Tuesday, July 13, 2021

The Subjectivity Of Everything: Music And Math Edition

Recently from a combination of world-weariness, pandemic-weariness, and me-weariness, I was seized by a desire to think about something abstract, useless, inert, and intellectually challenging. "I know what I'll do," I thought. "I'll buy a book about math."

I went to a small bookstore and asked, "Do you have a math section?" No. But there among the science books I came upon Music By the Numbers by math historian Eli Maor. I thought it would be about music theory and the mathematical underpinnings of classical music structures -- something I vaguely remember being interested in when I read about it in Gödel, Escher, Bach as a teenager forty years ago. But it was more about the fundamental mechanics of western music's organization of sound. Where did all these notes come from?

I knew that with a string, half as long means an octave higher. What I learned first is that the Pythagoreans and their followers based an entire scale on their idea of pleasing fractional intervals. The full story is a bit complicated, but taking fourths and fifths as a starting point, you can create a scale with a version of the "whole tone" interval we're familiar with (C to D, for example) based on a 9/8 ratio of a note to its predecessor (and a half-tone with ratio 256/243).

Maor says that while this way of creating a scale is mathematically elegant, it is out of step with the pitches produced in harmonic overtones -- and thus with the fundamentals of acoustics itself. From a philosophical point of view, Maor argues that their obsession with formal beauty led Pythagorean followers into a self-circular mathematical maze: by insisting on mathematical simplicity, pleasing ratios, and no irrational numbers, they "subject[ed] the laws of nature to their ideals of beauty."

But the more amazing moment for me came later, when I learned about tempering. As I kid, I knew about Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, and I used to enjoy imagining that the well-tempered clavier had replaced a sour and irritable keyboard instrument known as "the ill-tempered clavier." But in all these years, I never learned what tempering is.

The background for tempering in the Western context happened around 1550, when a new scale was created bringing in intervals of thirds and their inversions. This "just-intonation" scale has intervals close to the ones we'd find on a modern piano. Maor argues that as it is based on the first six members of the natural harmonic series, and has pitches corresponding to the natural harmonics of musical instruments, it is acoustically and empirically superior to the Pythagorean scale. You could say that it has formalism that is not so much mathematical but rather musical.

However: a crucial feature of the just-intonation scale is that not all the tone ratios are the same. For example, in a C-major scale, the ratio of C to D would be 9/8 and from D to E, 10/9.

From a musical point of view, Maor argues, this is as it should be. It's from the practical and social point of view that these differences became a problem. For instruments with keyboards and fixed holes, a just-intonation tuning in one key will have notes at slightly different pitches from those in another key. Increasingly, people wanted to play together, with multiple instruments all at once. What if a group wants to play one piece in one key and another in another? The workarounds were complicated: early harpsichords had multiple keyboards, each tuned to a different key, for pieces written in different key signatures.

"Tempering," then, is creating a scale with even divisions, all the same. You just divide the octave into 12 equal semitones. Now all the instruments can play together, and playing in C is the same set of notes as playing in any other key.

Math people may already see that, unlike the just-intonation scale, the ratio of a note to its predecessor in the tempered scale is based on irrational numbers -- numbers that cannot be expressed as fractions. Having even divisions requires dividing the scale into equal parts -- in this case, 12 equal half-tones -- and to be equal, each ratio between a note and its predecessor in the sale would have to be the twelfth root of 2 to 1.

Maor: "This irrational number would have been regarded with horror by the Pythagoreans, as it cannot be written as a ratio of integers." !!!

Leaving aside Pythagorean worries, Maor describes tempering as "an acceptable compromise" between "the dictates of musical harmony" and "the practicality of playing a piece on the keyboard." The difference between the tempered semi-tone and the just-intonation semi-tone is just barely within what human ears can discern, a difference "most musicians were willing to live with." Maor alludes to a suggestion that Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier was partly PR: written to convince his fellow musicians of the benefits of this sociable way of organizing everything.

I found myself astonished by idea that the structural simplicity I associate with piano keys is the result of an "acceptable compromise" to solve practical problems of musicians playing together.

From a personal point of view, I guess I thought that the Western division of the octave into 12 equal semitones was somehow linked to the fundamental structure of music and sound. Not that it was the only way to exploit that structure -- I've always known that non-Western music was organized differently -- but that it was one way. Now this book says not only is that not so, but it's even weirder: there is structure of music and sound, and those equal piano divisions are really, deeply, not it.

From a philosophical point of view, the analysis provides an interesting reminder about the subjectivity of concepts like simplicity and elegance. For the Pythagoreans, these concepts translated to rationality. For the just-intonation fans, they relate to harmonics and ratios. For the temperers, it's like brute force to make it work -- hey, make 12 that are exactly the same, whether they are rational or not.

From a mathematical point of view, it's striking to see how slippery the difference between natural numbers and other numbers can be. The nineteenth-century mathematician Leopold Kroeneker is famous for having said "God made the integers; all else is the work of man." But when you can describe the tempered scale in terms of "12 equal divisions" or "12 irrational tone ratios" -- well, things start to seem less clear. Even in math, simplicity and elegance can mean one thing in one context and another in another.

From a sociological point of view, I found myself wondering: did books like this used to be more common, or more talked about, or something? I feel like Gödel, Escher Bach was a bit splash of a book, right around the time of other math books like the Gleick book Chaos. But now my bookstore doesn't even have a math section. Did the world change, or is it something about me that's different?

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Advice Of The Pandemic, Ranked!

Among the by-products of the pandemic has been a tsunami of advice, especially about living your best life in lockdown. Was it any good?

Advice: if you're working from home, keep your routines

Early on, the news reports were that people working from home were flailing: cleaning the kitchen when they should be working, bingeing shows when they should be eating, eating when they should be cleaning the kitchen. Was this ever true, or was it just irresistible to imagine people collectively unable to get their shit together?

The advice was predictable and perfectly capitalistic. Keep your routines, they said. If you usually dress up and wear full make-up to work, get up in time to dress up and do your make-up, they said. If you usually commute to work, walk around the apartment for 30 minutes before you sit down at your desk. Take a virtual coffee break with your co-workers.

I thought to myself: who would be so stupid as to add the old burdens of their old life to the new burdens of their new life? Me, I worked in my exercise clothes and took naps over lunch. Did this advice work for anyone?



Verdict: terrible.

Advice: go easy on yourself
This one is complicated because clearly, for some people, "go easy on yourself" was the perfect advice. I'm here to tell you about the rest of us.

As for so many people, in March 2020 my job became an endless series of Zoom-style meetings, unanticipated problems, and difficult conversations. Early on, I thought "I'll go easy on myself" -- instead of trying to do things during weekends or early evenings, I'd spend the time "resting" or "hanging out."

Three weeks of this and I was mired in despair. My always-present sense of my life drifting away and passing me by intensified; thoughts in the "what am I doing and what is the point anyway" category buzzed around my brain like a bunch of gnats. I felt the mold between the bathroom tiles mocking me. With extra free time, my irrational body self-criticism meter ramped up from the blue "Guarded" category into the orange "High Alert!" range.

The advice to go easy often reminds me of some advice my mother once gave me about cleaning. I was complaining that on the occasions when I was on my own and cooking, I hated having to cook *and* having to clean up, which does feel to me like an outrageous burden at the end of a long day. My mom -- whose motto in life was "If you don't want to, you don't have to" -- told me I should clean up the dishes in the morning, and that if I didn't want to wake up to a messy kitchen, I should just "put the dishes in the oven" after dinner. I'm sorry, but dirty dishes in the oven? What kind of a bizarre suggestion is this?

Anyway, to stay sane in the pandemic, I switched into "mental discipline" mode. I scrubbed the floors. I did a zillion live-stream workout, yoga, and ballet classes. I made an elaborate system of calendar alerts. I recommitted to Duolingo.

Obviously, for some people this particular challenge didn't arise, because they were working massive hours or juggling child care or whatever, and obviously "go easy on yourself" makes total sense in that context. For other people, "go easy on yourself" was just what they needed to hear for whatever reason. It just didn't work for me.  

I feel like there's a lot of pointless social aggression out there between the "go easy" people and the "mental discipline" people. Can we please have a détente on this issue?

Verdict: variable.

Advice: create a Zoom social spot

This is the idea that if your job is virtual meetings and your social life is virtual meetings, you should do those two things in two different physical spaces in your home.

I love this advice, because it is geared toward people with lizard brains and I am 100 percent a person with lizard brain.

Virtual interactions give me a special kind of social anxiety. I'm not sure why, but one possibility is that when I'm with people, I'm used to relying a lot on subtle physical and facial cues in figuring out how to interact. Also, I feel like in a room with people, I enjoy the small pauses and silences -- I've always been good at being together and being quiet -- but somehow on a screen, I feel like I have to fill the air with talk, like some kind of demented TV show host. Ugh.

Because I have lizard brain, the layers of Zoom-social-anxiety particular to work-Zoom are queued right up for me when I'm in my work spot -- the chair, the wall behind me appearing on my own screen, the light bouncing off the desk in just such a way. What a relief to take the laptop to the dinner table for the friend-Zoom!

Verdict: the best.
 

Monday, April 12, 2021

Why Do I Care About The Gender Of Elena Ferrante?

When I first encountered the kerfuffle around the true identity of the novelist Elena Ferrante, I had two immediate and diametrically opposed reactions. First, smugness: I never concern myself with the autobiographical details of authors I love. So who cares? Second, freak out: wait, "Elena Ferrante" might not be a woman?

Normally I use mental discipline to avoid finding out about fiction writers. If I love a novel, thinking about which parts might be based on real life leads me down a mental rabbit hole of pointless philosophical questions. "If that part is real, did it really happen like that? Or is the author changing the details to manipulate me into feeling one way or another about a thing?" Then I'm like "What do you mean, 'manipulating,' anyway"? Talk about pointless and dumb.

However, I have also been shaken to learn certain facts about books I love, especially books representing the experience of women, especially books representing the experience of women and sexuality.

As a young person, I fell in love with Colette, the early twentieth-century French writer whose work and life challenged gender norms and all other kinds of conventions. Colette is best known now for the book that inspired the movie Gigi, but if that's all you know about Colette then you have the wrong idea -- as so often happens, the novel is darker, weirder, and more interesting. Colette is also famous for her many short stories. But the books I feel hardest for were the Claudine series.  

Over the course of the four Claudine books, Claudine grows from a precocious and rambunctious fifteen-year-old into a comfortably bourgeois but also free-thinking and unconventional adult. The first book, Claudine at School, gives an amusing side-on look at French social life in the provinces and the complex emotions of mid-adolescent feminine life. Among other complexities, Claudine has a massive crush on her young school teacher Aimée; they have a budding sensual romance when Aimée throws her over for the head schoolmistress, mystifying Claudine and giving her minor heartbreak. Aimée's younger sister Luce develops an unreciprocated love for Claudine, who doesn't understand her own desire to hurt Luce and cause her pain.

The way Claudine has romantic feelings for women and men and the way at fifteen she is both highly sensual and also a child both profoundly resonate with me. So I was disturbed to learn that the first version of Claudine at School may have been a more chaste and childlike story, and that Claudine's husband -- the writer Willy, who first told her to write up her memories and initially published the Claudine books under his own name (!), may have told her to tart them up, to liven them up with sex. I don't have sophisticated thoughts about this, but the idea that my favorite things were in there because some guy wanted them in there made me feel sad and weird.

Then a similar thing happened with erotic novel Story of O. That's not a book I loved (and the kind of submission/dominance thing in that book is not my kind of thing), but I always appreciated Story of O as a frank and explicit presentation of a certain version of positive sexuality from a woman's point of view. How many stories depict a woman being sexually adventurous and just basically enjoying it and having a great time? It's not a lot.

So, again, I was unsettled to learn late in life that while the author is a woman, the book may have been originally written for a man. That is, the author was in a relationship with a man, and wanted to get his attention, to turn him on, and to flirt with him. Again, I don't have sophisticated thoughts about this, but I find it disappointing to think that this, too, like so many things depicting women's sexuality, was ultimately crafted to appeal to a man's taste.

I loved Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, and I found The Days of Abandonment conveyed vividly what if feels like to be trapped in your life and in despair. Like Claudine at School, The Lying Life of Adults shows a textured experience of girlhood-womanhood adolescence.

It's been suggested that Ferrante may be a woman, or may not be a woman, or may be a woman and a man writing together. I feel like there's some sense in which I shouldn't care: the books are the books whoever the author is, and Ferrante herself has suggested that it's misogyny and sexism that makes people want to know.

But I also can't shake the feeling that the thoughts and feelings of people who aren't women so often affect what gets presented as the truth about women. It happens in pornography, it happens in movies, and it happens in books; given the way social gender norms work, it probably happens whenever there is an audience. While the books are the books whoever the author is, I also don't want the books by Elena Ferrante to be another example where the tastes, attitudes, and feelings of people who are not women are shaping narratives of our woman- and girl-hood experience.

Monday, February 22, 2021

What Compelled Me to Reread Dracula During Lockdown?

I don't know how it started, but I think it was something in the NYT crossword, something to do with Keanu Reeves. My partner said, "Keanu Reeves was in Dracula." Wait, what? From the miracle of modern self-surveillance, I know that I looked it up and learned that Keanu Reeves did not play Dracula (thank god) but rather Jonathan Harker, the lawyer. Whether Gary Oldman is any less WTF as Dracula I leave as an exercise to the reader.

I have a long history with Dracula, a book that obsessed my father when I was a kid. My father was the kind of guy where a lot of things were like 80 percent jokes and 20 percent serious and others were 20 percent jokes and 80 percent serious and it was always a little murky, probably even in his own mind, where we stood on things. After his annual rereading, my father would sleep with garlic under his pillow out of fear. You might think that's the 80 percent joke, but this was a man whose nightmares tended to actual devils actually chasing him, so I'm not so sure.

Later, I had the widely shared adolescent girl experience of being "into" vampires, whatever that means. I watched the movie The Hunger over and over, and read a lot of Anne Rice. My first reading of Dracula, around that time, I had a vivid sense of the erotic in the vampires' ways -- you may not remember this, but these are literally described as "voluptuous" in the book. Poor Jonathan Harker, on meeting the women in the castle who want to drink his blood, describes their voluptuousness as "both thrilling and repulsive." I remembered the book as basically anti-vampire, but not in any particular way.

On this rereading, by contrast, I felt the full weight of the Christian anti-sex moralizing. As Lucy's appearance begins to shift toward the vampiric zone, her friends are disgusted by the new sensuality of her face; after they destroy her body to free her from Dracula's spell, they're thrilled to see her previous sweet, pure expression and physiognomy return. A "diabolical sweetness" allows vampires to express love and desire to seduce new recruits. I guess I'm as against killing people and sucking their blood as anyone else, but this framing struck me as depressing and dumb.

Rereading Dracula during lockdown, I couldn't help but notice that it's partly a travel book. The best part of the story is when Jonathan Harker first goes to Transylvania, ostensibly to help the Count with some clerical matters, and slowly gets caught up in Dracula's web. There are trains, and ships, and transfers to carriages, and rides on horses. I was like, "Oh yeah -- travel!" Of course, so much of that late nineteenth-century mode, of going to truly unknown places and being completely cut off from anything familiar, is totally lost to us now. These days, Jonathan Harker could read on Yelp, "Castle looks interesting but they will kill you and drink your blood. One star."

The most melancholy aspect of my reading experience was the way that it was stupidly mediated by all the ridiculous parodies, take-offs, and remakes of the Dracula story that I've encountered in my time. Chief among these was the 1979 film Love at First Bite, which as a kid I saw on TV multiple times and found hilarious and awesome. How could I not love a vampire movie that featured the classic disco song "I Love the Nightlife"? There's also Young Frankenstein, which takes place at a castle in Transylvania for who knows what reasons. Memories of those films made me see Renfield as an annoying twerp, the horses and wolves under Dracula's command as side-shows, and even the Count himself in the light of a ridiculous show-boater.

Overall, the whole thing was a sadder and less fun affair than I'd hoped it would be, though whether that's because I'm old, or because of lockdown, or because the book isn't really that good is totally unclear.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Enraged by Irritations: Human Nature Or Aristocratic Problem?

I don't know if you've read The Leopard -- the 1958 book by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa that tells a story of social change and the decline of the nobility in 19th-century Sicily through the narrative of the Salina family and its patriarch Don Fabrizio.

I love The Leopard. I love the sensuality of the narrative and of Don Fabrizio himself. I love the way Don Fabrizio admires and supports his nephew Tancredi, even though Tancredi represents the decline of the Salina's social class. I love the way that Don Fabrizio's real interest, and true comfort, lies in astronomy and mathematics.

At one point in the story, Father Pirrone - a priest who lives with the Salina family -- is asked to reflect on what the aristocrats think about then coming shifts in social equality. And he tries to answer, he gets caught up in a long and rambling response because he doesn't know how to explain how the nobility see the world and how different it is.

In trying to express the incomprehensibility what the nobility care about and what they don't, he says "I've seen Don Fabrizio get quite testy, wise and serious though he is, because of a badly ironed collar to his shirt; and I know for certain that the Prince of Làscari didn't sleep for a whole night from rage because he was wrongly placed at one of the Viceroy's dinners."

Encountering that passage always gives me a shock of recognition in an uncomfortable way. Because I, too, am frequently thrown by small irritations. I went through a phase where if I was chopping vegetables and a small piece of something would fall on the floor, I would flip out, feel the world was against me. The problem of price stickers leaving sticky residue on elegant objects sends me into a tailspin. Sometimes I get dressed to go out, and realize my shoes won't work with the weather, and realize my outfit won't work with different shoes, and I get a complete feeling of despair come over me. Yesterday morning, my clothes hangers got tangled up and I was like OK, that's it, we're done.

I don't think I'm alone. I've seen friends in a rage because of coffee spilled on a shirt, or a glass dropped on the floor.

I used to buy into the orthodoxy of "underlying mood": that this kind of thing happens because there is an undercurrent of stress and anxiety so intense that the seeming OKness of the surface is a superficial layer, a paint job over roiling chaos. Sometimes that's true. You can always describe it that way if you want to. But often it doesn't feel that way to me. To me, it feels more like a plunge into the essential pointlessness and harrassingness of human existence, a plunge caused by the irritation itself, not requiring unusual life stress as a background condition.

At first, I was inclined to draw the conclusion that Father Pirrone's association of this experience with aristocracy was questionable. I'm not an aristocrat, and neither are my friends. But then I started wondering if maybe just being middle-class and white in North America was a kind of experience of aristocracy -- I mean, that the relevant background needs and social comforts are met at such a high general high level that our idea of what is a "problem" would be more similar to that of the Salina family than to the non-aristocrats of 19th century Sicily.

But then -- "on the third hand," as my mother liked to say -- I got to thinking, maybe Father Pirrone is wrong about it after all -- because what does Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa know about it? He was the last Prince of Lampedusa and owner of a hereditary agricultural estate. He has no special insights into whether being enraged by irritations is a special aristocrat thing or more a general human thing.

I used to have a lot less money than I do now, and for a time I was in difficult circumstances. I've been trying to remember whether I was just enraged by small irritations then as I am now. But I can't quite sort it out. In my mind's eye of that time, I'm just smoking a lot of cigarettes. I do remember that when I worked as a waitress, one of my tasks was to break cold feta cheese into crumbled feta cheese with my hands, and I hated the feeling so badly, I swore I'd never do that by choice. To this day, I use a knife to chop feta into little cubes.

So: enraged by irritations: human nature or aristocratic problem? I'm really not sure. Or -- maybe it's just me?

Monday, July 27, 2020

Trade-Offs Versus Optimization: Is Everything An Optimization Problem?

In my work on ethics, I'm what I think of as a "trade-off" person rather than an "optimize" person. In the informal sense, this means that I see conflicting and competing considerations and values all around, and I think the ethical task is often to figure out how to prioritize among various considerations, instead of thinking that the ethical task is to figure out what is good and then bring about as much of that as possible.

If your first thought is "Wait, how are those really different?" then you are right in lock step with what a lot of other people are thinking.


To me, on the face of it they seem very different. For example: when the pandemic led to conditions where not everyone could be treated because there weren't enough resources, ventilators, and so on, one system of decision-making would be to "maximize overall health by directing care toward those most likely to benefit the most from it." For example, give the resources you have to the people most likely to survive, in ways that maximize the additional healthy years they will live. This is an optimizing strategy as it identifies a good -- healthy years of life to come -- and frames choices as maximizing that good.

A problem with this optimizing strategy is that it leads to discriminatory effects. "Health years" of life is usually understood as meaning years of life without a disability, so other things being equal, a person with a disability would be less likely to be treated than a non-disabled person. Because of social injustice and oppression, Black people in the US often have worse health than white people; if they were therefore less likely to have good outcomes, they would be less prioritized for treatment. Poor people are much more likely to have underlying health conditions and thus would be less likely to be treated. 

The "trade-off" perspective, on the other hand, frames the problem as one in which there are a variety of considerations that have to be weighed and balanced. Producing good effects in the sense of future years of life might be one consideration, but fairness and justice would also be a consideration. You might decide to use subjective measures of quality of life in which having a disability does not make a life less good; you might explicitly bring-anti-racism into the picture. You have to come up with a way of proceeding that weighs multiple considerations against one another. It might be complicated, and you might have to use your judgment.

When I have talked about these issues in classes or at conferences, defending a trade-off approach, occasionally someone will say to me: "If you frame it properly, everything is an optimization problem." I take it they mean something like this: while maximizing healthy years is one way of optimizing, it is not the only way; whatever value you think is good you can run a maximizing strategy on it. For instance, if you think future years of life, fairness, justice and equality are all important, you can create some concept like "overall goodness" that incorporates all of these. Then you can just maximize that. So there isn't really any difference; trading-off is not a separate and different kind of thing; it's more just what you're trying to maximize.

In harmony with this idea, there is a technical result that any set of ethical judgements can be "consequentialized" -- that is, expressed as the result of an optimizing procedure.

So if you were thinking, "Wait, how are those really different?" the answer is that in some deep conceptual sense, maybe they are not really different.

OK. But then I think: what about the other senses -- the ones that are not the deep conceptual senses? Even if you *can* frame your approach in optimizing terms-- should you?

I think the answer to this question is often "No." The details are tricky and probably boring for most people, but here is a short version:

1) Both methods require moral judgment, in the sense of figuring out what is important and how important it is, but "optimizing" has a veneer of objectivity to it, like we're just number-crunching. News flash: we're never just number-crunching. Talking about "trade-offs" reminds us constantly that we're using our human judgment and our values to figure out what to do.

2) "Trade-off" reminds you immediately that no matter what you do, you may have lost something, so that even if you get the right balance something bad happened. The language of "optimizing," however, has unsettling connotation of "everything is all for the best." If you have to prioritize one person over another, and you make a good decision, but the other person dies, do you really want to say "well, that was optimal"? In fact, noticing that it wasn't optimal may prompt you to think or plan differently in the future -- e. g., trying to prevent people from getting sick in the first place.  

3) "Optimization" lends itself to methodologies where the inputs are easily measurable. Yes, you can optimize for things like justice and fairness and anti-oppression, in the sense that you can come to a judgment about what to do that honors those values in the way you think best in the circumstances. But, especially given 1), once you're in the optimization frame of mind, it's natural to start thinking that you're going to be more objective, precise, and accurate if you have numbers to put in -- something like, I don't know, estimates of "healthy future years lived." When those don't reflect the values you wanted to use, you'll end up coming to the wrong answer.

The pandemic and our responses to it are full of massively complex challenging questions: How should we balance protecting our health with the losses that come from lockdowns? How should we express our valuing of children's schooling with protecting everyone from harm? How far should we go in trying to eliminate COVID as opposed to just flattening the curve?

These questions have no easy answers and that's one reason we're all in dismay and disagreement about them. Talk of optimizing, even if conceptually sound, makes it seem like some of us are right and some of us are stupid, and makes us want to invest in computer science. Talk of trade-offs reminds us: honoring multiple values in complex circumstances is difficult and fraught, and it's values all the way down. 

Monday, June 29, 2020

Anti-Racist Values And Decision-Making On Campus

Like a lot of other universities around North America, my university has been talking over the last few weeks about anti-racism and what universities need to do to do better. Among other things, events included a workshop I attended last week. I've been thinking about an important point that the speaker made, which is if you say that you have anti-racist values (which universities do), then you have to put those values into practice, otherwise it's just talk. Success at putting those values into practice is manifested in practical outcomes, and can thus be seen and measured.

This point got me to thinking about the different ways that university systems work to create the outcomes that we do, in fact, experience and see. One thing that happens a lot in universities, to one degree or another, is that decisions are driven by undergraduate enrolment statistics. Departments and faculties get resources if they attract more students and majors. Departments and faculties die if they fail to attract students and majors. Individual classes run, or don't run, based on whether they attract students. As you can imagine, this can influence big decisions, like who gets hired to do what, and vast numbers of smaller decisions, like what gets on a syllabus.

This way of proceeding has always seemed to me a bit bizarre. Are we really going to let the decisions of a bunch of 18-22 year-olds -- and, the narrow slice of them who happen to go to university -- determine the direction of scholarly research and the ideas that a community invests in? This is nothing against young people -- it's just weird to have this tiny cross-section of society wield this enormous power over something that is quite important and complicated.

And even from an abstract point of view, you can see how this way of proceeding might tend away from, rather than toward, teaching and research focused on anti-racism and anti-oppression. Young white people may not want to confront their place in an unjust system. Almost all young people are pressured to study practical subjects. In universities without breadth requirements, students in STEM majors may feel they don't have time in their course schedule for other things. These pressures don't come just from anxious parents, they also come from the way our world is -- hyper competitive, capitalistic, etc. etc.

If I understand correctly, one way of framing decision-making based on enrolment goes something like this: undergraduate tuition pays the bills, so that is the income; a sensible organization of a system lines up the income and the expenses so that the one pays for the other in some linear kind of way.  I've even heard of universities where they say "you eat what you kill": the idea being that self-sufficiency market-based norms coordinating input and output should undergird university decision-making.

There is much to say about this, but what I want to focus on here is the veneer of objectivity and neutrality sometimes placed on this framing. Apportioning resources in a way that seems to line up supply with demand can seem like you are avoiding these problematic value-laden judgments. It may seem like you're taking a step back -- *we* aren't the ones making these decisions. It's just how things shake out when you look at the numbers.

But all ways of making decisions are value-laden and non-neutral. If you do a cost-benefit analysis, you're making judgments about how to weigh everyone's choices and what other values -- like justice -- you're ignoring. If you base everything on consent and individual liberty, you're making judgments that privilege the status quo, and that rule out rectification of historical injustice. The metaphor of the market rests on assumptions that what your customers want and need is what should be created, and that their sense of worth should inform yours.

As racialized people have been saying for a long time, the social structures in place that feel neutral or objective to those in the dominant social group are anything but, and often work to reinforce the injustices of the past.

Of course universities should factor into their decision-making what students are looking for. When they do so, they pay respect to certain values, including respect for student needs and student autonomy. The point here is just that other values matter too -- values that are distinct from these, and may conflict with them. If you say you care about these other values, you have to find a way to make room for them in practical decision-making at various levels, which can mean bringing judgment calls back into the picture.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Science, Judgment, And Authority In The Time Of Pandemic

The Coronavirus moment is reminding us all of the problems with the way we normally do things. Some of these problems have to do with the place of science in our practices, the way we talk to one another, and why we do what we do. These are just a few items that I have found extra personally irritating.

Masks of confusion
I know a lot of people are irritated by the way that we were told not to wear masks, because they were pointless and we'd all fuck it up and wear them wrong and cause mayhem, only to learn later that wearing masks actually works. And sure, I can spare a thought for that annoyance.

But for me, this been massively eclipsed by my feelings about the bizarre communication style about masks right now. Almost everything I read says something like "Here's what to do about masks" or "Here's where masks are mandatory" or "Here is the updated health policy on masks -- without explaining the reason people are being asked to wear masks.

Every public communication about masks should include a basic explanation that the use of basic non-fancy masks works because it prevents asymptomatic infected people from spreading the disease around. People do not know whether they are asymptomatic. So if they're going to be near people, they should wear a mask. Sure, it might help you avoid infection yourself, but that is not the main point.

There still seems to be massive basic confusion about this. I keep seeing people in comment sections saying how it's their choice how much they want to protect themselves, or that they're personally not worried about getting sick, or that only infected people should have to wear masks. Are health communicators being deliberately obscure about the collective responsibility angle, because they think people will assume it's self-interest and thus follow the rules? Are they leaving out the explanation because they think people will just follow the rule? Bad news for you, guys.

"Listen to the science"
This one is trickier, because of course, yes, I think we should base our decisions on the best scientific information that we have. But science alone tells you almost nothing about what to do in a pandemic, because everything you do is going to have complex ripple effects and you have to trade those off against one another. BCE (before Coronavirus era), I used to constantly bore people talking about how many people die every year from car crashes -- in 2016 alone, around 1.35 worldwide and over 37,000 in the US. But no one ever seriously suggests giving up driving.

Please note that I am not saying that the virus is comparable to driving! Clearly, it is much more dangerous. The point is just that structurally, we're always making collective and personal judgments about how much risk is OK for the things we want to do. One thing that's challenging in the Coronavirus case is that different people have different risk tolerance, and yet in the nature of a pandemic, we have to act together. That is a very difficult situation, but it's also one that isn't helped by saying "listen to the science."

Amateur epidemiologists around every corner

These fall into two categories: the data watchers and the microbiology obsessives. The data watchers are checking out the Johns Hopkins site to follow the numbers and see whether their preferred policy response is working and whether countries with leaders they hate are suffering. I'm guilty of this myself, relying on this cool visualization site to compare stats, form hypotheses, and rationalize my existing prejudices. As this Guardian article reminds us, though, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics: massive variation in how cases are counted, and when they are counted, and what counts as "dying from Coronavirus" means it will be years before we have any clear picture of what is happening.

Then there are the people who keep up to date on things like what size of particle travels by aerosol transmission. Whatever floats your boat, I guess -- but, as with most science, a few papers you download from a preprint server is probably not enough for a non-expert to make an informed opinion.

While these are my personal irritations, I will say one thing they have in common is that science, while crucial, is never the whole story: the world still needs judgment, communication, shared deliberation, and all those murky things you find over in the Arts and Humanities departments. So please, please don't destroy us and leave everything to the STEM people.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Policing Practices, Law and Economics, And The Values Of Justice And Efficiency


In the full story of how things in American policing became so completely fucked up, I would like to read an analysis that explores connections among 1) theoretical issues in the framework known as "law and economics," 2) local legal structures that appear to use policing to generate revenue, 3) policing practices, and 4) racism.

For those not up on these things, law and economics is a legal framework that understands laws through the lens of efficiency: good laws bring about good consequences. For example, laws related to civil wrongs could be crafted with an eye toward what would work most productively moving forward, rather than thinking about background rights and values like fairness. This framework emerged around the mid-twentieth century out of work by neo-classical economists (many at the University of Chicago) and legal theorists like the influential Richard Posner, and has a wide range of contemporary applications.

"Positive law and economics" is about explaining and predicting laws, with the hypothesis that, other things being equal, laws that produce efficiency will be adopted. "Normative law and economics" says that such laws not only would be adopted but should be adopted -- so that existing laws can be improved by being made more efficient.

What "efficiency" means here can be complex; it can be the maximizing efficiency of utilitarianism, in which the thing to do is the thing that brings about the best consequences overall, but more typically it is "Pareto efficiency" that is used -- a set up is Pareto efficient when there is no way to one person better off without making another person worse off.  (I wrote about various forms of efficiency here and here.)    

You might be thinking that it's odd to have a legal framework based on efficient future consequences rather than justice and fairness. I do too, though we won't have time to get into that here. If you're interested I recommend this excellent book review.

One can apply the theoretical approach of law and economics in a wide range of ways: even when it comes to something like "efficiency" and the "good" in "good consequences," for instance, you might be trying to promote preference-satisfaction or well-being or you might be trying to create, you know, actual money.

This last bit brings us to 2): legal structures that appear to use policing to generate revenue. This book review by the always brilliant Moe Tkacik explains the idea in vivid detail: the sanctions for crimes are set up so the accused have to pay; the state then raises money while leaders claim not to raise taxes. Judges become like tax-collectors whose subjects are in no position to complain.  

The theoretical connections can be a bit complex, but as I understand it, the reasoning goes  something like: if the fine for driving without a license is X dollars and you drive without a license, you must have in some sense preferred to drive over losing X dollars; the state can set the fine in such a way that it reaps more from the fine than it lost from the crime being committed. In this way the crime is disincentivized but the interaction is kind of a win-win, and is efficient all around.

And thus to 3: I remember after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, I kept seeing references to the ways that the over-policing of the citizens there could be traced partly to policing as a way to raise revenue. This post gives a great overview and explains: "In its 2015 report on policing in Ferguson following the killing of Michael Brown, the Civil Rights Division of the United States Justice Department concluded: “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community.”

And 4) now you add both individual and structural racism into the mix. Because of structural racism, Black people are much more likely to be poor and powerless than white people. The poorer and less powerful people are then over-policed and abused into becoming ATMs for the government's revenue needs. Among other things, modern algorithms for crime prediction and sentencing actually factor in past arrests so that the original injustice is perpetuated further. And, of course, individual racist police then have a framework for their abusive actions.

I don't know how all of these interrelate -- theoretical law and economics is complicated and I don't know how its theoretical development has impacted practices of policing-as-revenue. But I hope to have shown here why I see them as conceptually interconnected and mutually supporting.

Anyway, if you want to read something else on racialized impacts of framing laws in terms of future consequences instead of past actions, I cannot recommend enough this searing personal essay by classicist and political scientist Danielle Allen about her cousin Michael, who enters the criminal justice system as a result of minor crimes at age 15, gets derailed in life, and ends up dead -- murdered at a young age.  

From a theoretical point of view, proponents of efficiency-based reasoning sometimes cast "justice" as a kind of artificial virtue, something to be explained away, something that reflects prejudices of an evolutionary past, where punishments were needed to keep people in line and bring about good consequences. The implication is that once we see this, we can go right to the consequences and skip the justice part altogether. I don't know all the ways that 1)-4) interrelate, but I'm sure the part about skipping justice altogether must be wrong.

Monday, June 1, 2020

In Which I Venture Into The Thickets Of Data Science And Hume's Problem Of Induction

One of the things I started doing in the middle of lockdown was courses at Data Camp. I started with Machine Learning for Everyone, then moved on to Python for Beginners. In case this isn't your universe, Python is a programming language that is often used for data science.

I want to emphasize that I did not do this because I suddenly had "extra time" on my hands or because I was casting around for something to do. There are different lockdown experiences out there, and the "extra time" experience has not been my experience. For one thing, everything to do with my work seems to take four times as long as it did before.

Rather, the way my emotional life works, I often have a background sadness that I keep at bay through doing things. In normal life, the bustle of activity and the feeling of accomplishment are central to that process. With lockdown, there is no "bustle of activity." So accomplishing things -- or feeling like I am accomplishing things -- has become a huge thing. So why not learn something about data science?

The classes are excellent, with lots of examples and exercises. On encountering these, I immediately started thinking about data science and Hume's problem of induction.

One of the first examples that my course used to illustrate machine learning concepts had to do with predicting how much money a movie would make based on input factors like star power, budget, advertising, and so on. And I was like, "Wait, what"? Is the idea supposed to be using the data of the past to predict earnings in the future? But isn't the popularity of works of art always shifting and changing? Isn't art frequently based on novel ideas? Also, I thought the popularity of films was regarded as wildly unpredictable.

If you've studied philosophy, you won't be surprised to hear that my next thought was, "What about Hume's problem of induction"?

If you haven't: briefly, Hume's problem of induction is that inductive reasoning -- in which we go from past cases to generalities and the future -- always rests implicitly on an assumption that the future is going to be like the past. And yet we have no logical reason to believe that the future is going to be like the past. So inductive reasoning, which is at the core of basically all empirical science, has no justification. You might try saying "Hey, but the future has always been like the past." But to use that to solve the problem would mean applying the past to the future, and so would be induction, and so would be circular.  

You can see right off the bat that these are deep waters we are getting into, and I have to warn you that this is going to be the Phil 101 level version of things because I'm not a specialist in this area, I'm just a person thinking about data science. But I do remember from teaching Phil 101 that the point with Hume isn't just about a lack of certainty. It's no help to say that while we're not sure the future will be exactly like the past, we have reason to believe it will probably be like the past. Because whatever version of "probably" you come to, that judgment relies on thinking that in the future, things will occur with the likelihood that they did in the past. In other words, we're back with the circularity problem.

Anyway, I'd been wondering vaguely for a long time about social science and the problem of induction, and then I started thinking about data science and the problem of induction. In the context of social reality, Hume's problem starts to take on a practical urgency. Because when it comes to people, when is the future ever like the past? Our current moment seems designed to hammer this point home. Ha ha, you thought the future was going to be like the past? Guess again, suckers.

So like anyone else, I then googled "data science," and "Hume" and "problem of induction." (This is where I have to admit that my usual searching via Duck Duck Go got me nowhere and so I was forced to recall to mind the superiority of Google as a search engine).

I found this discussion, which gives a good overview, but which ends by saying that "instead of strictly rejecting or accepting, we can use inductive reasoning in a probable manner." But I didn't understand this, as I thought the problem applied to probabilistic reasoning as described above.

I also found this piece, which covers a lot of interesting territory but which concludes that AI works because "the problem of induction can be managed," which again, I didn't understand. 

So then I was like, Do I not know what is going on? So I went to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on the Problem of Induction. Yes, there are attempts to get around the problem of induction via "Arguing for a Probable Conclusion." Not surprisingly, the matter turns out to be very complicated, though I note that each subsection seems to end with the author of the article basically saying "this is why that doesn't really work."

Noticing that the entry points the reader also to "Philosophy of Statistics," I went there, and was fascinated to see in the first section:  "Arguably, much of the philosophy of statistics is about coping with this challenge [of the problem of induction], by providing a foundation of the procedures that statistics offers, or else by reinterpreting what statistics delivers so as to evade the challenge... It is debatable that philosophers of statistics are ultimately concerned with the delicate, even ethereal issue of the justification of induction. In fact, many philosophers and scientists accept the fallibility of statistics, and find it more important that statistical methods are understood and applied correctly." 

So at this point, I guess figuring out what I think about data science and the problem of induction will require some intense intellectual effort. I think it will be worth it though. The most interesting item I found in my searching argues that the real challenge that the problem of induction poses for data science is that people "change and grow morally and socially in non-transitive, non-linear ways."   

I agree, and I would add that social institutions and practices also change in complicated ways. We now get into the debate over whether there are simple and uniform laws that lie beneath what looks like social chaos, or whether people and their doings create novelty in ways that are inherently impossible to pin down. You may not be surprised to hear I tend toward the latter view, not because I think free will lies outside the laws of the universe, but more because the creativity and complexity of humans isn't susceptible to that kind of generalizing thinking.

The topic is complex. But on my side can I present the wild success of Parasite, surely a film whose budget and star power would never have led to predictions for its success?