Monday, December 29, 2014

Three Micro-Moments In 2014 Literature

Woman Reading, By Mary Cassatt, via Wikimedia Commons
Maybe you don't remember the interview from the mid-nineties where David Foster Wallace talks about the magic of fiction. I do, because I think about it all the time. He said:

"There's a kind of Ah-ha! ... It doesn’t happen all the time. It’s these brief flashes or flames, but I get that sometimes. I feel unalone -- intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. I feel human and unalone and that I'm in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness in fiction and poetry in a way that I don’t with other art."

I get this feeling from literature as well. This explains why, while I can't bear to see sad movies because they just make me sad, I can and do read sad books. Because there's something about the internality of reading that for me that I can share the sadness, or put it into context, or feel it as a way of being human rather than as a crushing pointlessness.

So, here at the end of 2014, a pretty bad year for humanity overall, I thought I'd mention just a few things I read this year that I can't stop thinking about.

1. I just finished reading Akhil Sharma's new book, Family Life: A Novel, which is about a boy whose older brother becomes severely brain damaged when he hits his head on the bottom of a pool, shortly after the family has immigrated to the US from India.

Over time, their father develops a terrible drinking habit. Later he tells his family how awful it is to be hungover all the time:

"He said that in the morning he would be in his car driving to the train station and, when he heard people on the radio, it was as if they were broadcasting from another country, that he was in a country where there was a war going on and these people were broadcasting from a nation that was a peace."

I love that so much.

2. In the middle of the year I read Roz Chast's amazing graphic novel Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant. It's about her experience with her parents aging and dying. At one point her mother has been so seriously in decline that Chast has mentally prepared herself for her mother's continued weakening followed by death.

You can tell she wants it to be painless. You get the impression that after months and months of the process, she's looking forward to that process winding down and finally coming to an end somehow.

But then she comes by for a visit, and there's a new nurse, and Chast's mother is up and dressed and sitting on the sofa eating lunch. And she's a little shocked, and she says,

"Where in the five Stages of Death, is EAT TUNA SANDWICH?!?!?"


3. This year I also read Miriam Towes's recent book All My Puny Sorrows. It's about a woman dealing with her suicidal sister. Her sister is a perfectionist, and at one point the narrator explodes with frustration over her sister's whole world view.

And she says,

"Stop being perfect! That doesn't mean you have to die, you moron. Can't you just be like the rest of us, normal and sad and fucked up and alive and remorseful? Get fat and start smoking and play the piano badly. Whatever!"

When I feel down on myself for not meeting some stupid life goal or whatever this passage occasionally pops unbidden into my mind. It's a good reminder that a lot of what people need from one another has very little to do with being brilliant and accomplished, and much more to do with just being around, sharing a meal, cracking an occasional joke, you know.

Monday, December 22, 2014

When Did We Become A World Of Debate Team Lunatics?

To me one of the weirdest things about the modern world is the way social media has brought out the debate team nerd in everyone.

Wasn't it not that long ago that if you talked to people about having an "argument" for their claims, or having an "objection," or a "rebuttal," that people would look at you like you were from Mars?

Maybe I'm sensitized to this because as a philosophy professor it's long been part of my job  to encourage people to engage in just these activities. For a long time, like in the 90s, that encouragement used to meet generally with just blank stares. Like, you want us to do what, exactly?

Some of those blank stares I understood as arising from the idea that communication was, for most people, not generally about convincing people of things. Communication, people seemed to generally feel, was about expressing feelings, or sharing something, or making a joke, or coordinating plans.

Sure, if you were protesting, or canvassing for a cause, or involved in a political campaign, you might get involved in the "making arguments" and "having rebuttals" business. But for most people, most of the time, that was not the main thing we were doing with words.

But now, with social media, it feels like that is all anyone ever does with words. "Having an opinion" is like the main currency of online communication. People are constantly challenging one another's epistemological credentials, standpoint biases, and unstated assumptions.

You click on the "comments" of almost anything and it's like you stumbled into some parallel universe where everyone signed up for lifelong membership in some focus-group-debate-team-mashup where it's really important to state an opinion and challenge those who don't agree with you.

Some of the constant comment arises because people with horrible offensive views now feel empowered to express those views and disagreement with those views is essential, and I get that. But it also feels like there's been a huge uptick in the expression of views about every conceivable thing under the sun: the relative merits of this or that thing; the right way to prepare this or that food; the hidden ethical and social implications of seemingly trivial and innocuous choices.

And if the thing you're sharing is SO innocuous and nice that it's impossible to generate some debate about it, you can rely on someone to start a discussion of whether sharing that innocuous and nice thing is OK and how and why and when.

You can't debate baby pictures, but you sure as hell can debate whether, how, why, and when it's appropriate to share them. I'm often astonished by how passionate people's opinions are on which cute or fun things it is and isn't OK to share.

Why is this happening?

Are people naturally full of opinions and the need to convince other people and social media just finally gave them an outlet for pent up demand?

Did social media just happen to evolve that way so that it's a culture of the thing and now when we get into it that's how it is?

Are we living in an age of indignation and OMG it's so unfair for other reasons so that in an act of psychological transference we are putting all that "I WAS DISSED" energy into pointless arguments that have nothing to do with the true source of indignation?

Maybe it's a perfect storm of all three. Anyway, thinking about all this always reminds me of the Paul Krugman quote from 1988:

"The growth of the Internet will slow dramatically [as it] becomes apparent that most people have nothing to say to each other."

Boy, was that ever wrong or what.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Guest Post: A Dry Rob Roy

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

My father’s mother died Thursday night. She was 97 years old, which I find easy to remember because she was born in 1917 and I was born in 1977. She died in her sleep after about two years of mostly waiting to die.

My father and his partner happened to be visiting me at the time. We decided to honor her memory by making dry Rob Roys and cooking beans and greens. The beans and greens were a more straightforward tribute than the Rob Roys. I lived with my grandmother for about three months after college. It was a time when I had no idea what I wanted to do with myself and I took over the cooking because my grandmother’s idea of dinner was a single hot dog on a little plate without a bun.
After the first night I cooked, she said, “Do you think you could make beans and greens?”

I had never heard of beans and greens. This was a number of years ago, so instead of going on the internet I went to the library and checked out the cookbook section. I found a recipe and made beans and greens. When I went to visit her this spring, she told her caretaker that she had taught me to cook, which is true, in a certain sense. My husband reminded me, when we were talking about the beans and greens, that beans and greens were the first thing I ever cooked for him. My grandmother loved being cooked for; she loved being taken care of.

My grandmother also enjoyed drinking. She was not, at least to my knowledge, a rowdy drinker -- she was a quiet drinker. She drank beer in summer, but in winter she said she needed something to warm her up. When I was a child she became very concerned about the American trade imbalance and so she switched from drinking Scotch to drinking rum.

The story with the dry Rob Roys is that there was a time when she was on a long-distance car trip with my father and his partner and they stopped for lunch at some kind of diner-type place. The three of them were on their way to an event and they were running late. They had hours of social engagement ahead of them. The teenage waiter came over to take their order, and my grandmother pursed her lips thoughtfully. I wasn’t there, you understand. This is an imaginative re-creation. “I’d like,” she said, “a dry Rob Roy.”

Do you even know what a Rob Roy is? The teenage waiter didn’t, in any case. In any case, it was a strange time to order a cocktail and a strange place to order a cocktail. Several years later I read a Lydia Davis story in which the narrator’s elderly father requests a Rob Roy under similarly inappropriate circumstances. It gave me a funny feeling about the world, a feeling that the world, rather than being a place of infinite possibility, is more of a Tetris-type situation, where certain pieces will always have to be combined with certain other pieces.

A dry Rob Roy is Scotch, dry vermouth, and Angostura bitters. At least, that’s what the internet and the Joy of Cooking tell me. It is one form of alcohol combined with two other forms of alcohol. I don’t usually drink cocktails, and so I was surprised that all three of the ingredients were alcoholic. The grocery store nearest my house sold all three forms of alcohol, which surprised and pleased me. I didn’t have a single cocktail shaker, although at one time I had two. I got rid of them because I never used them. When I do drink a mixed drink it usually means that I have added some significant quantity of non-alcoholic mixer to the alcohol in my glass. You don’t need a cocktail shaker for that.

We mixed the ingredients in a pint glass. We used crushed ice, which was a mistake, because it started melting almost immediately. When we poured out the dry Rob Roys my father’s partner used a coaster to keep the ice in the pint glass. The recipe said to use two dashes of vermouth and one dash of Angostura bitters per cocktail. I wasn’t sure what a dash multiplied by three looked like.

The dry Rob Roys were very pretty looking, all golden in the glass. We raised our glasses and took a sip. My father made a face. “It’s so sweet,” he said. I didn’t think it was sweet. It burned. My father drank about a third of his. My father’s partner drank hers. “It makes me feel weird,” she said. I drank mine very slowly. Because I drank it so slowly it got warm, which did not make it taste better. It made me feel drunk, not in a fun way, but in a way where the room seemed a little askew. I couldn’t get past the idea that the taste was made by combining different varieties of alcohol.

I could tell you endless stories about my grandmother -- how she kept her belongings beautifully clean and took care of them for decades, how she declined to get a new cat when her last cat died almost fifteen years ago because she thought the cat might outlive her, and that would be unfair to the cat, how she loved being kidded -- she loved it when I or my father, telling her goodbye, would tell her to behave, to stay out of trouble. “I try,” she would say, and she would shake her head a little bit with the difficulty of the task. There are a lot of things I know about her, a lot of things I could tell you, and even more that I couldn’t. I knew her better than I know most people and she remains mostly mysterious to me. The desire for a dry Rob Roy at midday in a roadside diner, with a long day ahead, is only one of those mysteries.

From The Archives: Let's Make War On Christmas A Reality

Due to circumstances beyond our control, TKIN is going to be delayed today. If you're bored, why not check out this timely classic from the archives, Let's Make War On Christmas A Reality?

Monday, December 8, 2014

News Flash: People Have Priorities Other Than Just Living Longer

Dispensing of medical electricity. Oil painting by Edmund Bristow, 1824. Via Wikimedia Commons
A little while ago the doctor and medical culture commentator Atul Gawande wrote this very touching piece in the New York Times about a woman who was told she didn't have long to live, and how neither "extraordinary measures" nor "just dying" seemed like the right thing, and how her hospice team was able to arrange things so that she could have a few good days toward the end doing what she really wanted most to do, which turned out to be spending some time with the students she'd taught piano lessons to for years and teach them a few more things.

Dr. Gawande's own kid is one of those piano students, so he happened to see the whole thing unfold in a personal way. It prompted him to engage in conversations about dying, with end-of-life care specialists, patients and other people. Summarizing what he's learned he writes,
"First, in medicine and society, we have failed to recognize that people have priorities that they need us to serve besides just living longer. Second, the best way to learn those priorities is to ask about them."
From the context, you can tell he's talking specifically about people near the end of their lives. These people want to do certain things or live a certain way and doing that is more important to them than just having more time.

But to me the truth is much more radical, and it is that everyone, at every age, has priorities beyond just living longer.

You'd never know this from the way medicine is practiced, though. Basically if you ask your doctor anything you just get told what to do. Medical advice in the media is basically just do this don't do that. There's no acknowledgement that most medical decisions these days actually involve trade-offs.

There are trade-offs between medications and sex. There are tradeoffs between medications and other medications. Virtually all birth control entails trade-offs. And, of course, there are relentless constant trade-offs between things that "will make you live longer" and things that you enjoy doing that make you feel good.

 If a medication makes you feel like crap but will make you live longer, how is it not a reasonable decision to just not take it? Of course it's a reasonable decision.

But there's no space for these discussions. Instead you have the concepts of "compliance" and "non-compliance," where you're supposed to do what you're told without any consideration of what things matter to you and why.

It's always kind of mystified me that the principle of informed consent can co-exist beside the concept of non-compliance. I mean, who's in charge here?

There was this great moment on "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" a while ago where the guest was Michael Pollan and he was talking about eating real food and how you tell if something is real food instead of a food-like substance and the great Paula Poundstone said "Okay, but let me ask you something. One of the things that has made my life worth living is Ring Dings. And I feel that it is food. Are you going to tell me that's not food?"

And Pollan mumbled something about Ring Dings and a "special occasion" and Paula basically shouted at him, "What do you mean, special occasion? I said it's what makes my life worth living."

So. Cancer or not, old or young, healthy or not: People have priorities besides just living longer. The best way to learn those priorities is to ask about them.

Why is this such a difficult concept for people to get their heads around?

Monday, December 1, 2014

My Problems With People And Doors

William Henry Margetson, At the Cottage Door, via Wikimedia Commons

What could be simpler than going through a door? And yet: doors are a site of contestation in my inner life.

Problem 1: The perverse and pointless door crunch tango

My first problem with people and doors arises in the context of a bank of glass doors. You know: you're entering or exiting a large space, like a mall, or a subway station, or (cough cough) a university building, and there are three or four or six doors all in a row.

I try to stay to the right -- and you could do a whole blogpost about this, I think, is staying on the right in pedestrian contexts a thing? but passons... -- but mostly I try to go through doors that other people are not attempting to go through. That is, if I'm about to go through door X, and I see someone coming toward me through the glass from the other side like they're about to come through door X, I shift to go through door Y.

So far so good. But then some non-trivial percentage of the time, the perverse opposite happens, by which I mean that a person seeing me trying to go through door X decides this is a great moment to go through door X themselves. So that we have to pass through a single door going in opposite directions at the same time For No Reason. Even more infuriatingly, sometimes if I shift to go through door Y, as above, the person on the other side will themselves shift to go through door Y. What causes this utter perversity in door-related behavior?

I can only come up with one theory. And that is that by going through the same door I'm going through, instead of a different door, the other person is hoping to avoid the strain and hassle of opening a door for themselves.

If this is even close to right, it's mind-boggling. And it's made more so by the fact that I often have this experience when I'm on campus surrounded by university students. What, are they so weakened and worn down from being on social media and avoiding their work that they can no longer opens doors on their own?

The door crunch tango conclusion: Not my fault. Everyone else's fault.

Problem 2: the ambiguous holder/blocker

My second problem with people and doors is when there isn't a bank of doors, there isn't even a pair of doors, there's just the one door, and someone is coming through it toward you as you're getting ready to pass through it the other way, and that person tries to hold the door by standing in the doorway holding the door open behind them.

I don't get this. So now I'm standing there, and the door is open, but you are in it. WTF?

I usually try to smile and gesture like "oh go ahead" hoping the person will take the hint and move along and I can, you know, go through the door all by myself, which is something I know how to do. Sometimes it works. But sometimes it's a stalemate, and the other person stands there goggling at me, like "but I'm holding the door for you."

This problem has the obvious gendered component, that sometimes it's a guy you don't know standing in the door, and you're a woman hoping to go through the door, and the way he's holding it open, you'd have to smush yourself all up against him to get through. And you have to wonder: is this guy just hoping for a casual, unwanted smush? Gross.

The holder/blocker conclusion: these people are probably just trying to be nice, but I don't have to like it.

Problem 3: the person you're not walking with who just holds a door

You'd think if someone is walking ten feet or so ahead of me and we're going in the same direction and we're going through the same door and that person pauses in the door to just hold it back for me so I can catch it as I go through before passing through myself that at least that would be the kind of reasonable, nice, normal door-related interaction a person like me should be able to get behind, but for some reason even having the door held for me can annoy the hell out of me.

Usually it happens when I'm 1) lost in thought 2) not in a rush and 3) tired of interacting with people all day long. I'm in my own headspace. If the person is right ahead of me, it's fine, but often they're a bit ahead, and they pause there, and I have to decide whether I'm going to rush to the door so they don't have to stand there holding it longer than necessary or whether I'm going to mosey in my own sweet slow way even though they're standing there. Either way is annoying. And if I've been talking to people all day, even that little "Oh, thanks" "Oh, my pleasure" or whatever feels like too much interaction. Just let me me listen to my headphones and pass through the door alone.

The door holder conclusion: I'd be a better person if I could just chill and smile and say thanks without treating every situation like a goddamn federal case. But sorry: no can do.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Data And The Spread Of Knowledge Pretense

Gregor Reisch, Margarita Philosophica, 1504, via Wikimedia Commons
The aphorism industry would you have you believe that one of the signs of intelligence is knowing how little you know. It's a nice picture, like we're all sort of mini-humble-Einsteins, meek in the face of a mysterious universe. But to me trends seem to be going the other way -- by which I mean, the more knowledge we're gaining, the more knowledge pretense there seems to be.

By "knowledge pretense" I mean the idea that it's important to have "an answer" even if you don't know whether it's the right answer and maybe even if you know it's the wrong answer.

It's like, no matter what problem you are facing, in our era of metrics and optics, you hear constantly about the importance of gathering more data. Gather data. Plot it visually, and run it through some software. Some numbers will come out.

But with a lot of modern problems the issue isn't that we don't have enough data, it's that we're trying to measure and what we have data on are two completely different things. But no one wants to admit we just can't know. So we gather more data.

For example, everyone wants to improve K-12 education. And we keep coming up against the problem that what we want to improve is really really hard to measure. "How much a student learned" just isn't the kind of thing you can go around easily quantifying.

But instead of acknowledging that, and admitting there's a lot we don't know, there's this relentless rhetoric about the importance of data, gather more data, it's important to get more data so we can understand, make rankings, evaluate. Then when that doesn't work everyone freaks out. But of course it doesn't work. The answers measure what we don't want to track and so can't help but be wrong.

I was first alerted to this problem in my research in ethics. The approach I favor involves acknowledging that there are multiple values -- such as justice and benevolence and respect for others' autonomy -- and then thinking about how we should weigh those values against one another when they conflict, as they so often do.

It's a common knock on this kind of approach that to do that last bit -- think about it, weigh values against one another -- you have to make a judgment call. The theory itself doesn't give you an answer. Often, the explicit implication is that a more unified ethical approach, like simple cost-benefit analysis, would allow you to avoid this problem, by giving you an answer in every case. One principle, a complete set of answers. Voilà! No judgment required!

But this line of thought has always really bothered me. It's no advantage that your theory gives you an answer if you have no reason to think it's the right answer. If there really are a plurality of values, unified approaches like cost-benefit analysis give you the wrong answer. How is it any improvement to get an answer if you know it's wrong?

Isn't a judgment call better than an answer you know isn't right?

Here, I believe, we get to the deep cultural nub of the matter, which is that for some reason in our modern era nobody wants to make a judgment call.

Some people who want to improve education find it alien that the answer might partially involve attracting and retaining people with really good judgment who might exercise that judgment in making decisions. The suggestion that we should use our collective judgment to sort out tricky issues about distributive justice or the environment is scorned as touchy-feely, old-fashioned -- not the kind of objective data-generated answers we've come to know and love.

It's like everyone wants everything to run by algorithm or something. WTF? Why is this?

I'm sure there are many reasons, but I suspect lurking in there are the following. There's the anti-elitism of "who gets to decide?" There's the fear that someone is looking out for their own interests in an unfair way. And mostly, I think, there's the sense that somehow a judgment call is arbitrary. What's a judgment call but just what some person happened to think about something?

I get these are concerns. But honestly, they don't seem weighty enough to me to avoid the alternative,  given that that alternative is knowingly preferring the wrong answer, just because it looks like "science," which seems to me an exercise in utter perversity.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Impotence Of Rational Thought, Or, You Know It's Somebody's Job To Make You Feel Bad, Right?

Self-Loathing Comics! How did I not know about this?

I don't know if you read the piece in the Guardian last week by the feminist who "confesses": "I feel guilty but I hate my body."

I thought it was a good and interesting piece, and I'm sure the point of view expressed is -- well, shall we call it "relatable"? Is that the right word for millions of women of all ages and body types screaming "Oui! Oui! Moi aussi!"

But personally, I wasn't surprised at all to hear that a feminist woman hated her body. What could be less surprising than any woman hating her body in the 21st century? Why is it a "confession"?

I guess it's supposed to be a confession because somehow as a feminist she's supposed to "know better," but I've always thought that was pretty much a dead end kind of thought. I mean, who thought "knowing better" was the key to all mythologies? How often are intense feelings like self-loathing impacted by rational thinking? Like, never?

If you ever want to experience the impotence of rational thought, just try to think yourself out of anything like self-loathing, or feelings of inadequacy, or really any negative emotion in which you compare yourself to others.

Your thoughts will just sit there like cartoon bubbles, inert, powerless, hovering over you. Your cartoon bubble might say in 18 point bold point font: "you are good and smart and beautiful!" You might try to think it. You might reason it out. You might even come to think it is true. Still, you get that thought into your brain alongside some bad feelings, it's like a bug going into a the ring with an elephant. "Oh, it was cute you had that though but ... oh."

I was also struck that there's so little reflection in the essay about the various causes. In keeping with our highly individualized times, it's a very individual essay, about what is and isn't "wrong" with certain kinds of eating and certain kinds of thinking about eating.

I always think that in these situations that it's important to remember - among other things - the wide array of forces assembled against you. I mean, in addition to all the usual suspects, you have to remember that it's practically the first commandment of capitalism that you have to feel bad about yourself.

Can we pause to remember there are armies of people whose whole job it is to induce you to feel like you are not good enough, not smart enough, not beautiful enough -- and while we're at it, you smell, and you're fat, and your dick isn't big enough?

After all, the insecure consumer is the consuming consumer. And the consuming consumer is the lynchpin of the new categorical imperative: "economic growth." If you're not feeling inadequate, you probably won't buy as many things.

Obviously, I do not mean to imply that somehow in a world of equality and mutual respect and free love that people would go around feeling magically happy and self-loving and so on. People don't NEED capitalism to feel awful. They can do it by themselves. And they can do it to each other, very effectively. And obviously, I do not mean to imply that there is nothing gendered about body-loathing and disordered eating, because obviously there is.

I'm just saying that when you feel bad, it's worth taking a moment to remember that among the many factors and causes the set-up is not neutral. They're using sophisticated tools, honed through eons, to target your emotions. Against that army, how is your little rational thought going to get any traction whatsoever?

News flash: it's not. In a world of competition for everything, when you feel bad, someone actually benefits. It's not a problem with an individual solution. And it's not something you can think your way out of.

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Culture of Judgment

Athletes in a gymnasium. Gouache painting. Via Wikimedia Commons

Overall I consider myself a pretty non-judgmental person. Unless you're doing something mean or hurtful to other people I'm usually pretty much like "Whatever; knock yourself out." It's a free country.

But lately I've been catching myself judging. Especially in certain situations, I seem to be judging beyond the judgment necessary for daily life. And for some reason the gym -- and especially the exercise class I go to -- is a place that really brings out the judgmental asshole in me.

I judge people who join the exercise class late. I judge people who bring their phones into the class and check them in between workout tracks. I judge people who choose the more challenging option for a particular movement instead of the less challenging one even though they're physically incapable of doing the more challenging one in anything like a proper style.

You know when people doing a plank refuse to put their knees down even though they're not strong enough to do a plank on their toes, and so their butts go way up in the air, so it becomes a non-exercise for them, like doing downward dog? I am so judging those people. They drive me nuts.

But why? I know it's stupid to have an opinion. I know these people all have their reasons. Besides, what do I care? But unless I'm constantly policing my thoughts, these judgment comes right back.

The other day I went to an hour long exercise class and fifteen minutes into it -- fifteen minutes in to an hour class! -- a woman-of-a-certain-age came in. This happens to be a class where there's a lot of running and jumping, so before class the instructor always asks "Is this anyone's first time at this class?" and then explains how you don't have to do the running and jumping and how you can do other things and make substitutions so you're still getting the same workout etc. etc. etc.

Right away my inner judgment person was on high alert. Fifteen minutes late! But I thought to myself, "OK, maybe she comes to this class all the time and knows the drill; that'd be all right."

But no. She had no idea what was going on. For all the moves she couldn't do, she just kind of made up her own bopping to the music in a way that suited her. Her burpee was a kind of touch-your-toes and mini-hop move. Her plank was a classic downward dog.

And inside -- even as I'm doing the class and panting for breath -- I'm thinking, "If it's your first class you should come on time! And follow the instructions! They're there so you don't hurt yourself! And so that you actually get a work out!" She was right next to me and I just couldn't put her out of my mind.

So, WTF? What the fuck is my mind on about? I can't understand it myself. But since we're all here, let me work through a few hypotheses.

The "What Is The Point Of Exercise Class" Hypothesis: Exercise classes work partly because of the camaraderie of everyone being on the same page. The latecomers and flakes get in the way of that, and so I judge them.

Evaluation: Probably partly true, but doesn't explain the depth of feeling I bring to the whole thing, or the way I judge at the gym generally. Also kind of boring as an explanation.

The "Chaotic Environment Hypothesis": The rest of everything has become so chaotic, with everyone doing whatever the hell they want all the goddamn time, that the few spaces of structured expectation become sacred. Dealing with constant crossing against the light, eating and talking in the library, and throwing the recyclables in the garbage wears me down and turns me into a judgmental lunatic.

Evaluation: There may be something to it. You're in a long line and you deal with ten people in a row who finally get up to the cash register and THEN suddenly start getting out their wallet and you want to scream "Yes, payment! You will be paying! You could have spent the last ten minutes getting out your wallet! It wasn't a surprise" It builds up.

But still, it's pretty incomplete. Why judge at the gym when I could directly judge these actual anti-social behaviors?

The "Culture of Judgment Hypothesis": We live in a culture of relentless and constant judgment. Every third thing out of someone's mouth is passing judgment on someone else. It gets to me. Judgment is normalized, and feeling judged, I judge back.

Evaluation: There might be something to it. Even though on the surface we're all "live and let live," underneath, we're all silently judging one another. The internet these days is like one massive sharing of everyone's grievances with everyone else's behavior.

Not only does this normalize judgment, but maybe it makes me defensive. You judging me? You have opinions about my hairstyle or my devotion to Apple products or my love of Trollope or my  choice to wear high heels?

Well, two can play at that game, sweetheart.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Hard Copies And The Coming Apocalypse

Detail from Medieval Book of Hours (1533), via Wikimedia Commons

A little while ago I told a friend that when I buy an e-book, I often buy a hard copy of the book at the same time. Not surprisingly, my friend was a little like, WTF? Is that an "oh look at my library" sort of thing?

No. As I told my friend at the time, one reason I buy and hold on to a lot of hard cover books is that I think you'd have to be crazy to trust the mega-corporations that produce e-books. Surely you remember when Amazon disappeared all those copies of 1984 from people's Kindles in 2009, becoming an early strong entry in the most ironic moment of the new millennium? How creepy was that?

Amazon just has the power to take away or change your book at any time. Once Amazon has that power, what are we supposed to do, trust them not to use it? What will happen when Homeland Security tells Amazon some book or part of a book is pro-terrorism/anti-American/related-in-some-nebulous-way-to-the-vague-possibility-of-child-pornography?

You know what will happen. The book will be synced out of your kindle and out of your life forever.

That's reason number one for having the ink and wood pulp on the shelf. But there's also this other thing, which is that the fact that so few people want to buy and hold on to physical books makes me wonder: is no one else thinking about the coming apocalypse?

I mean, is it really so far fetched to think that part of the coming climate disaster is going to involve having little access to electricity? And that if there's not much electricity, the only texts we're going to have access to is the text that's actually printed on paper?

Everything else would be lost, right? I'm struck at how few people seem to worry about this. Getting rid of library books -- especially if you can have "e-access" -- seems to strike almost everyone as simple common sense. But what's going to happen when the lights go out?

In his recent book Ethics for a Broken World, the philosopher Tim Mulgan deploys the incredibly imaginative technique of presenting his book in the form of lectures that take place after the coming apocalypse, when resources are terribly scarce and there's not enough to keep everyone alive. In the imagined future, they refer to life in our period as the "affluent" world.

In studying the affluent world, the lecturer of the future explains, they use texts "translated from fragments of affluent philosophy recently recovered from the sunken cities of the western Atlantic: the famous Princeton Codex."

You get the picture. A lot of land is under water. There's no internet. There's no JSTOR or iBooks  or Project Gutenberg.Whatever we got is salvaged from some actual books and actual pieces of paper.

In my home, we use the term "Princeton Codex" as shorthand for the collection of ideas around the possibility of a dark future, where tattered damp copies of Portnoy's Complaint and A Theory of Justice and The Autobiography of Malcom X are all there is from which the people of the future might be able to connect with us, to remember us, and to grasp what the hell we were thinking.

Hard copy books were much on my mind a few weeks ago, when I went through my crisis of stuff. I got rid of clothing and kitchen stuff and unwanted gifts and old pieces of paper, but there's one category of thing I didn't touch: the books. They're piling up, but it doesn't bother me.

The possibility that the tiny libraries of readers like me all around the globe might help, or at least momentarily entertain, the people of the future came to mind immediately when I read this week's fiction in The New Yorker, a story called "The Empties" that takes place in the near future, two years after the power goes out.

A small city Vermont is struggling along. Everyone who hasn't died of disease has pretty much learned how to chop wood, how to use fireplaces, how to make "arrangements" for the other things they need, and how to get along without knowing what is happening anywhere else.

And at the center of town, a librarian carries a shotgun. She sleeps in the library, and allows no one to check out anything. You want to read, you sit in the building, because:

"People might share their last finger of motor oil, Matilda says, break a four-inch candle in two, divide a pot of beans to serve eight, but they’ll kill you for a book."

Next time you're tempted to avoid the clutter and go e-book only, think of your 23rd century counterpart. She might be cold and hungry, but she might also be jonesing for a little education or light reading. Don't let the Princeton Codex be all she has.

Monday, October 27, 2014

World Citizenship And Its Discontents

I feel like there's an idea out there that we should think of ourselves as citizens of the world and that somehow the internet, by connecting us all up together, is part of making that happen.

Whether a person lives on your block or lives halfway across the world, no matter: with the click of a mouse you can find out what they had for breakfast or whether they're being shafted by their local city council or law enforcement or what their views are on the latest celebrity sex scandal.

It's a nice idea, and when you're looking at one of those pictures taken from space of the whole earth it's easy to get into that "big blue marble" mood. . 

But honestly it's not really working out for me.

For one thing, I can only care about a pretty limited number of people at a given time. I care a lot about the people in my actual life. I'm sad when they're sad and I'm happy when they're happy and I'm worried when they're in trouble. But I can only do that for so many people.

The rest of the world? Sorry, no. The truth is, when I read about the sadnesses, thrills, and troubles of strangers I often feel overwhelmed, annoyed, envious or impatient. And then I feel like a cold, surly, heartless son of a bitch. It's not good.

Also, I'm tired of hearing so many opinions. Why is so much of what people have to say to one another their opinions about things? "Cats are mean and destroy wildlife." "No, cats are cute but you must keep them inside." "Person X is a hateful monster." "No, person X is doing the best they could, is so much better than person Y." "X is bad." "No, people who criticize X are bad."

I have nothing against opinions per se. They're often very important. But I can only handle a few at a time. A lot of opinions send my brain into overdrive, because I don't know the backstory, or because I know part of the backstory and have to suddenly decide whether I should be learning more of the backstory which causes me to have to think about the sources of my information, or because I do know the backstory and I don't really agree and I have to think about why that is.

Worse, being a citizen of the world often seems to require having a lot of opinions. Once you've heard a bunch of things about what happened and then you've heard a bunch of opinions, you're often then asked to have an opinion. Again, nothing against opinions. I have lots. But I can only handle a few at a time. For me, forming a bunch of new ones can be a serious drain on my mental energy.

Before I started studying philosophy I studied math. And one of the things I loved about studying math was how few opinions I was called on to form. Mostly I just learned mathematical concepts and struggled to prove some things from some other things. I could go days without hearing or forming opinions.

One of the few things I heard my math professors express opinions about was the relative difficulty and merit of different kinds of math. The topology people thought that category theory was stupid and easy, or the algebra people thought analysis was dry, or someone thought the "best years" of set theory were over. It's a narrow range, and, especially as a student, it was easy to just let it go in one ear and out the other.

Once I started studying philosophy and hanging out with humanities people, I was stunned by the number of opinions I was expected to have right off the bat. "What'd you think about that article?" "What'd you think of the talk?" " What do you think about so-and-so?" "What do you think?" "What's your view on things?" "What's your take?" "We want your opinion!" Phew.

World citizenship means you can have opinions on anything, anywhere, happening in any context. It's exhausting.

But honestly, I think one of the biggest discontents of world citizenship for a lot of people is the way it constantly hammers home at you that you are a tiny speck in a gigantic world.

If you think of yourself as part of a smaller community unit, and you use that unit as a comparison class, it's likely you can achieve something great relative to that group of people. Maybe you're smart or accomplished, or maybe you're just really funny or nice, or maybe you make really great potato salad or something.

When you're a citizen of the world, you see everyone's eyes on someone else, twenty-four seven. You're either super brilliant world famous amazing person, or you've got something viral, or else ... or else you're nobody: just some fruit fly in the banquet of life.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Accidental Philosopher Photographs Some Things

Here at TKIN we pride ourselves on our highly developed advance planning skills. But even the best planner sometimes can't get it all together -- especially when it's grading season. I didn't have time to write a post -- so I thought I'd post some photos for your week's amusement.

This was the attribution plaque for an LGBT-themed mural near my home. I assume that's a self-portrait by the artist, and every time I walked by it made me happy. I like the way the rainbow theme is worked in, but mostly I like the expression on the artist's face. After a month or so someone put a stupid sticker in the middle of it, advertizing some dumb thing, and the whole sign got taken down and replaced with something drab and informational : (

I go to Buffalo a lot, and this was taken at the public library downtown.  They must have had some Wizard of Oz-themed event. I have no idea what it's about, but I like it.

Wine at the LCBO.

I've always been crazy about color swatches and paint samples. Generally anything where there's a bunch of things that are similar but different knocks me out. So I love this mannequin that I saw at The Bay last summer. I also love how the other mannequin is like "Stick with me, sweety, and I'll show you a good time!"

I think this picture speaks for itself.

I commute on a Greyhound bus, which means I spent a ridiculous amount of time at the Toronto bus terminal, which is where I took this photo. I've been looking at this excess comma for about nine years, yet it still has the power to drive me f*&#ing crazy on a daily basis.

 A few years ago I spent some time in Ann Arbor from January to April and I joined the local Y to work out. They had FIVE different locker rooms: women with children; women, no children; men with children; men, no children; and families. I understand this sign is meant simply to convey "women, no children," but somehow I always found the image of a child with a red slash through it kind of disturbing.

It was a cold winter that winter, and I had kind of a boring lonely walk from my apartment to the Y. But that walk always took me past this window, where someone had placed this Gumby-like figure. It always made me smile:

Happy autumn everyone and I'll see you next week!

Monday, October 13, 2014


Thilafushi: garbage island

Like everyone here in the pre-apocalypse, I have a fraught relationship with stuff. It's not that I have too much stuff. On the contrary. I live in a small one-bedroom condo and if you walked in you'd probably start rolling your eyes and muttering that I seem like one of those annoying people who keeps their stuff under control, doesn't abide clutter, and alphabetizes their books (after sorting them into appropriate categories, natch). And yes -- I am that person.

One reason I don't have too much stuff is that I have issues with stuff. This weekend I was cleaning out a few things, and at first I found some things I hadn't used and wanted to get rid of. Wordpress for Dummies. A skirt that I hadn't worn since Bush administration. A jacket that is now older than my students. Unwanted gifts that had passed their statue of limitations for how long I felt obligated to keep them around. It felt good. Constructive. Sensible.

But things quickly began to get a little out of control. I started to wonder why I wasn't getting rid of more stuff. I started to freak out about all the stuff I do have and why it's here haunting me. Why won't it leave me alone and free? What if I had to go somewhere in a hurry? What do you think, stuff, you can just anchor me here just by existing? I'll show you.

As I pondered throwing a way a perfectly good pack of envelopes and some printer paper, I suddenly remembered my father, a man whose issues with stuff were legendary and whose manic purges of stuff surely played a role in my current relations with stuff. My father hated stuff so much that back in the day, when I was a kid, he would throw away the pages of the TV Guide that were no longer relevant: since the midpoint staples came on the schedule for Monday, every night after that my father would remove the pages for that day, 'til come Friday, there were just a few pieces of paper flittering around.

Caught up in his anti-stuff mania, my father would throw away half-used pads of paper, as he vocalized his mantra over and over -- "If in doubt, throw it out!" -- and silenced his critics by pointing out that "we can always buy another one." As a kid I was half scandalized and half-thrilled at this craziness. I understood that throwing away useful things was in some sense wrong. But I loved the feeling of it -- the freedom, the independence from the weight of the stuff, the sense that life could be lived on a whim: if you need paper at 4:00, you can get some at the store at 3:00!

As an adult I've experienced this drive to get rid of the stuff again and again. I've thrown away all  the paper notes from every phase of my academic life. I've thrown away all the diplomas I've ever earned. I've thrown away all my old letters -- letters on paper! written by a friend! to me!

As I was talking myself down this weekend and forcing myself not to throw away things I knew I'd want and need later, I reflected on why ordinary stuff feels to me like the end of the world.

One: stuff is about the inherent neediness and limitations of the human condition. You need bedding, and clothes, and pots and pans, and dishes, because you need to dress yourself and cook food to stay alive, and in the modern world you need stuff to do those things. If I threw away all my tights today, I'd have to go buy more tights tomorrow. Stuff is a reminder that if you want to wear crazy pink boots on Thursday, you have to procure and save those boots. They're not just conjurable out of thin air. In a very real sense, you are dependent on your stuff. That may not depress you, but it depresses me.

Two: stuff reminds us of the modern disappointingness of things. As consumers in a market society, it's our destiny to be disappointed, because it's the drive of the whole enterprise to make us want things we don't have. Mostly, stuff sucks. And in our particular consumer society, you can either be a normal person whose sucky stuff will last a few years at best, or you can be the kind of rich asshole who buys things intending that his great-grandchildren will use them. Either way, it's no good.

Three: stuff is death. I don't know what this means, exactly, but I think it's true. I don't know if you've read that book White Noise, by Don Delillo, but it's a book about death, and it takes place in a house full of stuff. After the Hitler scholar Jack Gladney has a conversation with his doctor about his impending death, he comes home and starts throwing things away:

"I threw away fishing lures, dead tennis balls, torn luggage. I ransacked the attic for old furniture, discarded lampshades, warped screens, bent curtain rods. I threw away picture frames, shoe trees, umbrella stands, wall brackets, highchairs and cribs, collapsible TV trays, beanbag chairs, broken turntables. I threw away shelf paper, faded stationary, manuscripts of articles I'd written, galley proofs of the same articles, the journals in which the articles were printed. The more things I threw away, the more I found. The house was a sepia maze of old and tired things. There was an immensity of things, an overburdening weight, a connection, a mortality. I stalked the rooms, flinging things into cardboard boxes. Plastic electric fans, burnt-out toasters, Star Trek needlepoints. It took me well over an hour to get everything down to the sidewalk. No one helped me. I didn't want help or company or human understanding. I just wanted to get the stuff out of the house. I sat on the front steps alone, waiting for a sense of ease and peace to settle in the air around me."

Why Star Trek needlepoints, old shelf paper, and umbrella stands say "death" to Jack Gladney I'm not really sure. But I'm with him 100 percent.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Ganging Up On The Concept Of Justice

Justice. I don't know what this is or where it's from but I like it.
Wasn't it just recently that justice was considered one of the fundamental pillars of modern western society? Wasn't it justice that was supposed to be the foundation for that whole human rights business? Wasn't justice what we were honoring with all those statues with the blindfolds and scales and all that? Wasn't "fighting injustice" how people described their activities when they were trying to make the world a better place?

So isn't it weird to hear so many enemies of justice lately dismissing justice as a phantom value, something that doesn't really exist?

One of the enemies of the concept of justice is found in the forces of efficiency. The forces of efficiency are those who think that what's valuable can be measured in terms of overall effects. The more ambitious front of the efficiency forces (like some philosophical utilitarians) might aim for maximizing well-being, which you can at least see how it might make sense as an overall value.

But more economically minded efficiency forces have known all along that going down that road means that poorer people should get more stuff. So they redirected toward "Pareto efficiency" which just means you can't make one person better off without making another worse off -- which let's face it is about the lowest bar you could possibly set for a measurement of how things should be. It's like you're deciding how to share some food and you say "well, don't throw any away.' Yeah -- thanks for that insight!

The economically minded efficiency forces are the ones you always hear talking about "growth" whenever some inconvenient issue arises. Why are workers being mistreated? Uh, "growth." Why are government services being dismantled? "We're growing the economy." Why can't everyone have health care? "This is better for growth." I feel like with growth people there's always this idea of "oh, once we grow the economy we can use the money any way we like and we could just give it to the people who got shafted by the policy." Sure -- and then we can all go celebrate in Valhalla and eat magic apples and live forever.

For a few hundred years the efficiency forces have been telling us that justice is a kind of false value, that there's no such thing really, that what seems like "justice" is just people having some feelings.

It seems to me that if you happen to be a winner in the Lottery of Life, this doctrine might be convenient for you -- especially the doctrine's economic form. It's more efficient to let you keep your stuff and do what you want to do, so poorer people and workers can suck it. Justice? There's no such thing. It's just an irrational phantom.

Another enemy of the concept of justice can be found in the forces of liberty. The forces of liberty are those who say the only real value is respect for individuals' rights to do as they please. Other rights -- and other values -- well, you might have thought they sounded good, but really they're kind of a fake-out. The forces of liberty sometimes say they're all for justice, it's just that they know with their moral insight that true justice is about people getting to keep their property, as long as they got it justly-- leaving aside, I guess, the fact that everything any western hemisphere person has acquired was gotten through a chain  of events that includes land-stealing, slavery, etc. etc.

It seems to me that if you happen to be a winner in the Lottery of Life, this doctrine might be convenient for you. You get to keep what you have and do what you like. You don't even need the efficiency loop-around. Poorer people and workers can suck it. Justice? There's no such thing. It's just an irrational phantom.

When it comes to trying to say why, exactly, justice is a phantom value, the enemies of justice have various strategies.

Some utilitarian efficiency theorists, like Peter Singer, say that beliefs about what's just are a kind of evolutionary left-over, like it might have helped us survive to think that people ought to be treated fairly, but now that we can do "rational thinking" we know better.

I could go on and on about this -- and in fact I do go on and on, since this is the topic of a some scholarly work I'm doing. But basically, as I see it the problem is that you can't justify utilitarian obligations except by appeal to the same kind of intuitive moral thinking that would work just as well to justify justice-based obligations. There's nothing specially rational about maximizing preference satisfaction -- that's a moral idea just like justice ideas are. Even the idea that interests are things to be satisfied is a product of evolution. So I don't agree that maximizing preference satisfaction is specially rational in a way that justice isn't.

Some economic efficiency theorists say that attempts to be "fair" are really examples of "bounded-self-interest" -- and so are just another way that humans fail to be fully rational. You thought caring about fairness might be a good thing, but from this point of view it seems more like an unfounded prejudice which, in addition to being irrational, also probably hampers growth.

But as I see it, here too there's nothing morally neutral about measuring in terms of efficiency. Sure, "efficiency" might sound precise and scientific where justice sounds vague and ambiguous. But really, efficiency is vague and ambiguous as well. What are we measuring? Well-being? Preference-satisfaction? What if those aren't the same? How do you measure? Should you maximize or just meet the Pareto "low bar" of not throwing the food away?

From the liberty front, we also hear that justice is vague and intuitive. With all the disagreements about justice, who can really say? But again, liberty is vague and intuitive as well, and its nature is a topic of frequent debate.

In fact, when it comes to ambiguity and uncertainty, it should give the "efficiency" and "liberty" enemies of justice pause that although they agree about justice, they disagree about a ton of other stuff, including the basic values. So it's not like the other values are so obvious and crystal clear that they command universal agreement either.

Personally, I think most people care about efficiency, liberty, justice, and other values, all at the same time. Yes it's hard to prioritize and figure out how to honor all of them. But that is, I believe, our moral task.

One of the things I work on in philosophy is meta-ethics, which basically means the foundations of ethics and ethical reasoning, and I try to figure out what status our intuitive beliefs have, and what this tells us about the importance of various values and how they can be mutually honored.

And sometimes I'm like "WTF am I doing with this obscure topic?" And then I think about the enemies of the concept of justice, and I remember.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Vulnerability, Feminism, and Writing While Female

Recently, I was going to write a post that started with an anecdote that -- well, let's say it was an anecdote that showed me in a personally vulnerable light.

And at first I thought -- well, wtf, why not? Showing vulnerability can be a hallmark of good writing. When an author shows their weaknesses and self-doubt -- their insecurities and uncertainties, their neuroses and pain -- the reader connects with them, is drawn in, feels their own self-doubt and pain assuaged. One of the noblest functions of literature -- making us all feel less alone -- is thus attained.

And yet, in the end, I was like "Nah, I don't think so." Perhaps not surprising. You may have noticed that this blog often foregoes the narrative, introspective, personal, emotional style for one that is more declarative, outward-looking, and opinionated.

As I've said and I'll say again and again, this is not because I don't care for the narrative, introspective kind of writing. In fact I love it. But sometimes I don't do it, sometimes for reasons that I don't do it has to do with the whole problem of "writing while female."

Because I feel like when you're writing while female, things that might otherwise be read as "brave person opens up and lets us see his vulnerable side" instead get read as "weak woman reveals her weaknesses and and lets us see her weak side."

It's like what happens when women try to use self-deprecating humor. Instead of it being like "oh, funny, you were making fun of yourself!" people just take your remarks at face-value. You: deprecated. If a male professor says in a joking tone that Gee, despite having a PhD, they just can't keep their appointments sorted out -- oh ha ha. If a woman says it? People start falling all over themselves with suggestions for tweaks and improvement. So. irritating.

Recently the comedian Jen Kirkman has been brilliantly showcasing this effect by publicizing and responding to the inane and inappropriate responses that she gets to her stories and jokes. If she makes a joke about her romance situation, it's like "Don't worry! You're pretty! You'll find someone!" If she makes jokes about her modest popularity it's like "Don't worry! You'll make it! Fuck the haters!" To both of which she is like "People! They are jokes. I am a comedian. I am not asking for sympathy." As someone who listens obsessively to Marc Maron on the WTF podcast I can tell you: men making self-deprecating jokes do not elicit that kind of reaction.

And same thing too with hedging and uncertainty. A man who qualifies his statements by pointing out that it's not always so and there are exceptions and maybe I don't have the whole story sounds like a man who is confident enough to acknowledge that the truth is complex. But for some reason, when a woman qualifies her statements, it's like "Oh she's uncertain, must not know what she's talking about."

Ever since I encountered this dating advice for women from an expert (blogged previously here) I've been brooding about the way that at some deep level, men just like it if a woman hedges, and doesn't make too many declarative statements, and doesn't check her smartphone.

The way self-doubt and vulnerability, when expressed by women, prop up the attitudes certain people have, of women as self-doubting and vulnerable, and of wanting women to be self-doubting and vulnerable -- well, it makes me grouchy and combative.

It makes me want to put my game face on, and say what I think about things, and leave out the anguish and hurt feelings, and leave out the stories that make the reader picture me, metaphorically unclothed, with my vulnerabilities exposed for the world to see.

So that anecdote? Sorry: you'll never get to hear it.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Dreaming Of Other Worlds And The Garden-Variety Disappointingness Of Ordinary Life

At the Eaton Centre where I sometimes like to hang out, there's a giant ad set up for the Cirque du Soleil's new "Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities!" show. The theme is that you'll enter a portal to another world, a world of mysteries and surprises and interesting things.

Every time I see it I think about the depth of my attraction to the whole other worlds thing -- especially worlds like the ones they're suggesting that involve both flying through the air and cool clothes and how, because I can't cognitively enter in to the actual other worlds idea, I'm unable to see the spectacle for anything but a bunch of people doing acrobatics -- which, let's face it, appealing as it might be, is another kind of mood thing altogether and is actually among the most worldly thing out there.

It reminds me of this time when I was around eight years old and my parents bought me a fantastic Christmas present that came in a huge box. When I tore the box open, I found it was an oversize chess set, with oversize sculpted pieces, to be played on a large carpet with a chess board pattern on it. The pieces were about eight inches tall and weighted with sand, like weeble-wobbles, so they didn't fall over. And were shaped like for real. I mean, the castle was a castle -- or at least a turret-y thing -- with a staircase winding around it and a castle-y roof. The bishop was a man with a funny bishops hat and robes. The queen -- well, you get the idea. So cool.

I thought this was a great gift. But what I remember most vividly about the occasion of receiving it was not actually anything about the gift itself but rather what I felt when I came down and saw the very large box under the tree.

Because when I saw that box I had a set of feelings I had often as a child. These were a mix of something like "Ooooh, maybe that box contains a portal to another world!" and "Oh, Patricia, you know all that 'other world' stuff is all made up."

I was always somehow hoping there was something else.

This was not, let me emphasize, because there was anything wrong with my life or something making me unhappy. As a child I had a wonderful home life with doting parents and the whole nine yards. Sure, the other kids picked on me at school. But that had nothing to do with why I was daydreaming about another world. The reason I was daydreaming about another world was much more elemental. I just felt, "Really? Is this all there is?"

This world of apples and astronomy and TV sets and baseball games? This is it?

When it came to the box, I'm sure I was influenced by one of my favorite childhood books, The Phantom Tollbooth, which "tells the story of a bored young boy named Milo who unexpectedly receives a magic tollbooth one afternoon and, having nothing better to do, decides to drive through it in his toy car."

Milo has all kinds of surreal adventures that involve funny plays on words and his other world is vivid and fascinating and full of interesting characters. I remember thinking how fun it would be to be Milo, and how I hoped I would someday that I too would receive the gift of a tollbooth portal to hilarity, even though I knew it was impossible. I remember also what a fake-out I thought it was when Milo woke up the next day and the tollbooth was gone but instead of being disappointed he was all "Oh, there's so much that's interesting here!" Hmph.

Incidentally, what I did not remember, and just learned from Wikipedia, is that Milo's quest involves rescuing princesses, which I believe speaks to the depth to which I identified with Milo and not with any of the girls or women in the story, something that seems to have been characteristic of me as a young reader and which probably had profound effects on the development of my personality. But that's another post for another day.

Anyway, as I got older and started to became the rational-minded person I can't help but be today, I lost the easy ability to entertain the idea of the other worlds, and I stopped thinking of magic shows and the tooth fairy and large boxes as possible sites for escaping the everyday.

But I never lost the melancholy of being stuck here in this world that seems, relative to my imagination anyway, kind of a drab and dull and a bit of a disappointment.

For a long time I assumed that I was quite unusual in my particular mix of ideas, because it seemed like a lot of people who knowingly experience my kind of alienation go on to do something about it: they get religion, or join a cult, or become a conspiracy theorist, or whatever -- outcomes that have never even remotely tempted me.

But as time goes on, I wonder how many people experience a feeling like mine without realizing it. Because in case you haven't noticed, a lot of people find staying satisfied with the basic good things in life is not always easy. How many people are successful, with a lovely family, yada yada yada, and find themselves just unable to enjoy themselves?

I feel like when this happens it's almost always chalked up to something very particular. It's modern life -- so stressful. It's modern relationships. It's the new social media FOMO whatever. It's all the fault of someone's parents or something that happened to them as a kid. It's not being able to live out your real dreams.

But maybe those aren't always the reasons. Maybe just being a human in this world is just not so great, and therefore often leaves us feeling disenchanted, dissatisfied, left with the feeling I had at age eight when I encountered my chess set box and had to grapple with the realization that there was no way that box had a phantom tollbooth in it because a phantom tollbooth is not a real thing.

My point being that, contra what you've been told by the twenty-first century entreprenurial positive thinking establishment, you don't need a special explanation for the garden-variety disappointingness of life. It's there because life is garden-variety disappointing.

So, when someone's feeling bad, instead of looking for reasons and causes and explanations etc. etc. etc. maybe we could just be more like "Yeah, I know, huh? Here, have a cookie."

Monday, September 15, 2014

Is Reading So, Like, Nineteenth Century?

Don Quixote in the Library, Adolf_Schrödter, 1834, via Wikimedia Commons
Every September we go back to school and every September I go over the idea that to be successful in your philosophy class you have to read some difficult texts and every September the students get a little glazy-eyed and there are are questions having to do with the point of reading for class.

And every September I try to explain, in a brilliant impersonation of a movie-land Boring Professor, why being able to read things for yourself really matters in terms of forming your own opinion and not just being spoon-fed ideas from people who are actually trying to talk you into something. Every September I try to talk about how if you're not already skilled at reading difficult things, part of the point is to help you read difficult things. Every September, yada yada yada.

Every September I get vaguely irritated thinking about the range of forces that work together to make students think that the point of education is "efficient knowledge transfer" -- a range that weirdly includes sci-fi and pop culture but also certain educational administrative entities and ignorant news-y education pundits and know-it-alls.

Every September I ponder the obvious implicit question: if that's what knowledge is, what the hell are we doing reading anything at all? Hey, Prof, the 1850s called -- they want their learning methods back.

Every September I reflect on the fact that even if university classes are sometimes about efficient knowledge transfers, humanities courses are really about something else, and about how even if that something else is hard to pin down, at least it has something to do with learning how to think for yourself -- something that, contrary to widespread opinion, I'd like to affirm is actually very difficult, and something that seems to me to have something to do specifically with encountering words.

Every September, this prompts me to start thinking about what the deal is. Hey reading, you think you're so great. What makes you so special?

Every September, I think about how exchanging ideas works pretty well when you're using words -- and how once you're using words anyway, it's hard to see the point of presenting them in some ridiculous ephemeral form like a video when you can just, you know, write and read the words themselves instead.

Every September I think about the novels I've read and how I like to use them as examples in class and how this is a problem that just gets worse and worse. Every September I mention examples like "Orwell's book, 1984" and every September the students are, like, "What about that movie -- "The Dark Knight"? and I'm like "Sorry, I'm old and steeped in a culture of words. I'm sure I haven't seen it. Why don't you tell us what happens?

Every September I think about my commitment to the uncomfortable truth that encountering the Human Condition through movies is not like encountering the Human Condition through words -- which is obviously not to say Movies = Bad and Books = Good or anything like that.

And every September I think about the way that the drama of film is just not the same as the drama of word; I'm reminded yet again about how film has this tendency to glamorize, and I encounter the uncomfortable fact about myself that cruelty and violence, presented in the right way, are things I can enjoy watching, even when the same thing, described in words, would horrify.

Then every September when I think about these things I'm reminded of the book and the movie Gamorrah -- which if you don't know is an incredible non-fiction book about organized crime in Italy written by a young guy who sort of got to know people and then had to go into hiding -- and I remember how when I first saw the movie I was, yes, shocked at what it depicted but also, yes, kind of enthralled with the visual beauty of it, by the beauty of the crumbling slums, shot somehow in the sun to make them look like artwork, by the beauty of the kids, with their black hair and expressive faces, and even, yes, by the beauty of the scene in which some gangsters are all in a salon getting their nails done and they all get shot.

Every September I remember, with a shudder, how when I read the book I felt so chastened, by the way the same events described in words brought home the reality of poverty and violence, brought home the horror of having to choose between killing people for the mob and not having enough to eat or worse, brought home how an Italian slum where life is cheap is a place no one wants to be, brought home how sunlight and whatever have nothing to do with it.

And every September, this circles me back to the importance of reading, and I feel a burst of unapologetic fervor about it: yes, there's going to be reading; no, there's no shortcut, no, we're not going to watch a video.

And if that means I'm stuck in the nineteenth century - well, whatever. There are worse things to be.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Prestige Markets, Or, Explanatory Problems in Economics

Harvard. Prestige, we has it.
A few months ago I read the book Flash Boys, which is the Michael Lewis cowboy shoot-em-up story of the recent High Frequency Trading shenanigans. Early in the book, Lewis gets talking about the American Banker Lifestyle and its associated ecosystem, and how in that ecosystem it's REALLY important to work for the "right" bank.

And the "right" bank, it turns out, isn't the one that is the most successful financially or the one that has the best job amenities or whatever. The "right" bank is basically a matter of cool. Central to Lewis's narrative is how the Canadian outsider hero of his story comes to town and is a little mystified by the way the whole thing works -- and how the Canadian bank he works for, RBC, is never really in the running for cool, even when they start to make a gazillion dollars and come out on top of various official rankings and so on. Though you'd think money is the thing -- money isn't really the thing.

In banking, it seems hierarchy isn't about money. It's about ... something else, something associated with aggression and masculinity and something something I'm not clued into. When I read that I thought, "Wow, people are really motivated by ... something."

Then I a week or so ago I read this Washington Monthly article about how students at Harvard, who come in to university determined to something interesting or different or altruistic, and who have never even really heard of investment banking when they arrive, are nonetheless lining up like lemmings for the Wall Street jobs come senior year.

The article showcases how the banks have created a system on campus that attaches prestige to banking jobs and taps into the students' shared mania for competition. It's like the kids go, "Oh, that's the plum? Oh, OK -- look, I can get it!" with little sense of why this particular thing would be the thing at all or what the point is of any of it.

And I thought -- aha, that's it! It's "prestige" that is the word I was looking for, for what so often motivates people in surprising ways.

Once you think about prestige as itself a kind of consumer good, you can see some interesting things. Because it's a social value, it's entirely a matter of culture what does and does not grant prestige. And culture is, as always, fickle. Men can often get prestige through money and career achievement -- but not always. For women it's almost like "being hot" is a necessary -- but certainly not sufficient! -- condition for prestige. One of the effects of racism and other -isms is that some people can't get prestige, because no matter what, other people don't see their accomplishments with a prestige-oriented halo.

As the New York Times explained the other day, it's difficult to get men to want to be school teachers. One reason? It's a "status" thing. Low prestige.

I know it's not news that people are motivated to gain prestige. But these examples seem to suggest that people are not just "sort of" motivated to gain prestige, but that they're really motivated to gain prestige. And the Harvard example suggests that it's not all that hard, in certain contexts, to nudge people's perceptions about what does and doesn't count.

From the economic point of view, does the pursuit of prestige reflect an irrational obsession with status over "real goods" or does it reflect the rational pursuit of subjective, but proper, goal?

Actually, I think you could say either -- but in some ways both answers seem wrong to me. Many of the goods we pursue are social goods, and it would be most peculiar to set up a theory in which it's always irrational to pursue a social good at the cost of, say, material objects or other kinds of experiences. The whole idea of rational choice theory is that it's supposed to be neutral with respect to what is, actually good: so if what you want is status and prestige who is any theorist to tell you you're wrong?

On the other hand, it seems strange to say that a person who gave up a lucrative career they would otherwise have loved only because their friends made it seem appealing and they got all competitive about it had actually not lost anything at all. So that the prestige points -- even if they are fleeting and fade -- are just as good as the everything else points. Yet that is what we'd have to say if prestige is an ordinary good alongside others.

It seems to me to matter what the context is for the given preference and how the person came to have it. That's not a radical view: some theorists of preference have said it's essential, in using preferences, to pay attention to where the preference came from.

The thing about that, though, is that once you start talking not just about preferences but also about where those preferences come from, you're suddenly actually talking about "why people do what they do" -- which, in case you haven't noticed, is kind of a complicated humanistic contextual etc. etc. kind of question.

That is, it's not the kind of thing you can understand with economic models and axioms and stuff. You actually have to read some history and literature and philosophy and sociology and probably art and music theory and all kinds of other things.

If you do happen to want to learn those things I'm happy to tell you those departments still exist and we still get together and talk about stuff -- but with the way things are going, it might not be for long.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Accidental Philosopher Encounters The Movie Snowpiercer

A few days ago I saw the movie Snowpiercer -- which, if you don't know, is nestled the tiny Venn diagram overlap area among the categories "South Korean science fiction action film," "based on a graphic novel by some French guys," and "enviro-dystopian stories that take place after an enormous geo-engineering catastrophe."

I'm not spoiling anything by telling you it's the story of what happens after an experiment to counter-act climate change goes horribly wrong and freezes the whole planet, or that it takes place on a very very very long train that was set in motion just before the freeze and that circles the whole earth once a year, busting through the snow and ice, or that the people on board the train are the only people alive, period.

At the time of the movie they've been on the train for seventeen years. I'm also not spoiling anything by telling you that as the details emerge, we learn that the train is divided into sections, with people at the front doing things like dining on steak and partying while people at the tail section are filthy and barely surviving on disgusting protein sludge and crammed into tiny spaces.

The tail people are constantly tormented by vicious representatives from the powers-that-be from the front of the train, who remind everyone over and over that life on the train can only continue if everyone stays in their proper place: front people chilling at the front, and tail people suffering and dying in the tail.

The movie has a lot of themes, but perhaps most obvious is the theme of social stratification and inequality: it's pretty much chance who got the front section tickets, who got crammed into the rear, and who was just left to die, but of course the front section people have elaborate justifications for why the tail people MUST stay in the tail and how they ought to be GRATEFUL to be on the train at all so the should SHUT UP and stay where they are and STOP COMPLAINING. Sound familiar?

What struck me as brilliant in a sneaky way was the idea was making it a TRAIN. The plot of the movie is the story of a tail section rebellion. Since it's a train, the rebellion has to move forward through all the sections. Which means that as our bedraggled tail rebels fight, they cannot avoid passing through classrooms and sushi bars and night clubs, past dentistry and gardening and a woman sipping a cup of tea and reading a book.

The physical linearity space of the train reminded me immediately of these "shot-gun" houses I encountered when I lived in New Orleans. The story behind those -- urban myth or truth, I don't know -- was that at one time houses there were taxed by width, so people started building these long long houses with all the rooms in a row. And the thing about a shot-gun house is the thing about a train: because of the linearity of it, everyone has to encounter everyone else.

This is a big deal in a movie with social themes. Because it means you can't mentally put yourself somewhere else. Usually if you see class struggle and fighting you see either everyone is fighting or you see one group is being violent while the others are being killed and hurt. And maybe you can imagine yourself doing something completely different. Like teaching class. Or gardening.

But because it's a train, no can do. The train brings everyone together. The effect of this is that after endless images of dirt and pain and fear and fighting you're suddenly face to face with what are plausibly ordinary scenes of your very own life: you're sipping tea, and reading a book -- or you're teaching your students. But then here are these other people, close to death, right at your feet. Because the cars are all in a line, the train implicates everyone.

I have to say also that during the first part of the movie I found myself frequently returning to the thought that, wow, it might be better to be outside dead in the snow than to be on that train.

that reminded me of a disturbing reading experience I had the other day. I was reading Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer's new book on Sidgwick, and in it they're talking about a potential objection to the utilitarian idea that we should evaluate options by comparing the overall consequences of our actions.

The example includes the following thought experiment asking us to evaluate three options:

1) Peace

2) A nuclear war that kills 99 percent of the population

3) A nuclear ware the kills 100 percent of the population

The authors say "Any sane person will agree that (2) would be worse than (1) and (3) would be worse than (2)" -- the potential problem being that (3) seems SO MUCH MORE worse than (2) than (2) is than (1), possibly tough for the utilitarian to explain.

When I was reading I was tired. I misread them as saying that "Any sane person will agree that (2) would be worse than (3) -- that is, that it would be best, if there's going to be a nuclear war, if everybody died. I found myself nodding along in agreement with this.

I thought that they were saying that a war that leaves a smallish bedgraggled group of people, alone on earth, to torment one another and fight over the remaining resources, in a horrible world shot through with radioactivity, would actually be worse than a world with no people, where the cockroaches or whatever would be left alone, to re-evolve, hopefully into creatures who were wiser and more peaceful than we're evidently able to be. Seemed right to me.

So it was a bit of a shock to realize this idea, which had struck me as kind of commonsensical, was actually the one they were saying was insane.

I'm sure it says more about me than about anything else that I think it'd be better for no one to be left on earth at all.

But mostly it probably means: when it comes to planning for the post-apocalypse, don't put the Accidental Philosopher in charge.