Monday, March 30, 2015

Self-Actualization: Fake It Til You ... Keep Faking It

Thomas P. Barnett, "In the Heart of the Ozarks" (MU Museum of Art and Archaeology), via Wikimedia Commons

Last Friday afternoon I found myself in a frustrating situation. I was determined to exercise, but for various reasons found my only real option was going for a run outside. I was at my friend's house in Buffalo, and "outside" in Buffalo last Friday was like 25 degrees F and snowing. I didn't want to do it.

It was late afternoon, and I was tired and hungry. I was in a grouchy mood, feeling all put upon that I was faced with this whole "running" dilemma and mad that it was so cold even though it was officially spring.

BTW -- while we're on that subject -- what is it with cold spring weather? For reasons I can never understand, there's something about 25 degrees on March 27th that feels so much colder than 15 or even 10 degrees on January 15th. Is this just a matter of expectations? I don't know -- but I do know that I've run happily in much colder temperatures, but this 25 degrees, it was killing me.

So I did what I often do in such situations, which is that I made myself a deal. I told myself, "Look, all you have to do is get on your exercise clothes. Then you can do what you want. Get on the clothes, and if you don't want to run, you don't have to run. But get the clothes on."

Because I was at my friend's house, I didn't have access to my one special-super-cold-running-outfit, so getting on the clothes meant piling on some long underwear, some weird and ugly exercise pants, a running shirt, an old turtleneck, a nylon jacket thing, a hat, and fleece gloves that prevented me from using my iPhone (gasp!).

Just as I'd expected, once I was dressed in all those clothes, I started to feel hot and itchy and fidgety. More importantly, it started to seem ridiculous to take them all off without actually going outside. I stood there in the front hallway, contemplating my options, and eventually I took off my gloves and got the playlist set up and put the gloves back on forced myself out the door.

You know what's coming next, because exercise narratives are always formulaic tales of loss and redemption. About five minutes in I was striding along, enjoying the pretty white snow, jumping around icy patches, a smile on my face.

Halfway through I had one of those particular Buffalo-type experiences that makes people love the city so much, where I noticed a framed photo nailed to a huge tree on the side of the road, with writing explaining that the photo was from 1890 and that it depicted the very tree it was nailed to, when the tree was itty bitty.

The person who wrote on the photo had taken pains to point out which house in the photo was the house right near the tree, and had also drawn in arrows with captions pointing out the "horse-drawn carriage" and "horse droppings" in the road, so everyone would know it really was 1890. I stood there in the cold, warmed by my run, and looked at the the photo and then at tree and then back at the house and then back at the photo again and I was like, "This is so amazingly cool."

The reason I'm telling you all this story, though, is because of the part with the clothes and the getting out the door. I think when you see someone out running in the cold, smiling, pausing to take in a cool picture, it's so easy to think, "Oh, that's that kind of person, totally self-motivated, massive willpower, yada yada yada."

But it's not true. Sure there are people like that. But a lot of people are just muddling through, and happened to find a cagey and clever way to get themselves to do something. Like putting on their clothes and going from there. 

As I ran, I got thinking about how changing my clothes had altered my perspective on "going outside" versus "staying in," and I was reminded of this post from a couple of weeks ago, where I talked about rational choice theory. You may remember from that post the lobster story, about the person who wants to eat lobster if they haven't seen it alive but doesn't want to eat it if they have. I was writing in the post about how you can't know from the outside whether the person was being "irrational" in allowing irrelevant factors to come into play, or whether they were rational because their preferences genuinely changed.

I think the version of the story where the person just has changeable preferences is often the one most true to life, and I ran I thought to myself that this was a pretty similar situation -- not wanting to go outside when you're wearing your indoor clothes and wanting to go outside when you're in your outdoor clothes.

It's a kind of changeability that I think is really at the heart of the human condition. It's nice to think of yourself as a stable set of preferences, pursuing this or that project, by making yourself do the things that move that project along. But often it's not really like that, and the way you see things is seriously altered by the tiniest changes in your surroundings or your mood.

The trick, if you can manage it, is to harness those forces for good. It's often impossible. But once in a while, something like the clothing trick comes to mind -- and voilà! You may not be the rational possessor of stable preferences with long term goals you're marching toward-- but you sure look like one from the outside.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Economics, Ethics, and Piracy: Why Downloaders are Homo Economicus

Det grå fyr (The Grey Lighthouse), painting of the lighthouse in Skagen by Danish artist Christian Blache, via Wikimedia Commons

To me one of the worst hypocrisies in the modern world is the way that people who'd roll their eyes about ethics in most domains then turn around and use ethical shaming against the people they want to control.

Generally if you try to bring ethical considerations into a discussion where people are using economics and business reasoning, there'll be a general mood of eye rolling. Oh, ethics. Don't get in the way please -- we are doing grown-up business here.

But once the little people aren't doing what they want -- no one hesitates to play the ethics card.

For example, when it comes to downloading and internet piracy, corporate representatives who'd otherwise be first at the extreme capitalism table suddenly turn around and show us their school-marm side. Oooh, downloading! You bad person, you!

If you think about it for even a minute, content downloaders are doing exactly what the economic model predicts that they would do. They are acting to maximize their own self-interests. Their interest is in getting content for the least cost, and that is what they are doing.

Content downloaders are homo economicus.

What I didn't realize until I started learning more economic theory is that there's actually a framework for thinking about the kind of things that make internet content susceptible to the effects that it is. You can read details at this post but I'll go through the basics here.

Basically, "rival" or "rivalrous" goods are ones where if one person's consumption of that good decreases the amount another can consume. Food is a rival good, and in a sense most physical objects are, since if one person is using them another can't, at least not at the same time.

Under this definition, internet content is non-rival, since one person's consuming it doesn't decrease another's ability to consume it.

A good is "excludable" if there are ways to prevent people from consuming it. You can put food behind a wall and lock the door so it's excludable - and same with most physical objects.

And it's very difficult to stop people from sharing internet content, even when you really really really want to.

Goods that are neither rival nor excludable are called "public goods," and the usual examples are national defense, fresh air, and lighthouses. Technically, at least, it seems internet content also fits the description of a pure public good.

Isn't it interesting how little discussion you hear about this? 

To propose this discussion is not in any way to deny that artists and intellectuals should be paid for their work. Of course they should be. It's just to point out that there are various ways of making that happen, and we sure do hear a lot about some of them (DRM, huge lawsuits against poor people) and very little about the others.

What are those others? Public goods can be supported through grants, through government funding, through payments from consumers who opt to pay in for various reasons. Maybe everyone could have a minimum income.

In a sense, the alternative model is how some intellectual content already works. Professors get salaries, and produce intellectual content -- adding to the already compelling reasons that such intellectual should be freely shared. You can read a further discussion of alternatives in the body and comments of this post.

Are these good options? Honestly, I don't know. But isn't it strange how seldom we talk about them? Instead, we're subjected to a barrage of moralizing, largely from giant corporations -- who obviously have a huge interest in the old models -- and who wouldn't hesitiate to crush or mock anyone who used ethical reasoning in any way against their interests.

What a bunch of hypocrites.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Forced Social Choices And The Rhetoric Of Individualism, Or, I Don't Want An Apple Watch -- Yet

On a scale of 1-10, my current desire for an Apple watch is trending near 0. I don't know about you, but I'm trying for a little less intimacy with my gadgets, not more. Certainly the Guardian's description of its new "Moments" for the Apple watch didn't bump me up. Moments from the news tailored for my needs? "Timely, simple, glanceable?" "If a reader wants more, they can turn to our phone app to get the full story"? WTF?

I speak of my desire "currently" trending advisedly, because we all know how changeable and easily manipulated consumer desires are. Maybe in five years I'll be the one with the watch connector embedded in my skin, stopping by the Mac genius bar whenever I get a rash or take an unapproved form of bubble bath. Who knows?

Anyway, I was thinking about the Apple watch the other day, and I got to imagining what circumstances would make me change my mind, and I got to musing about how massively socially influenced our decisions about such things are these days. "Influenced" is probably too weak a word, even. Basically when it comes to the fabric of life these days, there are lots of things where you can't realistically opt out at all.  

For example, many jobs now require not only cars and cellphones but also that you be on social media. I hate Microsoft Word and I try to avoid using it, but when there are these ubiquitous requirements to submit in .doc format -- what's a girl supposed to do? Just this morning there was an article in the New York Times about how online programs that are partly games and partly social media are going to force workers to bust their asses 110% or get canned.

Watch-wise, what's going to happen when your workplace tells you that it's a requirement that you wear a smartwatch so they can track your emotions and health so they can fire you for inefficient feelings and doing crazy shit like eating candy bars? Will we be glad to have the watch "option" around then? Isn't anyone else worried about these things?

I'm constantly trying in my tiny way to buck trends I think are awful, but sometimes I feel like a lone voice in the wilderness. As a person who is "carless by choice" catching or calling an occasional taxi is essential to my life. I live in dread of the time that "ride sharing" takes over, and traditional taxi service disappears, so that only smart-phone users can get rides and anyone who displeases their driver -- or is of the the wrong race/gender/sexual orientation/appearance/ability to afford a nice handbag -- can't get picked up. In hopes of supporting the old ways as long as possible, I ride the old-fashioned way. But I feel like it's a losing proposition.

I'm also freaking out about the possible disappearance of cash. I keep seeing these stories about how cash, being difficult to trace and antithetical to corporate interests in tracking customers' info, is going to be disappear. So I started trying to use it as often as possible. You may not know this, but cash is actually a pretty convenient form of payment. You can just put some "dollars" in a wallet or something, and then when it's time to pay you take them out and give them to the salesclerk. Voilà! It takes like two seconds. But -- call me crazy -- I don't see "cash" as one of the big twenty-first century trends.

Every time I think about the coming Internet of Things I remind myself not to buy any "smart" appliances that can track my Pinot Grigio consumption, my preference for full-fat yogurt, and so on, and share it with corporate and government interests. But then I think about how that's going to be -- about how to get repair or replacement parts you're going to have to go on eBay and connect with enthusiasts and get to know someone who knows a guy who fixes things in his basement. Maybe I should quit my job and become an appliance repair apprentice?

What changes all this from an interesting set of sociological changes and into something bizarre and confounding is that the new impossibility of social independence is happening alongside a huge recommitment to the rhetoric of individuality.

Aren't you sick of hearing that people can do what they want, and make their own future, and have to take responsibility for their choices? Aren't you sick of the presumption that if you chose a thing, you freely opted in, and you don't get to complain about the consequences?

The way people talk, you'd think we were living on a fucking prairie and keeping alive by  killing more small animals than the next guy, instead of facing, every day, choices like "play this ridiculous game and get nudged by your colleagues or ... starve." Thank you for playing!

Getting back to the watch. The one thing that might put me into positive watch desire territory would be if you could go out with just your watch. If your watch could function as your keys and your wallet and your phone -- and you didn't have to carry anything? No purse, or bag, or backpack? If you could wear a dress and shoes and a watch and that's it? Not have to carry anything? Hmmm ... if that were the deal I'd be crossing into dilemma territory.

But no -- the watch isn't even a replacement for your phone, which you still have to carry. It's just  kind of a way for you to be more intimate with your phone, which you then have to find a place for and not lose. Lucky, I guess, for all those surveillance companies that are using your phone to secretly track your whereabouts and share them with law enforcement.

But hey -- you phone users? You chose to have a phone, right? So you'll have to suck it up.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Rationality Theory And Phrenology

 I'm always wondering in what ways the people of the future will look back at us and wonder WTF we are thinking. What will be the phrenology of our time?

There are of course many possibilities. But lately on my mind is the bizarre pretence we seem to have that we've got a solid handle on human motivation, behavior, and rationality. Hearing people talk, you'd think we've got such a good grasp of this stuff that it's meaningful to go around using theories and data to analyze what people do, and why, and what they ought to be doing instead.

Because really: when it comes to why people do what they do, we are wandering around in an epistemological desert. You'd never know that, though, from the way people go on about stuff.  The way people approach some numbers about some stuff people did, you'd think they were analyzing the latest numbers from the Large Hadron Collider.

For example, how often in the last year have you read something that used data to claim that people are really "irrational" in certain systematic ways, or that to make "rational" economic decisions they ought to be doing such-and-so, or that the presence of certain distractions -- such as really sexy underdressed women -- causes people to behave irrationally?

Don't you find these "findings" are often pronounced in the comfortable and confident tone of a man who knows he's wearing the right suit? But if you even just scratch the surface, you start to wonder what the hell they are talking about.

The standard science-y theory of rationality they're typically referencing is something like rational choice theory, where "rational" just means taking taking the least costly approach to getting what you want -- that is, the rational person maximizes their preference satisfaction at the least cost of doing things they don't want to do.

Sounds good -- and sure, maybe it's internally coherent. But here's the thing. If you're trying to think about when people might succeed or fail at being rational, you run right into a brick wall. This is because if you don't know what a person preferred, you don't know whether they behaved rationally in getting it. And -- unless they're your intimate friend or your patient in psychotherapy, how do you know what a person preferred?

It's like we've mentioned before. If a person does a surprising thing, you can never know whether they acted irrationally in satisfying a set of unsurprising preferences or whether they acted rationally in satisfying a set of surprising preferences.

And as we've discussed here before as well, even when it comes to money preferences aren't obvious. I prefer a fixed-rate mortgage even if it results in somewhat larger payments overall, because I care about the peace of mind, straightforward planning, and other things associated with fixed rates more than I care about the financial loss. I've been accused by an financial industry insider of being irrationally risk-averse, on the grounds that my decision will result in paying more money overall.

Now: suppose all you knew about me was that I had turned down a variable-rate mortgage in favor of a more expensive fixed-rate one. What could you say about the rationality of my choice?

Nothing. You can't say anything. All you can say is that if I had one set of preferences, I acted rationally and if I didn't, I didn't.

But this applies across the board. From the fact that someone does something -- even a pattern of things -- you can't really infer anything. Oh, a person wanted lobster, but then on seeing live lobsters changed their mind? You think that's irrational? As Richard Posner says, "an alternative interpretation is that this person simply has different preferences for two different goods: One is a lobster seen only after being cooked, and the other is a lobster seen before, in his living state, as well as after." Voilà! Rationality.

If there's no way to judge from the outside whether a decision is rational or irrational, then what are all these people doing with their pronouncements?

The most likely possibility, to my mind, is that they are projecting onto the subjects the kinds of preferences they themselves would have, and then going on from there. For example, the financial industry insider who called me irrational was going on a simple assumption: that people prefer to have more money rather than less, and don't have other preferences conflicting with this. It's a nice sounding assumption. It just happens to be totally and obviously false.

If this idea about projection is at all on the right track, then the whole thing starts to seem deeply creepy -- because the people pronouncing on rationality are so often of a certain type -- comfortable suburban upbringing, ivy-type education, lots of time being a guy and hanging out with guys. It's not news that the rest of us might have preferences that are radically different from theirs.

As I understand it, back in the day it was common in social science to just go with a "rationality assumption" -- assume people are rational and make inferences about other things, like preferences, from there. That does, indeed, avoid the difficulty we've been talking about, since you never have to determine whether someone's been rational -- the answer is always Yes.

I don't know too much about the intellectual history of this topic, but I believe there was a move away from this approach because it seemed so implausible as a description of people and the rationality assumption risked being used as a non-falsifiable -- and thus non-scientific -- tautology.

Those are good reasons, as far as they go, but at some point we'll have to grapple with the fact that once you move away from the rationality assumption, you bump right into a pretty extreme kind of uncertainty. Because the truth is, big-picture-wise, we don't really know why people do what they do. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

In Defense Of Minor Bad Habits

Gerard ter Borch, Woman Drinking Wine, via Wikimedia Commons

There are, as I see it, basically two ways of understanding the human condition.

The first is that, absent some set of dysfunctions, diseases, problems, damage, human life is good in a pretty simple way. Heal yourself -- and before you know it you'll be out enjoying the beauty of the sky, appreciating the deliciousness of a red pepper, volunteering to turn puppies into the guide dogs of the future, you know the drill.

The second is that the problems of the human condition transcend all therapies. Heal your heart, heal your mind, have the good luck that the people you love all live long and prosper -- it doesn't really matter. Life will still often be boring, unsatisfying, and pointless, bad when it's packed with unquenchable longings, and worse when it's not.

Unless you're new here, it'll come as no surprise that I hold the second view. My feeling is, you don't have to have been locked in a room as a child to have grown up into an adult who often feels fussy or angry or massively impatient or whatever. You just have to be a human being.

There are, of course, people who hold the first view. They're always talking about how if you just stopped eating sugar or found the right therapist or something, you'd be fine. Somehow -- and this is the part that always bugs me the most -- there seems to be this idea that solving one life problem will help you solve all the others, because you'll finally get it all together.

Often I find it's the opposite. Master one thing, another thing bothers you more. When I stopped smoking, I started drinking more.

If these people-of-the-first-view just had this opinion for and about themselves, that would be totally fine and they and I could live in peace. I could complain and drink too much pinot grigio, and they could go camping and exult about the views, and while we might not be best friends, I wouldn't feel like their existence is a problem for me.

But somehow the people-of-the-first-view often seem hell-bent on applying it globally. This is a problem, especially for those of us who don't fit the first-view experience of life. Also, I think it goes beyond the scope of oh-some-people-were-annoying-on-Facebook, because it gets into everything, and no one can just enjoy a minor bad habit anymore.

A few days ago the New York Times had a story about how Vermont is taking more urgent steps with respect to dealing with the heroin problem there. The story featured a guy who seemed like your basic dad type guy and how he'd become addicted to heroin; at first the clinic couldn't fit him in, and then with the new programs they could, and he figures that if that last-minute opening hadn't occurred, he probably would have died.

Reading about all the people with heroin problems in this article made me feel so fucking sad. And I thought to myself, "If these people were all smoking lots of cigarettes and drinking too much beer and using pot all the time, wouldn't that be so much better from any conceivable point of view?"

I mean, wouldn't it? Isn't it always better if someone is muddling through with some relatively safe crap, some minor bad habit, even if it's bad for them, than if they're doing a drug that can easily kill you, like heroin?

One major problem with the hegemony of the first view is that when the rhetoric of War On Minor Bad Habits gets out of control, you take away the one tool that people who experience the second-view-human-condition people have to manage their bad habits. Sure, they might give up their bad habits. But if they're sad or going through a divorce or out of work, you know what happens to those minor bad habits. They become a heroin addiction, and then they kill you.

So sure, if someone you love has a minor bad habit, give them a nudge and a nag every now and then, but don't get on your high horse about it -- and don't act like there's some magic Rubik's cube of treatments and habits that once you lock in, you're good. For a lot of people, that's never going to be true.