Monday, May 25, 2015

Favors and Gender and Helping: It's Complicated


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Monday, May 18, 2015

Life-Planning: The Anti-Theory Theory

From the US Dept of Transportation website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honestly? I have no idea.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Accidental Philosopher Photographs Some Things, Part 2

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

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


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


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



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


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


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


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

Monday, May 4, 2015

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

A proposed settlement from the Mars One website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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