Monday, August 31, 2015

Guest Post: Regulating Mobile Dating Apps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 24, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 17, 2015

What Is Femininity, Anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 10, 2015

La Dolce Vita Bella Donna, Or, The Problem Of Narrative Female Promiscuity

A week ago I went to see La Dolce Vita at the Bell Lightbox. I'm a huge Fellini fan and I can't get enough of Marcello Mastroianni so of course I loved it and thought it was brilliant.

Among the themes of the movie is our modern celebrity-obsessed, reality-TV drenched, pictures-or-it-didn't-happen culture -- which, given that it was made in 1960, really shows the crazy prescience and brilliance of Fellini himself. This is the movie that literally created the concept of "paparazzi."

Paparazzi in La Dolce Vita
 Among the other themes of the movie is the ambivalence of our hero -- also named "Marcello." Our hero flits from party to party, photo-op to photo-op, babe to babe, with a vague sense that he ought to be doing something deeper and more sensible with his life. On the other hand, his one sensible intellectual friend is suicidally depressed with the boredom of family life. And Marcello is tormented by his fiancé and how she only talk about what they're going to have for dinner, what kind of house they're going to live in some day, and how mad she is that he isn't at home.

Marcello and Maddalena go for a drive
I feel like when a woman says she loves a movie that deals with themes of male sexual promiscuity and big-breasted babes like Anita Ekberg, there's always suspicion. Isn't the movie sexist and misogynistic? What's a woman doing liking a movie like that? Is she really engaging in some misogyny of her own? Is she really just crushing on Marcello Mastroianni and wishing she was Anita Ekberg-- thus exemplifying her own sexist bullshit?

Marcello and Sylvia
But I think this kind of suspicion is deeply misplaced. Women, too, struggle with ambivalence, with the dilemmas of the boring versus the stupid, with the attractions of vapidity. God knows they struggle with being turned on sexually by qualities and people they would otherwise find revolting. Of course they want to see these themes explored in movies and art.

So what's a girl to do? You might think, Well, why can't there be the female version, and why couldn't you go see that? You know -- like how they're doing Ghostbusters with an all female cast? You could have La Dolce Vita starring Catherine Deneuve as Marcella: a beautiful but conflicted journalist who traipses around Rome having sex with rich and famous people, going to their parties, apologizing to her cute but boring guy back home, going with her mother to a strip club --

Oh wait. No, you couldn't actually have that movie. I don't just mean that that movie would never get made -- which is of course also true. I think it goes deeper than that -- because I think you actually could not make a movie about a woman who acts like that and have the movie be about the same sort of things at all. No matter how you tried to do it, it would not come off that way.

For one thing, in our time and place you simply cannot present a promiscuous woman and have her story be about the human condition. Because of our various modern cultural obsessions and because of the meaning we assign to women's sexuality, promiscuity in women just can't be interpreted that way. 

When it comes to narrative female promiscuity, there are several common interpretive tropes.

-- There's the obvious reactionary trope: "What a slut, she deserves to have something awful happen to her."

-- There's the surprisingly common damage trope: "She runs around like that because she was hurt as a child/is desperate for love/wants to get back at someone/is looking for attention.

-- There's the objectification trope: "The author/filmmaker/director is just pandering to the desires of male audiences to see sexy and sexualized women."

Obviously these are different: it's often true, for example, that the author/filmmaker/director is just pandering to guys in the audience. As useful as this can be to point out, however, it basically guarantees that a story about a "Marcella" could never be understood as a story about the conflicts between glamor and home life, about the attractions of the awful and the stupid, or about whether it's worth trying to do something with yourself or whether it's all pointless anyway. It would be interpreted as being about something else.

So that movie -- about the female Marcella -- is a movie that couldn't really exist.

This means if you're a woman and you want to watch a movie about those things, you have to go see one in which a guy experiences them, and then project yourself into the main Marcello Mastroianni character instead of into, say, the Anita Ekberg ingenue character or the Anouk Aimée bored heiress character.

If you are doing that, you'll thank the Forces That Control The Universe that not only does Marcello have beautiful, soulful eyes with luxurious lashes, he also wears amazing clothes, rides occasionally in the passenger seat, and likes to sit around cafés drinking and talking. It's not so far away, after all.

Monday, August 3, 2015

What Do People Think About All Day?

This question isn't a joke and I don't mean it metaphorically or as an indirect way of implying something else. I mean it literally. What do people think about?

A couple of months ago, I was diagnosed with a cracked tooth just before I was going to travel to Paris, and the specialist I saw said I absolutely had to do something about it before I could go. If I didn't, there was a danger the pressure changes of air travel would exacerbate the crack and cause terrible pain. I imagined landing in a European city in intense dental pain and immediately decided to take his advice.

He recommended a root canal. I'd had one before, and it was pretty bad, but he assured me that there would be no pain. They'd do whatever they had to do to make sure my mouth was numb enough and it would be fine.

I was skeptical. I have this thing where novocaine or lidocaine or whatever it is they use these days is ineffective on me without some other drug, like nitrous oxide. I've always been this way. Shot after shot after shot, it never really works. My regular dentist gives me nitrous -- since he treats a lot of kids he always calls it "the magic nose" -- and that works amazingly. As we've discussed, for me nitrous mostly changes a frightening and painful experience into a fun opportunity to take legal drugs.

The specialist didn't use nitrous, though. I trusted him about the pain, but still: it was just going to be me with the needles and the drill and the whole unpleasant experience.

I had like a week in between arranging the appointment and the actual event, and in the meantime I tried not to think about it. When I did think about it, I kind of freaked out. The whole mechanism of a root canal -- well, look, I'm not even going to into it, because if you're at all like me even the description of it is so disturbing, so much the sort of thing that would cause you pain, so much the kind of thing that seems like it's damaging you rather than helping you, you don't even want to think about it.

As in the nature of things, the more I tried not to think about it, the more I thought about it, and the more I thought about it the worse I felt. Being by nature and by training an overly reflective person, I started to think about why I couldn't put it out of my mind, which got me thinking about what other things I think about on a daily basis and why I couldn't substitute some of those things in for thinking about the root canal. 

And the more I pondered that the more weirded out I got. What do I think about? Once you bracket the obvious planning and internal complaining, what is there? I was appalled to notice that while happy thoughts about the past could barely hold my attention for a nanosecond, unhappy thoughts about the past could stay festering in my brain over long and recurring moments.

Once when I was in ninth grade, I was hanging around some kids I thought were cool including a boy I thought was cute, and they were being funny, and I was laughing. And that boy turned to me and said, "What is it with you anyway? You'll laugh at anything."

How is it memories like that can really catch hold and stick with you, while nice thoughts about people who love you just drift away like the seeds of a Cottonwood tree?

I don't if everyone is like this, but I found some of my happiest and most absorbed moments, moments when I could successfully not think about the root canal, were spent musing about possible future projects -- not, like, realistic projects like finishing my book manuscript or learning to make spanakopita, but just-beyond-realistic projects, like getting into bodybuilding or writing a successful comedy-drama screenplay.

I'm usually a very reality-based person. WTF?

Eventually I started casting around for other things to fill my mind, to block out thoughts of the root canal. And that's when I started wondering: what do other people think about? I see them sitting quietly on the subway, or standing around before exercise class, and their expressions look pretty placid. Are they obsessing about the past? Are they daydreaming about the future? What else is there?

In the end, I thought about that root canal all week all the time, and I fretted about it and worried about it, and finally the day came, and though the doctor was as good as his word in terms of dental numbness, it's also the case that I had to have shot after shot after shot of novocaine, and after each one they had to test my tooth with a super cold thing that made me jump out of the chair, and there were complexities which meant they coudn't finish it in one three hour appointment so I had to come back.

But it all ended up fine and my teeth feel great. So all that suckiness and difficulty? I try not to think about it.