," the people who work in your area or who could influence your career somehow ... well, isn't that almost everyone you ever meet? I don't know how your life works, but I feel like unless I went way out of my way to take a flower-arranging class or something like that, I would seldom meet people who are neither "colleagues" in the broad sense of doing what I do nor people who could in some way "influence" my career.

It's like there's a collision course between some sensible-sounding restriction on who you flirt, date, and hook up with, and the culture of modern life in which every relationship is kind of a work relationship. Put the two together and BOOM: there really isn't anyone in the green light category.

What's the answer? I don't know, but like MathBabe, I have a pro-love, pro-flirting, and pro-sex personal orientation, and from a larger perspective, wouldn't it be sad and bizarre if no one could ever flirt or hook up with or find true love with someone who shares their professional interests just because they do, in fact, share professional interests?

It's like, given the omnipresent nature of work in so many people's lives, a broad interpretation of the out-of-bounds rules would come down to no flirting ever. 

I don't know what to say except maybe, like so many things in modern life, it's not the sort of thing you can figure out by looking for general principles you can apply across the board. Maybe it depends on context, and tone, and particulars. We humans aren't always so good at deploying contextual and variable norms. tending as we do toward a love of commandments and categorical imperatives. But maybe with the nature of modernity, we're going to have to evolve into the next level.

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Modern Metrics Fetish: WTF?


 The New York Times had an article recently about school testing and Common Core. Along the way they said that the challenge of comparing children’s progress, state to state, and state and country to country, is "one of the most stubborn problems in education." To which an alert reader/parent said basically: WTF?

As she described it: "I could easily list 500 priorities for my child’s education. But the question of how Massachusetts test scores compare with test scores in Minnesota, in Mississippi, anywhere, wouldn’t make the cut ... Somehow, though, this need to compare is so all-consuming that it has reshaped children’s entire school experiences."

I get what she is saying. When did metrics and measurement become so important that they're worth sacrificing all our other goals for? Why this fetish for metrics? When did the desire to measure become to intense that it gets in the way of actually moving forward with things?

I've got nothing against the gathering of information, but for a lot of things, measurement just doesn't work that well. Some things are hard to quantify, and even when you can quantify them, it's hard to know what data is relevant. Even when you know what to look for, the relevant data is hard to find, gather, and organize. Things keep getting in the way -- like how do you know whether some schools are becoming better by squeezing out the bad students? There are huge problems.

The crazy thing is that everyone knows all of this. It's no secret that some things are hard to quantify and that even when you can quantify you can't get the info that's relevant. It's no secret that what happens if you keep moving forward is that you're measuring the measurable things -- like money or test scores -- and then acting like those are the things you were interested in in the first place, which is ridiculous. It's no secret that people who do this end up by silencing their critics with "There is no alternative! You don't understand: the challenge of measurement is "one of the most stubborn problems in education!"

So if we know all of this why does it keep happening? Why do we keep creating metrics that measure the things we're not interested in and then using those metrics to make plans? Why is it so hard to have a reasoning process that involves people making informed judgments based on things they know and also consultation with the relevant parties?

My guesses, from most obvious to most obscure, with remarks:

1. Maybe the "data" approach just fits with the outcomes desired by the powers-that-be -- so the "data" is just window dressing on decisions made for other reasons. This is the classic "stupid or evil?" debate, and I don't have anything new to add.

2. Maybe the data give you the illusion of having an "answer," where the alternative involves vagueness, uncertainty, and judgment. As I've said before, some people seem to prefer having an answer they know is wrong to not having a clear answer -- which seems to me to make no sense.

3. Maybe underlying 1. and 2. is some misguided idea that judgment involves partiality while metrics and data are objective and neutral. News flash: as has been discussed again and again at least since Weber's work in the early 20th century, every way of using concepts in measurement requires making value-laden judgments about significance. "Metrics" often just makes the values harder to see, where "judgments" would put them right in plain view, where you could, you know, talk about and debate them.

4. Here I'm getting really speculative and into overgeneralizing cultural diagnosis territory, but I feel like somewhere along the way of the last hundred years or so, western culture got lost and started thinking that everything that isn't SCIENCE is somehow RELIGION. For example, I'm still irritated by how this law article refers to non-utilitarian ethical reasoning as "faith-based": as if utiltiarianism is somehow value-free and not just another set of values, and as if anything appealing to values is somehow off-limits for respectable inquiry.

This last is so bizarre I don't even know where to start. If you give up religion or faith, what you get is basically what you always have: people with various values, preferences, opinions, and hopes and dreams for the world. Often these willl be different and often they'll conflict. The great task of living together is figuring out what to do about that. It's a tough task, and it's not one that the little elves of "measurement" are somehow going to do for us.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Diagnosis: Hypersobriety. Or, What's So Bad About Self-Medicating?

I love to drink. I drink more is recommended by the medico-establishment powers that be, but I think in 2015 that's not the shocking thing. The shocking thing is that I don't really worry about it too much.

There are several reasons I'm not in a moral panic about my own drinking. For one thing, I used to have a wide range of bad habits and I've managed to quit almost all of them. Even Diet Coke, which I love and regard as the pinnacle of human taste perfection, I haven't had in about five years. Really, you can't expect a person to give up everything.

For another thing, I suffer zero noticeable bad effects from my drinking. I never have a hangover or feel bad, and pace the omnipresent freak-out over "relationship problems," my loved ones agree: drinking makes me, if anything, kinder, happier, warmer, more patient, and more fun.

Also, and as I've written about before, I feel like drinking makes me more me. A better version of me. I don't know if you remember that book Listening to Prozac, from the early 90s? The author, Peter Kramer, argued that some patients on anti-depressants experience a sense of being more themselves. The widespread fear that psycho-pharmaceuticals always make you less you is wrong, just a prejudice, based on some implicit mistaken metaphysics of personal identity.

Listening to Prozac quotes one patient as saying that being on Prozac makes them feel "Unencumbered, more vitally alive, less pessimistic" -- and when I read that I was like, "Yes!" That's how drinking makes me feel. Without drinking, I tend toward sadness and low life-force. When I stop for a while, I run into trouble: my mind gets filled up with stuff, clogged with emotion, the mental equivalent of a hoarder's living room. Drinking, I'm fresh and alive.

Pursuing the medical model analogy, I was thinking about what it is about me that makes this the appropriate treatment, and I noticed that I often have the feeling that two drinks makes me feel normal, well, brought to some imaginary baseline. Feelings of sadness and dread are kept at bay. I was struggling to interpret the underlying feeling. What is this? Anxiety? Depression? Melancholia?

And then it hit me: if drinking is the solution, maybe my problem is just sobriety. I have an excess of it. Hypersobriety. Though there are probably many, this condition has one obvious and natural treatment option: namely, drinking.

The diagnosis actually fits my personality in other ways as well. I'm organized, I don't really procrastinate, and I read books for fun. Plus, I often feel excessively clear-eyed about the world, a characteristic of sobriety that is known to lead to trouble: as we know, self-deceiving, overly optimistic people do well with life while seeing things as they are leads to sadness and depression.

For me, part of being excessively clear-eyed is a deficit in the repression direction. I seem to have trouble blocking out those kinds of facts that, when you're aware of them, get quickly overwhelming. We are all going to die in the not so far away future. And we're either going to die young, or get old. This is going to happen not just to you but to your kids and all the people you love.

The only healthy response to these facts is to frequently repress awareness of them. But if you suffer from hypersobriety -- well, you need a little boost in the repression direction.

I feel like there's a lot of resistance to the use of alcohol and other fun substances to make people feel better. Some of this is based on the very real fact that for a lot of people, using fun substances doesn't work so well in the long run, leading to addiction and other problems. But what about the rest of us? If it's working reasonably well, what's the big deal?

I think a lot of the resistance comes from the idea that self-medicating might come with health risks or side-effects, and this leads to free-rider type indignation, like "OMG, you are doing this thing to make yourself feel better, but that might lead, in some vague and long-term way, to some way in which the rest of us have to pay more to help you down the line. Even though lots of treatments come with other health effects down the line, we'd hate to think that somehow your self-medication might be enjoyable, so that you're somehow having a good time."

But I think this form of indignation is a little overblown and ridiculous. Lots of medical treatments come with downsides and side effects, many of them serious. Just yesterday in the New York Times Ezekiel Emanuel wrote about how astonishingly often more medical care can lead to much worse outcomes. Having the best, most senior cardiac doctors led to more deaths. Stopping medications in elderly patients made them better off.

Again, I'm not denying that in some circumstances self-medication doesn't work. But I don't think the relative frequency of failure justifies the negativity. I guess what I'm saying is, next time you see someone eating a lot of cake or chewing nicotine gum or drinking a lot of Diet Coke or Pinot Grigio or whatever, don't think you have to immediately moralize about it. Maybe overall, it's just the thing they need.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Sexual Liberty And Its Discontents


I was thinking recently about sex in the modern world, and particularly the particular rage and indignation that people have related to issues about sex. And I got thinking about how maybe, in unseen ways, some of this bad feeling has to do with deep and unrecognized value conflicts.


Specifically, I found myself wondering about the conflicts between sexual liberty, on the one hand, and sexual equality and justice on the other. All these values are, I think, things that people care about. But -- much more than I think is typically recognized -- these values don't always fit together. More of one often means less of the others.

When I talk about sexual "liberty" here, I'm not thinking of the manifestation of liberty that has to do specifically with LGBTQ rights. Actually I think that form of liberty doesn't create value conflicts.

What I'm talking about is the more general idea that everyone gets to craft their own vision of the sexual good life. If you're into monogamous marriage, do that. If you're into hook-up culture, do that. If you're into polyamory commitments, knock yourself out. If you don't want to have sex at all, that's fine too.

I would say in addition that an important component of sexual liberty is that everyone has a kind of unchallengeable right to decide when and with whom they want to have sex. You don't have to give a reason or justification. In a deep sense, it's your right to choose however you want.

As I've touched on before, if that's sexual liberty, then in some ways more sexual liberty means less sexual equality, in the sense that some people are going to have way more of it, and way more of the kind they want, than other people. Hot young women, rich status-y men, and mysteriously cool people are going to get lots, while a socially awkward 7-11 clerk may get nothing. There are going to be sexual winners and losers. There may even be, effectively, a sexual 1% and a sexual 99%.

Is that a bad thing? Is there a value of "sexual equality" that is thus transgressed? I think the answer is yes. If sex, and especially having the opportunity to have the kind of sex you want to have, with people you want to have it with, is one of the good things in life, then it's pretty sucky if some people don't get any of it. And it's even worse if the have-nots have to deal with the existence of the sexual equivalent of trust-fund children.

The idea of sexual justice might be a bit more multifaceted and complex, but I think one idea out there is that it seems especially egregious if people who are good, kind, and sexually generous turn out to be the ones not getting any sex and people who are unreciprocating assholes do great. It doesn't seem fair.

But sexual liberty does seem to lead to sexual injustice, because the reasons people find other people attractive are complex and mysterious. They often track aspects of ourselves we can take no credit for: looks, or status, or being charismatic. As is often wryly noted, sexual success itself makes people more sexually successful. The result is that there's this great thing in life, and whether you get a lot of it often has little to do with your generosity, or hard work, or other virtues.

As much as I love sexual liberty and wouldn't want any less of it, I think it has to be acknowledged that certain forms of social sexual constraints block some of these effects. When sex takes place only in monogamous marriages (gay or straight), there's a huge levelling off.

With respect to equality, in that context, most people get one or maybe a handful of sex partners. There isn't that sense of huge winners and losers. Plus there's a cascade effect. If everyone has to pair off, this removes the more attractive people from the pool of partners. So if you're one of the people less likely to be found attractive, there will be others around of your preferred sex/gender who might want to pair off with you.

With sexual justice, too, monogamous marriage means that you're only going to want to pair off with people you'll want to spend the rest of your life with: the ones you'll bring into your family, eat breakfast with, share bank accounts with. Of course in that context, all things being equal, good and generous persons will get more sex than self-centered jerks.

If this is at all on the right track, then I wonder if some of the indignation and unhappiness people feel around sex is related to these values conflicts. I'm sure you've heard heterosexual men complain bitterly about being a sexual have-not, and about women having sex with assholes instead of nice guys. It drives straight women crazy when men choose women who are young and good-looking.

Sometimes I feel like there's an attempt to explain what feels wrong about these things in terms of sexual "shoulds": people shouldn't be so shallow, they should want to have sex with these people, in these circumstances, they should have reasons for why they find certain people sexually attractive at certain times in certain contexts.

But for all kinds of reasons I find these shoulds of sex suspicious. Often they're presented as if they're moral truths. But to me they often feel like a sneaky end-run around sexual liberty, an ad hoc way of moralizing to get an end result that seems right.

Why not just acknowledge that, as so often in life, there are trade-offs? Then maybe we can talk about other ways to increase sexual equality and justice, ones that don't require a return to ubiquitous monogamous marriage and don't require the ad hoc moralizing either.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Sensory Neuroscience, Snackology, and the Market Failure of Food

I don't know if you saw this article in The New Yorker last week about how the sound of a potato chip, the music in a bar, and the color of your coffee mug can seriously alter the flavor of your
food.

If you think I'm exaggerating you should read the article. They recorded sounds of potato chip crunching, and when they amplified those sounds and sharpened them, people rated the chips as fresher and better tasting. Mellifluous organ music changed a creamy ale into a bitter one. When coffee's in a white mug it tastes "nearly twice as intense but only two-thirds as sweet" than when it's in a clear glass one.

Thoughts:

1. This is obviously a philosophical topic, leading immediately to questions like "what is taste, anyway?" More specifically, these results press on us the question of whether the perceptual experience itself changes in the presence of other stimuli or whether we just interpret the experience to ourselves differently in the presence of other stimuli.

If the importance of this question isn't immediate to you, consider that it's a specific instance of the more general question: do we perceive a shared pre-existing world or does everyone kind of live in their own reality? It doesn't really get more profound or disturbing.

2. It's long been known that presentation affects experience. This is why people like me are always going around saying things like "HEY PEOPLE: STYLE IS AN ACTUAL THING." I don't know if it's the long arm of the protestant reformation or what, but I feel there is huge resistance to this idea.

For example, I'm always hearing people talk smugly about how they value substance over style, or the importance of not getting distracted by style, like it's some kind of moral superiority if you drive a plain-looking car or you wear only Dockers (see: "On the Self-Satisfaction of the Casually Dressed.")

I use a Mac, and I love my Mac partly because of small details like the way the font smoothing on the "Pages" app looks. It's so good. I could not be more sick of people having opinions about this, like somehow my selection on aesthetic grounds reflects a poor character.

3. The whole idea of an ale that's creamy when there's xylophone music and bitter when there's organ music reminded me of this post on rationality and preferences. There I mention the example of the person who prefers to eat lobster for dinner, but not if they've just seen the lobster swimming in the tank.

These preferences could seem irrational. But as discussed in the post, it doesn't have to -- all you have to do is attribute to a person different preferences depending on whether they've just seen their dinner. Is that artificial and ad hoc? Maybe not. If you're someone who likes bitter ale, and you prefer X ale to Y, but only when the organ music is on -- given this research, that's seems to me like as real a preference as you're going to get.

4. But the most disturbing thing in the article is the same thing that always seems to come up in the early twenty-first century when we talk about science, namely: who wants to know?

Of course the whole point is food technology.  Of course in 2015 you can't do research like this without funding from the same marketers and food technologists that want to use your findings to sell more things. The scientist in the article estimates that 75% of his research is industry-funded. 

That is, the main thing that's going to happen as a result of this research is you can get people to buy more potato chips if you make the sound of the crunch different without having to bother about things like actual freshness.

Let me be clear: if people want to put their soft drinks in red cans because red-means-sweet, what do I care? Knock yourselves out.

But you know it's not going to stop there. You know that it's going to turn into red peppers that sound crunchy but are mushy and stale inside and crap like that, and pretty soon everything will be like the apples arms-race toward redness and away from flavor, and the market failure of food will become even worse, and eventually nutritionists will move beyond saying "to be healthy, just cook food at home!" to "to be healthy, just grow everything yourself from heirloom seeds!"

5. The article says this:

"We are accustomed to thinking of food and its packaging as distinct phenomena, but to a brain seeking flavor they seem to be one and the same."

Welcome to the modern world. Have a good time!

Monday, November 2, 2015

Just Price Theory: Not So Crazy After All?


When I first heard about the "pharmabro" guy who bought the rights to a drug and then immediately raised the price from $13.50 per pill to $750, I knew things would get interesting.

Because from one point of view: isn't that just capitalism? If supply and demand mean you can make a profit at that price, then isn't that the price you should set? But from another point of view, it's pretty outrageous. So I wondered: beyond saying "I hate you," what form would the outrage take?

Back in the day -- way way back in the day -- it might have been easy to explain the outrageousness, because you could simply say that the drug was overpriced relative to its actual value -- its "just price." In "just price theory," there is a price for a good that reflects the value of fairness: to charge $1,000 dollars for a bottle of water in a disaster zone would be unfair because, in some sense, the water isn't worth that much in reality. It's not a "just price."

To our modern ears this sounds weirdly metaphysical. And from the point of view of modern economics, it doesn't really make sense to talk about a "just price." Value is thought to be relative -- there is no value in reality, there are just facts about what people are willing to pay. That is to say: what something is worth is in the eye of the beholder. How could you say what something is "really" worth? You can't. The just price theory faded from view with modern notions of supply and demand.

To see how embedded rejection of the just price concept is, consider examples from this article about how human behavior diverges from what standard economic theory predicts. Here, authors Jolls, Thaler, and Sunstein express puzzlement about laws against price-gouging, usury, and ticket scalping. Why, they ask, would we choose to block mutually desired trades? They describe an experiment where they asked people: what if there were only one cabbage patch doll left, and the store decided to auction it off to the highest bidder? Three quarters of respondents said that would be unfair. But why would fairness be relevant?

Their answer to these questions appeals to the idea of "bounded self-interest." Bounded self-interest, like other forms of irrationality such as weakness of will and other anomalies, gets in the way of economically rational behavior. Bounded self-interest means we let norms like "fairness" influence our judgements for no good reason.

All of this to say: there's a lot of skepticism over the idea that fairness or justice has a respectable role to play in thinking about prices.

So I was very interested to see how often the issue with the drug price was taken to be just that: that the price increase wasn't fair and couldn't be justified given the particulars.

For example, this news story describes the fall out from the pharmabro's Reddit Ask Me Anything, in which a physician gained the applause of Reddit's masses by pressing him with questions about particulars. What improvements did the drug deliver over similar options? What changes had the company made to the drug to "warrant" the price increase?

"This I find is the main problem with your plan," the physician said. "That the solution is not worth $749."

Of course, it's open to anyone to just say that people in general don't understand economics, that their use of an intuitive "just price" theory shows they don't know was is going on. But I think this conclusion would be too quick.

What I think it shows, instead, is that a lot of people have in their minds and intuitive and value-based sense of how things are working when they're working in a relatively fair and just way, and that as long as the results of market activity track, in some vague way, those judgments, things are OK. And when those results spit out $1,000 for a bottle of water in a disaster zone, things are not OK.

There is resistance, I think, to lending credence to these intuitive and value-based judgments as telling us anything meaningful and important because they are vague, and because they rest on different kinds of considerations all mushed in together, and because they're hard to make precise.

As the Reddit discussion exemplifies, intuitive judgments about what's a fair price are probably based on a set of implicit and hazy beliefs about how much work and money the seller put into making a product, and how much money the seller is likely to make, and how much the people who need the product need it, and how much the people who need the product can pay. All of those judgments are relative to what other costs in society are and how money is working. 

All of these are matters about which it's impossible to be precise. But just because these matters are often imprecise and multiple doesn't mean they're the wrong things to consider. Maybe judgments about just prices are complicated, pluralistic, intuitive, and imprecise. That doesn't make them wrong.

After all, the alternative, standard set up requires saying there's nothing wrong with selling $1,000 dollar bottles of water in a disaster zone and making a profit of $999 on each one, and that there's nothing wrong with a drug going from $1 dollar to $750 for no real reason.

And, in the end, isn't it better to have a messy and sensible idea than a precise and misguided one?

Monday, October 26, 2015

Grading And The Dreams Of A Frictionless Pedagogy

Cute picture from this site.

I almost didn't get this post done on time because I was too busy grading. If you teach or if you know someone who does, you know that grading is not only massively time-consuming but also one of the least pleasant activities there is. When you're grading, washing the dishes counts as a comparative treat, something you would definitely do in order not to do what you're supposed to be doing, namely, grading.

Actually, I've given a certain amount of thought to the question of why grading is so unpleasant. I like my students. I'm interested in their ideas. Often the work is good. So what's the problem?

I'm sure it varies from person to person, but for me a big part of the answer has to do with the massive decision fatigue -- fatigue that can set in within the first few moments of the first assignment. When I'm grading, my interior monologue is like this:

That sentence is awkward. Is that worth mentioning in the context of the paper as a whole? Should I just say it's awkward or should I explain how its awkwardness affects the meaning? Should I try to say how it could be improved? Is this even worth noticing, given the other problems I should bring to the student's attention? If I give an explanation, will that make the student more or less likely to pay even a second's attention to the comment I've made? Also this part of the paper is unclear. Is it "unclear" like there's a good idea there but it's badly expressed? Is it "unclear" like it's a middling idea that could be improved with specificity? Does the student understand the text they're writing about? Is this unclarity a major issue, affecting the grade? How much?

I don't know how it is for you, but within 45 seconds I'm exhausted and ready to look at some cats on the internet. Too bad though -- there are literally *hours* to go before it's done. 

It's fascinating to me that in all the recent discussion of disruption in pedagogy, grading gets almost no attention. We hear about MOOCs, about flipped classrooms, about whether lectures are evil, but strikingly little about grading. There is, I think, an obvious explanation: while "content delivery" is the kind of thing that *seems* open to radical changes induced by social and technological innovation, grading -- well, grading just isn't.

I guess you could say that in certain areas and for certain subjects, the multiple choice question was a kind of social innovation. But when it comes to things like thinking things through or learning how to write, there is no other way except the massively labor intensive and personalized system we have now: you sit down with a student, or with the student's work, and you discuss with them or write notes to them about the various things they are thinking and writing; you make comments and suggestions, and -- crucially -- you keep in mind the magic ratio of criticism and encouragement, which varies from student to student and moment to moment.

Compared to the pace of other modern activities, it's like being back in the nineteenth century. Success is utterly unpredictable. It takes forever. It is, as we've seen, mentally draining.

The fact that students only learn from certain kinds of actual time-intensive feedback means that whether you teach your course "online" or not doesn't matter much, relative to the question of feedback and how students get it. To make it really work you're always going to need a ton of people spending a ton of time doing a difficult and time-consuming task -- a task, I might add, whose adequate performance has to be preceded by a long and expensive education.

This is, I think, just one among many ways our dreams of a frictionless world are not just inconsistent with our reality, but actually on a radically different track. The dream is connecting to a super-brain and suddenly speaking fourteen languages. The reality is sitting in a classroom being corrected on your verb conjugation and making the same mistake for the tenth time in a row.

Like caring for children, cooking wholesome and delicious food, and helping the people around you feel like life is worth living, grading is slow, personal, often repetitive, having almost nothing to do with modern fetishes like ruthless efficiency, massive scale projects, and problems you can solve with a quick internet-based rethinking of the status quo.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Illusion Of Rational Choice And Its Political Implications

From this ABC news story, 2011
I'm teaching a course this semester on philosophy of social science, and one of the most interesting ideas we've encountered has to do with the idea of people as purposive rational actors,  working to satisfy their own preferences at the least cost possible to themselves, who engage in bargaining and negotiation with one another to get the things they want and need.

It's a pretty fundamental idea to some social science methods -- especially in economics, but also more generally, because it plays a role in helping to figure out what people are doing and why. There are many questions about modelling human behavior through this family of ideas associated with rational choice. For example, as many people have pointed out, it makes morality somewhat obscure. If you keep a commitment to another person because you've promised to do so, or if you do the right thing at a tremendous cost to your own happiness, it seems bizarre to say you've just acted to satisfy your own "preference."

But the issue that came up in our readings, though related to that, was somewhat broader. That week we were talking about the question of whether social science can take up an objective, impartial, scientific stance toward its subject, or whether humanistic interpretation is always necessary to understand human behavior.

In arguing for the latter position in a 1971 paper, Charles Taylor points out that when we understand people as rational bargaining actors -- as he thinks we do in the more scientific approach -- we always risk interpreting them incorrectly.

For one thing, he says, not all societies even have practices that would be obviously analogous to our own practices of bargaining and negotiation. But more deeply, much important human behavior isn't like this. And when we theorize it using this set of concepts, we get it wrong.

There are many kinds of examples, but Taylor gives an interesting one in the analysis of protest movements. He says that theory of rational choice entails that we analyze these movements in terms of individuals' aims, and that in this case we have two possibilities: either protests are "bargaining gambits," or they are simply madness.

But, Taylor says, sometimes a protest is neither of those things. Taylor sees around him a profound dissatisfaction with the way things are, an alienation, a sense that things are deeply not what they should be. A protest borne of this sense would not be correctly analyzed as a bargaining gambit: it may be utterly unclear what the possibilities are. And if things are not what they should be, it would not be correctly analyzed as madness.

Though Taylor wrote this in 1971, when I read it I immediately thought of the Occupy movement, and especially of the deafening chorus that met that movement, where everyone was shouting, "But what are your demands?! If you haven't got specific demands, your protest makes no sense!"

Many people said in response that it wasn't about demands, that wasn't the point. Of course the movement had many strands and ideas, but I don't think it's farfetched to say that among these was the thought that things are deeply not what they should be.

Interpretation through the lens of rational choice and bargaining makes it impossible to arrive at this conclusion about the social meaning of the protests. But that interpretation has become so ingrained in our culture, we almost can't interpret it any other way.

I don't know how and when exactly this happened, but somewhere along the way the idea that humans are basically purposive rational actors working to satisfy their own preferences at the least cost possible to themselves became so entrenched in our thinking and talking, it's hard to even frame the alternatives. It's become almost like a tautology: well, you chose that thing, so either you preferred it and acted wisely, or you preferred something else and acted stupidly.

I think one reason this idea of people as rational actors is so hard to challenge is that if you're just looking at behavior, data, all those things we've embraced in the modern world as alternatives to old-fashioned listening and literature, the theory of people as rational actors is almost impossible to really falsify. As is often pointed out, any behavior can be made to come out as rational: you just have to attribute to the person a preference for the outcome, and voilà!

But behavior that doesn't fit -- and especially behavior that seem to signify that things are deeply not what they should be -- is everywhere, not just in the modern world but as part of the human condition. When things get bad and someone can't see their way out, they freak out: they become enraged, or riddled with anxiety, or they just decide to do something, anything, to derail the situation. It's a very human response.

Whether you're talking about an unhappy marriage or the state of the modern world, this kind of "protest" behavior is common and well-known. But with our theory of human behavior, we can't even see it for what it is, because we're stuck in the bargaining gambit theory of the world.

I think Taylor is right when he says that the problem goes beyond a "mistake" and gets into the category of "illusion": the version we see looks totally normal to us, even though it is the version reflected in a fun house mirror.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Female Super-Slenderness Beauty Norms: WTF?

I often find myself thinking about the role of super-slenderness in female beauty norms and thinking, WTF?

When I say "female super-slenderness beauty norms," I don't really mean the general thing that women are constantly evaluated on the basis of their appearance, where those evaluations often track sex appeal as the main important thing -- so that a woman's worth is tied up with her looks.

That is interesting and complicated too, but I feel like there are a lot of useful concepts out there already to analyze it -- having to do with the patriarchical roots of our modern social situation and things like that.

What gives me the WTF feeling has to do more with the specific thing, having to do with being really really really slender. There is something mystifying about this particular thing that I think transcends the general analysis about the relation between women's worth and appearance, and definitely transcends the women-valued-for-sex-appeal business.

For starters, as is often noted, what people find sexually attractive in a woman's appearance is very often not super slender. It's not a straightforward thing to measure, and obviously there's no "one thing," but wouldn't you agree that on balance, the shape of a woman in pornography is very different from size zero shape of a woman in fashion? Even in a wide range of pornography types? So I think that while there are obvious relations and overlap areas, the "super-slender" norm is not a sexiness norm.

It'd be one thing if the super-slender norm had to do only with high couture or fashion-fantasy or something -- but that is so completely not the case. The norm of super-slender is associated with high status in such a deep and pervasive way. Women in movies have to be super-slender, almost regardless of role. A person looking for a girlfriend who reads as "high status" has to date a super slender woman. Even in business, the more slender, the more professional.

In many clothing brands, I wear a size ten -- and I'd guess overall I'm near average size for women in North America. And yet if I go into Banana Republic or Ann Taylor -- stores that sell professional clothing for women -- there are literally no clothes there that fit me. They're cut in a way that no matter what the official size, they are seriously too small somewhere. It's crazy.

Somehow, this "status" norm which is not a sexiness norm has become engrained in people's attitudes. What I don't get, though, and what I think needs deeper and further analysis, is why, exactly? Why this?

People talk about the problem being the fashion industry and how they use so many super-slender models. That's certainly a thing -- but do you think that is a sufficient explanation? Like, if tomorrow morning Vogue had people of different sizes and shapes that would change things?

Much as I'd love to see the fashion industry change, I find it hard to believe that they are the main movers behind this status trend. Many of the people most invested in it -- like businessmen with high-status super-slender wives -- don't even seem like they would encounter fashion magazines.

It's often said, and certainly it's true, that beauty norms reflect what-money-can-buy, so for instance when there's not a lot of food around, bigness is more appreciated. In this way of looking at the problem, it's because money can buy you slenderness that slenderness seems attractive.

Again -- does this really seem like a sufficient explanation? For one thing, for many people slenderness -- and especially super-slenderness -- are not things money can buy. They're just things you're born with a tendency to. It's seems more like slenderness is rewarded with money than that money buys slenderness.

It might be that the answer has something to do with imperialism and racism. Like, the body that becomes the status body is the one that is highly correlated with life in western colonizing hegemony: thus white, blond, and thin.

This, I think, is among the most promising explanatory directions, but it leaves a lot still unexplained. Why, for example, do we have the current trend, away from the size six models of the 1980s, and toward the size zero ones of today?  Why are models often so thin they have to be airbrushed to remove signs of ribs and bones? And this while the actual bodies of the western imperialist countries are getting bigger and bigger?

I think there are deep things here about femininity, and differentiation from men, and power, all linked up with the the other matters already mentioned. In my darkest moments, I think it seems like a hatred of femaleness itself. But really, I don't know.

Since I can't shop at Ann Taylor I often go to LOFT which is owned by Ann Taylor but creates clothing with a different cut -- a cut that happens to fit me. More than once I've been told by salespeople that the relationship between the stories is that Ann Taylor is more "upscale," more elegant, dressier, while LOFT is casual. And I'm always like, "How does having a certain body type translate directly into not being "upscale"? 

It's a seriously strange situation.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Addyi, Desire, And The Social Control Of Women's Sexuality


This week I'm writing about Addyi, which I realize makes me like two months behind the targeted moment for writing about things, but what can I say? Speed is not the philosopher's main strong point.

Addyi, of course, is the libido pill for women, the "female Viagra." You don't need Forbes.com to explain why the particulars are likely to make it less than a blockbuster. As the NYT says, "In one trial, women who took the drug had an average of 4.4 “satisfying sexual experiences a month” compared with 3.7 for women given a placebo." On average it might increase the number from 2-3 per month to 3-4.

No one is more in favor of one more satisfying sexual event per month than I am, and if that were the end of the story, I'd be like, Great, knock yourselves out. But Addyi comes with serious potential side effects, including severely low blood pressure and loss of consciousness. Plus, you're not supposed to take it while drinking alcohol. And on top of everything else? You have to take it every day, at a cost -- to someone anyway -- of 400 dollars per month.

As I understand it, for some women the drug is much more effective than "one more per month" and overall it's good news that women will have the option of taking this drug. But so much about the way this drug is described, promoted, and understood is annoying.

First, there's this constant reference to "libido," "desire," and "sex drive." As is frequently pointed out, Viagra doesn't directly cause desire: it just enables more blood flow to the penis so a man can get an erection. Addyi targets the brain, the aim being to create an effect of desire. The implication is that lack of desire is the problem.

But many women don't experience sexual desire as a drive, a hunger from nowhere. They experience it in response to things. This is called "responsive desire" -- as opposed to "spontaneous desire" -- and there's nothing wrong with it at all. Unless, of course, you think the way men do things is the only appropriate way to do them.

Second, this point about desire really brings home the weirdness of measuring success in terms of "satisfying sexual encounters." In women with responsive desire, this makes it seem like the success of the drug is basically that you get to skip the activities that cause responsive desire -- like, I don't know, talking quietly, snuggling, foreplay, clean sheets, whatever -- and get straight to the action. 

This reminds me of Rachel Maines' great book The Technology of Orgasm. Maines tells an astonishing story about how vibrators were introduced as labor-saving devices for physicians to treat female hysteria: instead of having to repetitively rub their hands between a woman's legs for ever and ever -- so boring! -- doctors could use the vibrator. Voilà! Hysteria cured in minutes. I think Haines describes the vibrator as doing "the job that no one else wanted."

Speaking of vibrators, does "satisfying sexual encounters" include masturbation? I don't know.

Finally, I don't know if you read this article by Daniel Bergner in the New York Times a couple of years ago. It's about the ongoing search for the female Viagra. And much of the article fits with what I've already said: women seeking out out the drug in clinical trials describe feeling deficient because, while they have responsive desire and pleasure in sex, they don't have spontaneous desire -- that "drive" associated with the masculine pattern of lust.

Bergner has a fascinating discussion of the interplay of issues having to do with long-term monogamy and the drive of lust, pointing out that empirically, while women and men both tend to experience this drive at the start of a new relationship, that drive fades for women much faster than for men: a new partner is often something that reignites that feeling of spontaneous desire for women.

As an aside here: it kills me how these facts are not interpreted as challenging the standard socio-biology idea of women as naturally monogamous and are taken instead to prove that men's drive is just that much stronger overall. Your theory predicts P and the evidence says not-P, and you're like, Well, P anyway, just something else is going on. Obviously, social investment in the natural monogamy of women is intense.

Toward the end, Bergner talks about social views of women's sexuality, and how they affect development of these drugs. Basically, the aim is for the effects to be "good but not too good." Bergner describes one researcher being "a bit stunned by the entrenched mores that lay within what he’d heard" in discussions, concluding that "there’s a bias against -- a fear of creating the sexually aggressive woman."

One day, you're mechanizing the process of treating hysteria by rubbing women between the legs in doctors offices. A few years later you're psychopharmasizing to get the perfect female desire: not too much, not too little, not for the wrong people, and not requiring time consuming interventions like conversation, attention, and a light sense of touch.

Plus ça change.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Memory, Materiality, And An Autographed Photo Of Bert And Ernie


When I was twelve or thirteen years old, my father sent a letter and some paper clips to Bert -- you know, of "Bert and Ernie" -- and got back a signed 8 by 10 inch glossy photo of the two of them, and scrawled across it it said, "Dear Pat, Thanks for the paperclips. They were really keen. Love, Bert."

Even though he was born in 1935 and was thus outside the target demographic, my father loved Sesame Street. He especially loved certain muppets, and especially Oscar the Grouch and Bert. At his University office, where he was Dean of Engineering, he had Oscar and Bert finger puppets out on the desk.

The reasons for my father's love were probably complex. He'd grown up very poor in a family of Italian immigrants, with all kinds of associated miseries, instabilities, and frightening things, and so in one way he loved anything that suggested safety, predictability, warmth, and cleanliness. When he got home from work he'd turn on Mister Rogers. For a time we made yearly pilgrimages to Disney World -- a place where American capitalism enabled us to meet seemingly disparate entertainment goals: my goal of kid-fun, and his goal of seeing the trains run on time. Of course he'd love Sesame Street.

But I'd guess that my father's love for Bert and Oscar was also very specific. He appreciated Oscar's deep contrariness -- the need to be mad and sour when everyone was saying what a sunny day it was. My father was, after all, a man who rooted for The Yankees the whole time we lived near Boston -- just to be a pain in the ass.

With Bert, I'm sure my father admired Bert's nerdiness, way before nerdiness was a self-identification. My father liked to collect color charts for car options, and he kept them in three-ring binders that he'd take down and carefully peruse every so often. He liked to do his taxes, and once caused a ruckus by bringing them to an afternoon family affair to work on.

My father was a fanatic for office stationary of all kinds, and the paperclips were special ones from Germany. They were plastic and colorful and shaped in a funny surprising way. Maybe you don't remember that Bert had a paperclip collection, but he did, so my father put some in an envelope with a letter for Bert saying these were for his collection and he put his work return address: "Dean of Engineering, such-and-so College."

That he got back a signed and personalized photo with reference to the actual paperclips just killed me, I thought it was so awesome and funny. I loved imagining some Sesame Street personnel taking the time to consider the gift and think about the recipient. I loved that they thought a signed glossy with a message scrawled across it was just the thing. I loved that the writing was made to look childlike.

I was thinking about this signed glossy photo of Ernie and Bert this week because Frank Oz was the guest on Wait Wait Don't Tell Me and he's the guy who voices Bert and they all got talking about Bert's personality. And I remembered with sharp pang that the photo doesn't exist any more. It was lost in a fire in 1994, when I was in my twenties and a fire that started in the middle of the night ended up burning our entire apartment building down to the ground.

My father died when I was fifteen, which meant it had already been years since he'd died. I carried that photo around with me, and I talked about it all the time, and I told everyone I knew about how my father had sent paperclips to Bert for his collection.

Especially since the fire, I am usually the kind of person who doesn't care much about things and stuff. I can't deal with clutter. I like to throw things away. I don't keep memorabilia.

But the memory of this photo gave me pause. I feel like I would really, really like to have this photo -- to have it materially and not have just the memory of it.

Normally for me, the memory is enough. But now I think about this photo and there are things I feel I need to see again. Did Bert really say "keen" or might have been "neat"? Did Bert have his eyebrows in his characteristic frowny expression, or were they raised in his characteristic "surprised" mode? Am I remember the block-like childish writing correctly?

As a committed anti-disposophobe, I hate to think that it's the actual material object -- the object, which so cluttery, so easily lost, so fragile, so prone to decomposition, and so ephemeral -- that matters. But I think it might be true.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Sexual Intrusion And Sexual Harm: How Bad Is Bad?

One time ages ago I was listening to a podcast, and this guy told a story about how his wife had been shown some pornographic pictures and how he, the narrator, had completely lost his shit.

As I recall it, they were at some kind of large event -- selling small items or something, at some large theme-oriented fair, or something like that. They'd been separated when the guy went to get food for lunch, leaving the woman in charge of their area, and a stranger, another guy, had approached the woman and started talking to her. Then, just a couple minutes in, the stranger had taken out his cell phone and said "look at this" and showed her some pornographic photos, including, if memory serves, some of naked men with erections. Then he had run off.

At least as the narrator told the story, the narrator's wife was very, very, very, very upset. She was frightened and disturbed. She felt violated. She felt like she'd been the victim of a kind of sexual attack. When the narrator found out what happened he flipped out. He tore off to find the culprit, with the intention of physically attacking him. 

The rest of the story was about how the narrator had come to terms with his rage before he hurt the stranger, and the point of the story was about anger and self-control and not hurting people. But the part that stuck with me was the part about the woman feeling so violated.

It stuck with me because I couldn't imagine feeling so upset about something like that. I'm not judging her reaction or anything -- she has the right to her feelings and worldview. It's just so different from my own feelings and worldview.

I just can't picture dirty pictures having that effect on me. I suppose if there were no people around and a guy did that and then stuck around I'd feel frightened. Certain guys in certain sexually charged situations can become scary pretty fast, as I wrote about in this post about being in a lingerie store with a nervous guy, because they give you the feeling they're going to fly off the handle. But this story didn't seem to have those aspects at all. They were in a big crowd. He showed the pictures and ran off.

Together my friend and I run the Society for the Philosophy of Sex and Love, and occasionally people send us things that are weird or inappropriate or whatever. One time someone sent a long series of photos of himself in various poses, in various themed bits of costume, showcasing his penis in a variety of moods. Far from being shocked and upset, I was inclined to view this email somewhat in the light of a gift: it made me laugh, and when I showed it to my friends it made them laugh.

The wide range of different reactions people have to things like this is, I believe, one reason we find it so hard to come to conclusions about the moral quality of actions like the stranger-with-the-phone. I mean, what he did was wrong, and not nice. Sure. But was it a little wrong? Or very very wrong?



I feel like people often a sense there should be some kind of general answer to these kinds of questions, like we should be able to work out a moral principle, with a clear and justified bright line, and apply it across the board. But I doubt that's possible, partly because what causes sexual harm to people is so variable.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Writing Ruins Everything

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Portrait of a Woman, via Wikimedia Commons

There's a whole school of thought out there that says writing can be a form of therapy: if you experienced something bad or complicated or painful, you can write about it, and this will allow you to process your feelings and move on.

I never thought much about this idea until recently, because -- well, I'm not sure why, but part of the reason is probably that when I feel discouraged or unhappy in a substantive way, it's almost never consciously linked in my mind to something that happened in the past. It almost always takes the form more of general melancholia/what's-the-point/this-goddamn-vale-of-tears and not oh-this-thing-that-happened. Writing about that would just be blah-blah-blah-blah-blah.

I had occasion to think about it recently, though. For reasons having nothing to do with therapy and everything to do with oh-maybe-that-would-be-interesting-and-fun, I took a couple of memoir writing classes through the Gotham Writers Workshop. To my surprise, I found that writing about things made me experience them in a worse way.

For example, for one assignment I wrote a really short piece about how when I see an ambulance rushing somewhere with its siren on, I'm often reminded with a jolt of the night my father had a heart attack, when I was fifteen. Because we lived in a condo complex with complicated intertwined streets, as the ambulance was on its way the suggestion was made that I should walk through the dark quiet streets to the entrance to flag them down and show them the way to the house. And that's what I did.

I wrote about this experience, and I wrote about learning a few hours later that he had died. I wrote about how when I would see an ambulance on its way somewhere, I would often be cast momentarily back to the fear and sadness of that night, and I would picture some other family, waiting for this ambulance, and I would imagine their fear and sadness. I wrote about how I would often then be briefly suspended in time, reminded of the fragility of human life and human happiness.

The teacher liked the piece. She suggested I might submit it to be published, in an online literary forum for very short pieces, after making some revisions. As I made the revisions, I had a mix of feelings. The changes were improving the writing as a piece of writing, but at the same time, I felt like crafting the narrative into the right sort of narrative meant shifting my understanding and perception of what had happened and how it had felt.

Its a recurring problem for me with writing. When it comes to memoir, the shaping of a narrative feels a lot like lying. Every piece I ended up writing for those courses, I felt like I had to turn a series of "well, I don't know, there was this, but there was also that"; things were happening that were unrelated but felt important; who-the-hell-knows-what-is-going-on into some story about How I Changed or What I Learned.

After all that narrative shaping, I felt like I had trouble getting the confusingness of the original memories back. Instead, I had these new memories, organized in a neater, tidier, more standardized, more McMuffin kind of way.

It was like the old messy and less interpreted memories had been overwritten.

After I revised the short piece about ambulances, I submitted it to the forum my teacher had suggested. A couple of weeks later they rejected it. Honestly, when I found out it was rejected, I wasn't as disappointed as I'd thought I'd be -- I almost had a sense of relief that the mood of that piece wasn't a mood I'd be putting out into the world. But still. Being rejected always sucks.

Now when I see an ambulance, instead of thinking about fear and sadness and the fragility of life, I'm reminded instead of writing this piece, and I'm reminded of the experience of having it rejected.

In a way you might think this would be an improvement, replacing a very painful and sad memory with a merely annoying one. But it doesn't feel like an improvement at all. It feels like a total loss.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Happy Labor Day And See You All Next Week

Hello readers, partly because I spent the weekend at this mini-conference at William and Mary honoring philosopher Alan Goldman, I regret to say I won't be able to post today. I can, however, share this picture of a large insect that I took while I was visiting Williamsburg. Doesn't it look like it has a teeny tiny smiley face?



I hope everyone is enjoying labor day! I'll see you all back here next Monday. 

Monday, August 31, 2015

Guest Post: Regulating Mobile Dating Apps

This guest post is by Chris Grisdale 
Twitter: @Cgrisdale Instagram: chrisgrisdale

From a certain point of view, mobile dating applications are a kind of trading floor—exchanges where personal profiles, not companies, are listed. And while Stock Exchanges have been with us for a long time, dating applications relatively recent. The Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX) has provided space for companies to access the public capital markets since 1861. Mobile phone applications like Tinder and Grindr have only provided a meeting point for the “love market” since 2009. 


Tinder and Grindr solve an old relationship problem known as “settling.” You know the scenario: two years ago your friend quietly whispers, “she could have done so much better” referring to you at a cocktail party and now you find yourself sympathizing. While our parents might have to live with the nagging feeling that their partner could have been more physically attractive, better educated or wealthier had they greater exposure in the “love market,” our generation doesn’t have the same problem. Sure, the problem of how long a person should stay on the market remains, but these applications create unprecedented exposure—there are more people to meet.  Better bargains are struck; fewer traders accept below market value.

There are market perils. While securities laws regulate access to public capital markets, it is worth wondering whether public access to the romance markets should also be regulated. And if so, what regulation is appropriate?

The principle means of regulating the public capital markets is through the prospectus, which requires a company to give full and complete disclosure of any matter material of the company, updated through a continuous disclosure regime. A company going public has to take steps to discover all the material information, and once public has to continue to account. Our real estate market, however, is still principally governed by the rule of caveat emptor—buyer be-ware. The rule puts the risk on the buyer. It’s the buyer’s responsibility to inspect the goods, not the seller’s duty to disclose material information. One exception, to the rule is a known latent defect. It’s illegal for a seller that knows of an invisible defect to not disclose it. But the exception does not impose a positive obligation to uncover problems.



Participants in the love markets often provide insufficient or inaccurate information because, in the course of a transaction, it may not be in the interests of a party to provide full or accurate information to the other. In the market for love, an informational failure spans from the banal to the serious. At best a party wastes time on a coffee because the counterparty’s profile inaccurately reflects their true assets and liabilities—the worst version of this is the catfish scenario. At worst there’s risks associated with sexually transmitted infections.

Occasionally a counterparty will purposefully use outdated and inaccurate photographs—be wary of instagram filters. The strategy is simple: entice a potential counterparty to incur a sunk cost, in this case, time. Once you’ve met for coffee, you’re not likely to immediately leave. You’re there for at least 30 minutes to an hour. Once you’re in for a penny, you’re in for a pound. But this strategy is only successful when the inaccuracies don’t deviate too far from the true value.

According to the Urban Dictionary a catfish is a person who pretends to be someone their not to pursue deceptive online romances. MTV capitalized on the catfish phenomenon with the reality show Catfish that films the public exposure of false online identities for all our amusement.

But from the legal point of view, perhaps the most interesting disclosure issue is whether legal liability arises from the failure to accurately disclose the existence of sexually transmitted infections. If we followed the securities regulation approach on this issue, we might impose a positive obligation to get tested and disclose the status to participating in these trading floors. Where we, however, to take a caveat emptor approach liability would only arise when the seller has knowledge of a sexually transmitted infection. Current law errs on the side of caveat emptor.

While the securities approach seems too harsh, the caveat emptor rule seems like bad public policy. People are less inclined to get tested.

Monday, August 24, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 17, 2015

What Is Femininity, Anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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