Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Some Books To Alleviate Holiday Boredom And Dread

For me, inactivity often induces existential angst and the feeling of the pointlessness of life. So I don't do well with blah holidays like New Year's Day, when people tend to laze around eating and watching sports and everything is closed. Maybe you're a bit this way yourself. If so, here are some books you could read -- my favorite novels and memoirs from the last year or two. All highly recommended!

Don't forget: if you want to support alternatives to the dystopian future where Amazon controls the world's reading material, you can always buy these from Barnes and Noble or Indigo.

Rakesh Satyal, Blue Boy
This novel tells the story of a kid named Kiran, of Indian descent, growing up in Ohio, who wants to wear makeup, hang out with girls, and possibly have sex with boys. Not surprisingly, Kiran struggles to find a way to fit in to his world. Funny and sad, but mostly funny.

Paul Beatty, The Sellout
It's almost impossible to describe The Sellout, as people have been discovering since it won the Man Booker prize and all kinds of other things. It's a satirical commentary on modern culture and modern America and modern race relations, told through some very .. unlikely plot elements, like a black hero who gets in trouble for trying to bring back segregation and slavery. Hilarious and biting.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer
The "sympathizer" in question is a a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist double agent at the end of the Vietnam War, who travels to the US ostensibly alongside US-supporting Vietnamese but secretly reporting back to his communist allies in Vietnam. I don't usually read the Q and Y type things at the end of books, but I did with this one, and the author said this one brilliant and fascinating thing. Usually, he said, books about colonized places written for the west fall into this trap of explaining the culture of the colonized place to the imperialist listener; this serves to flatten and misrepresent it. By having his narrator travel to the US and report back, he was able to fill his book with the opposite: explanations of US culture to outsiders. An amazing book.

Paul Murray, The Mark and the Void
About modern banking and everything else wrong with the world. We've already covered it in detail.

Riad Sattouf, Arab of the Future
Graphic memoir by an author who is half French and half Syrian, about growing up in Libya, Syria, and France, but also about the terrifying helplessness of childhood no matter what is going on.

Trevor Noah, Born a Crime
This memoir by the host of The Daily Show was so much better and more interesting than I thought it would be. Noah grew up in South Africa as a mixed race kid when it was literally illegal for people of different races to have sex and children. The book is about life under apartheid, complicated family relations, and being an awkward teenager. Also, it explains many things you probably didn't know, like why people sometimes name their kids "Hilter" in South Africa. Funny and sad, in equal measure. There is also violence, including domestic violence, so be careful to read this in the proper frame of mind.

Tarquin Hall, The Vish Puri detective series

If you're looking for something lighter and less serious than the other books listed, check out this serious about an Indian crime-solving detective. These books are entertaining and also contain many small interesting details about Indian food, politics, culture, corruption, family life, spirituality, language, history ... you name it. I had assumed the author was Indian, and when I discovered that he's a guy of British and American ancestry who grew up in the UK I was surprised, and honestly a bit disturbed -- it just seems different when this kind of culture commentary comes from an outsider. But Tarquin Hall lives in Delhi, and is married to an Indian woman, and the end of this interview at least suggests his novels are popular with readers in India.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Culture And Identity Everywhere, Or, Where Are The Reluctant Vegetarians?

For a long time, I used to be a vegetarian. It was for ethical reasons only: I've always loved to eat meat. OK maybe it wasn't for such a long time, but it was .. maybe 15 years or something.

For various reasons it all kind of fell apart around the time I moved from California to Canada in 2004. For one thing, I had persistently low ferritin -- and yes, you can take iron supplements for that, but no, it's not easy or straightforward, since they upset your stomach and make you feel gross. For another, I suck at pre-preparing food; I found that in Canada, going out for a quick lunch as a vegetarian often meant a pile of pasta or a pile of French fries or a grilled cheese sandwich -- all foods that are fine as a one-off but disgusting if you eat them every day. And then I accidentally ate some mistranslated poultry while traveling in France, and I was like "OMG, this tastes amazing."

Even my feminism tended me toward meat eating: as a steak-lover, I was super-pissed about all the men out there enjoying steak, and never giving it a second thought, while here I was worrying and depriving myself. Well -- I thought -- I'm going to eat it too, so there. 

All this time I've had some vague cognitive dissonance, but honestly there's so much else going on in the world to be upset about that I found it hard to prioritize. But then recently I kept seeing references to meat-eating's effect on the environment and contribution to climate change, and I kept remembering the reasons I'd been a vegetarian in the first place. I read Oryx and Crake, which paints a disturbingly plausible dystopian future of our relations to our animal friends. Plus, I remembered the symbolism of it -- the feeling that regardless of whether your actions are "making a difference," at least there's that feeling that you're standing up for something that isn't actively contributing to a status quo that is frankly pretty deeply screwed up.

So a few months ago I decided I could at least do this: eat vegetarian when it's easy to do so. It's easy at a lot of restaurants. It's pretty easy when I'm at home by myself -- especially since I actually like tofu. Where I teach, you can now get some decent felafel, so it's pretty easy to do on campus.

Since I started doing this, I keep finding two things: one, how few restaurants offer decent vegetarian food, and two, how many people associate vegetarianism with somehow not liking meat or not wanting to eat it or regarding it as somehow unhealthy or gross.

These are bizarre to me. I mean, it's 2016. Aren't vegetarians everywhere? And don't they want to eat with non-vegetarians? Sometimes fancier restaurants do OK, though often it's just some crappy pasta thing like pumpkin ravioli that is basically starch on starch filled with starch. Kind of blech. The real puzzle, though, is casual places and pubs. If you're serving burgers already, is it that hard to add a veggie burger? Don't they come pre-packaged and frozen? 

I think in some deep sense this restaurant problem is related to the other thing -- that is, with the way avoiding meat somehow is seen as a distinctive identity or approach to the world, rather than just a relatively simple and possibly occasional way make an environmentally friendly and animal-friendly choice. I was recently in a large group of people where the conversation turned to meat, and someone told a story about how they'd cooked something in meat that isn't usually cooked in meat, and how some nearby vegetarian had said, "oh that smells so good!" and everyone in the room laughed knowingly, as if that poor vegetarian had been outed as some kind of hypocrite -- which is, of course, ridiculous.

I love to eat meat. I think it tastes delicious, and it makes me feel good. If I'm eating a veggie burger, it's not because I have some weird identity commitment to pasta being a virtuous food, or meat being decadent, or beef being disgusting. It's not even that I think veggie burgers are healthier. Given the latest research, I expect they're not. It's just, you know, a bit of less factory farming misery and a bit of saving the planet.

As I say, I think somehow the two things to together: that seeing vegetarianism as a taste and thus identity is related to how hard it is to find vegetarian food in casual eating places. I don't know how it works, but maybe it's something like this. As with so many things these days, the choice to do one thing or other is seen as reflecting not just a means-end calculation you made (avoiding meat better for environment) but rather something about what kind of person you are. And since it would be weird to be the kind of person who thinks meat is somehow wrong or evil or bad or gross, and still go around saying you like it, it's expected that you'll present a coherent identity choice on the issue. Then, naturally, it's expected you'll choose your friends and restaurants accordingly. Vegetarians will hang out with other vegetarians at vegetarian restaurants; pub people will hang out with other pub people at burger places.

I don't know what else to say about this except - "I don't like it." I feel like a burger person who is trying to eat vegetarian food, and I feel like a pub person who is in the wrong restaurant. I feel like saying I am avoiding meat even though I like it makes people feel weird, like I'm doing something bizarrely out of character or something.

Last semester when I was teaching philosophy of sex and love, we discussed Foucault, and we got talking about the idea not all societies had/have a concept of "sexual orientation," because sometimes you can just have a set of things you choose and it's not seen as revealing something deep or unchangeable about who you are. It's just: you chose that thing that time. I feel like with almost everything we're going in the other directions. Every choice is taken to reflect something deep or important about who you are. But why?

Weirdly, I feel like even most of the vegetarians I know seem happy with their vegetarianism. I don't hear a lot of other people talking about how they wanted steak but they ate tofu instead. Why not? Is it true that most people who don't eat meat don't want to? Or is it that it's easier to sacrifice if you convince yourself you didn't like the thing in the first place? Is it some deep manifestation of the harmony myth of human nature?

Or is it something much simpler: that the people who feel this -- the reluctant vegetarians -- just don't talk about it much?

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Non-Post About A Missing Question: What We Talk About When We Don't Talk About The Environment

Because of the end of term crunch and a million other things, I didn't have time to write something this week. If I had written something, it was going to be about the following question: why do you never see considerations of environmental issues when seemingly smart and well-meaning people are writing about other things?

For example, why does Farhad Manjoo's column about the death-of-gadgets not consider the perspective that yeah, thank god for the death of gadgets, because the endless pile-up of formerly useful gadgets is destroying the environment?

Generally, I like and enjoy Manjoo's tech column. He seems like an intelligent, informed guy. Probably he's heard about the mountains of garbage clogging up the oceans and the way minerals from electronics create toxic environmental waste. So why write about how sad it is that there are fewer gadgets? Why complain that meta-gadget are replacing what used to be a multiplicity of gadgets? Or, at least, why not just pause to consider that alongside the mourning for gadgets, we might pause to remember that gadgets are actually a problem?

I feel like this is a general thing. You almost never read about environmental impact when you're reading about home decor, or landscaping ideas, or gardening, or travel, or restaurants, or anything like that. In fact, you almost always read about environmental impact only when you're reading something directly about the environment.

Why is this? It is that environmental issues just aren't on people's minds? Is it that the news industry categorizes one thing one way and one thing another and they can't bring themselves to put it together? Is it that thinking about environmental impact is considered a buzz-kill, and so has no place in "fun" journalism pieces -- like pieces about tech? Is it that everyone is so overwhelmed and freaked out that they can't bring themselves to think about it?

Usually here at TKIN we have a lot of theories on these kinds of questions. But with this one, I really don't know. What is the deal with the missing environmental talk?

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The "Surrendered Person" As A Model For Us All

My mother raised me to be a feminist (thanks, mom!) and so when I see a headline like "I Am a Surrendered Wife," I know there's going to be trouble. When I think "surrendered wife," I think a person who has agreed to sublimate her own will and well-being to that of her husband, to give up on shared decision-making, and to have sex on demand.

But when I read the article I got a little weirded out, becuase a lot of what she was saying seemed to me to be ... like normal relationship advice. In fact, a lot of what she was saying seemed to me to be good advice for just being a person and relating to other people.

For one thing, the author describes constantly hectoring her husband, disagreeing with him, trying to change him, and not respecting his opinions. Um -- that's not equality, that's being an annoying pain in the ass. For another thing, most of what she was recommending seemed to be about respect for others and being kind, receptive, and grateful.

Let's look at the "six principles" of being a surrendered wife. The surrendered wife:
  • Relinquishes inappropriate control of her husband
  • Respects her husband's thinking
  • Receives his gifts graciously and expresses gratitude for him
  • Expresses what she wants without trying to control him
  • Relies on him to handle household finances
  • Focuses on her own self-care and fulfillment
Leaving aside the financial business, aren't these all things everyone should be doing for everyone else all the time? Don't try to boss other people around. Respect others' opinions and views. Be grateful for the kindnesses you receive, and try to be kind in return. Don't try to control other people.

One of the more interesting items on the list is the last one: that the "surrendered wife" needs to make happiness for herself instead of expecting her spouse to magically provide the happiness and meaning in her life. This is a bit weird, because it's like the opposite of being "surrendered." It's like, "Take responsibility for your own happiness! Your relationship isn't the end-all-and-be-all!"

One of the more potentially contentious aspects of being a "surrendered wife" that doesn't come up on this list has to do with sex. Part of the idea is usually that even when you don't feel like it, you should have sex with your husband even when you're not in the mood.

Of course, there is a way of understanding this in which it is awful and sexist: that no matter how you're feeling your feelings don't matter, you just have to have sex when the other person wants it. But there's another way to think of it that seems to be completely normal and good advice for everyone, both men and women: if the person you love wants to have sex with you, and you don't feel like it, you don't have to say "no" immediately. Maybe try it out a bit. See how it goes.

In fact, recent research into women's sexuality has raised the idea that maybe expecting desire to arise "spontaneously" is a male-centric model of sexuality. For many women, desire is "responsive" and emerges in connection with sexual activity itself. To think spontaneous desire is "better" is just another form of taking women to be "lesser."

So that just leaves ... money. And no, of course partners should engage in shared decision-making about money. So that one, I think, doesn't translate over. But frankly, it seems an odd fit with the rest of the list anyway.

I don't know how normal relationship ideas got so strange that respecting the other person's opinions and being grateful and not trying to control them became "surrender" rather than just, you know, normal life, but I guess that's just another one of those insane things about the early 21st century.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Few Philosophical Reflections On Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic

I just finished reading Sam Quinones's astonishing book Dreamland. Dreamland tells the story of the story of America's recent opiate epidemic, but it is also about a million other things like modern American culture, the ethics of health care, late capitalism, the role of government, the nature of pain, and the timeless dilemma of human existence: can you make things better for people without also, somehow, making them worse?

This post isn't an overview of important themes from Dreamland. For that you'll have to read the book. And you should read the book. If you're not sure, start by listening to the author talk about it on the WTF podcast or check out more info here.

Anyway, this is just a discussion of a few things I personally found philosophically interesting, relevant, and thought-provoking.

1. Philosophy of science: evidence and social epistemology

One of the central aspects of the epidemic was the sudden rise in prescriptions for opioid pain relievers and particularly Oxycontin. For a long time it was part of health care orthodoxy that opioids are highly addictive and thus dangerous, and so should only be prescribed in special circumstances like after surgery or when someone is near death. But Oxy tried to change all that.

Oxycontin was formulated as a time-release pill made up of the opioid oxycodone intended to eliminate the euphoria and make the drug non-addictive. It is not surprising that Oxycontin was aggressively marketed as non-addictive: in the nature of things, the makers of the drug stood to make more money the more it was prescribed, and this is what companies do.

What is surprising, and indeed utterly shocking, is how many people went along with it -- with a belief that challenged everything they thought they knew -- on the basis of virtually no evidence. Doctors believed it, med school profs started to teach it, massive health care decisions were made on its basis. And, of course, it turned out to be wildly false. So: what the hell?

As with so many things, it turns out that the answers are complex. The drug arrived in the middle of a shift away from thinking of pain as something to be endured no matter how awful and toward thinking of pain as something that ought to treated. That shift probably would have been a good thing, except that at the same time, insurance companies didn't want to pay for the multidimensional treatments known to help with pain. The producers of Oxy spent a fortune conducting huge conferences that trained drug reps and reinforced the message.

These reps were trained to cite, as evidence, a text known as "Porter and Jick." This text, which was refereed to as a study and sometimes described as a large or important study, was supposed to show that opiods aren't so addictive after all. But Porter and Jick isn't a study at all. In fact, it turned out to be a one-paragraph letter to the editor, written in 1980, to the New England Journal of Medicine, in which a doctor with a taste for data wrote out an informal observation of patients at the hospital where he worked. Not only wasn't it a study, it described patients in a highly controlled environment receiving drugs before the rethinking of pain treatment was underway.

No one questioned "Porter and Jick" -- at least for a long time. People shared the info, passed it along. Quinones points out that everyone thought everyone else had read it; before the journal archives were put online in 2010, finding out what Porter and Jick really was would have required going to the library and looking it up -- something doctors just didn't have time to do. Interestingly, when I tried to use PubMed to view Porter and Jick, I saw the image at the top of this post -- no associated abstract even! -- and Google Scholar offers only a citation. It is still not an easy text to find!

Don't you find it profoundly disturbing that people can cite something crucial, and build on it, and teach it, and share it, without really knowing what it is? I do. And yet, I expect that this -- or something like it -- happens a lot. We know that science proceeds in a highly social way, and that scientists trust one another. People appropriately subject some beliefs to much more crucial scrutiny than others, because they are relying on a sense of what is, and isn't, already known and what is, or isn't, important to revisit. You couldn't require everyone to check everything going back all the way at every stage, or nothing would move forward. It's complicated.

Of course, when it comes to actual pharmaceuticals, you could build in specific checks on things. This article points out that the current US scheme -- in which advertising has to be submitted to, but not reviewed by, the FDA before it can be used -- is a big part of the problem.

2. Capitalism and philosophy of economics

The story of the opiate epidemic is, in some ways, the story of capitalism going where capitalism had never gone before. If you leave out the "people dying in droves" problem, the story of Oxy is a story of business success. And Dreamland describes how a guys from one town in Mexico create a kind of pizza-delivery model for black tar heroin, where you call and there's a guy, and there's quality control and customer service and so on.

I'm constantly trying to convince people that economics is not value-free: that our definitional choices affect our conclusions, that this process is not value-neutral, that assumptions about what is and is not important are hidden behind seemingly objective principles.

The opiate situation is a perfect illustration. The story we always hear about capitalist exchange is that when A and B  make a voluntary transaction, overall well-being improves: since A and B are both getting what they prefer, they are both better off.

As Adam Smith well knew, this is true only in certain contexts and against certain backdrops, and ethical questions and economic ones are deeply intertwined. If you allow that people buying Oxy and black tar heroin, becoming addicted, and often dying is a "bad thing," then you immediately face several deep questions: How is this exchange unlike others? What is the theory of "well-being" in which Coca-Cola makes you better off but Oxy doesn't? What is the theory of "voluntary" that makes addiction incompatible with free choice?

In her wonderful 1962 book Economic Philosophy, the economist Joan Robinson uses the example of addiction to showcase the problems with the standard economic view in which the theory of revealed preferences -- whatever the person chose must, tautologically, be what they wanted -- comes together with the theory of well-being as preference-satisfaction -- whatever the person preferred must, tautologically, have been what would improve their well-being.

"But [addicts] should be cured," she writes, "[and] children should go to school. How do we decide which preferences should be respected and what restrained unless we judge the preferences themselves"

Sure, highly addictive drugs are an extreme example. But you can't rule them out without a some thinking about what preferences matter and why, that is, about what is good for people and what isn't. And once you're going down that road, well -- pretty soon you're asking what is a good life and what matters and why. You're far from rational choice theory and revealed preferences, and there's no telling where you'll end up.

3. Is the human experience essentially a pain?

When it comes to the pains of human existence, there are two types of people in the world. There are people who think things are naturally OK and only become fucked up when bad things happen, and there are people who think that the human experience itself is essentially a problem. In case you haven't noticed, I'm the second type.
In Dreamland, Quinones talks about the dilemma of all attempts to kill pain: can you have the heaven of pain-killing without the hell of addiction? The thing I'm talking about is related to that but goes beyond pain and pleasure into general human existence questions.

As the opiate crisis deepened, many of the people who got addicted were young privileged white people from well-to-do families -- kids growing up in leafy suburbs, with their own bedrooms and cars and TVs and so on. In some cases they started because of sports injuries, but a lot of them were just looking for a good time.

If you think things are naturally OK and become fucked up only when bad things happen, it seems difficult to explain these kids deciding to take drugs. Why take those risks? For what? But if you think human existence is naturally difficult, exhausting, irritating, and boring, it makes all the sense in the world. People are constantly trying to escape their own consciousness, and they always have.

What this ultimately shows, I think, is that while freedom and autonomy are wonderful things, desires don't just come out of nowhere, and most people aren't going to do very well when left alone to their own devices.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Guest Post: The Movie 'Arrival' Made Me Sad And Angry

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

I saw two movies this weekend and one of them was Arrival and it made me hopping mad, like walking-out-of-the-theater-with-my voice-getting-louder-and-louder mad. I was angry because I thought it was stupid, because I thought if I was going to see a stupid movie I wanted at least the pleasures of a stupid movie (montages! explosions! breakthroughs!) and also I had thought it was going to be good, partly because I think Jia Tolentino is a certified genius (see this for example) and she really liked it and partly because the first hour or so was really good.

Many of the reasons I didn’t like Arrival, by the way, involve what could be termed “plot-twists” or “surprises,” so, you know. Don’t read this if you haven’t seen Arrival but think you want to see Arrival and also care about not knowing in advance what happens.

In the movie Amy Adams learns to write an alien language in order to communicate with actual aliens who have come to Earth. One thing that the many positive reviews of the movie are right about is that it is, in fact, really really beautiful, and the aliens are cool-looking and convincingly alien. But. Learning this alien language allows Amy Adams to experience the world the way the aliens do, which involves, to put it crassly, seeing the future. Mostly her vision of the future involves a very narrow swath of her personal life, but also it takes in a future meeting with a Chinese general who is (in the movie’s present) the leading global voice for bombing the aliens. And she doesn’t want the aliens bombed, and in this vision of the future the general tells her that she convinced him to change his mind by calling him on his private number and saying to him the dying words of his wife. And he gives her that number and whispers the words to her. And then Amy Adams pops back into the present and calls him on said number and tells him those words and so he decides not to bomb the aliens and also all the governments across the land decide to work together and she teaches other people to write the alien language and, presumably, see the future.

And the problem I have with that set-up seems like maybe a small or nit-picky problem, equivalent to the fact that Amy Adams has security clearance as a result of having been asked to translate Farsi for the United States government two years earlier, which is odd, because you would think that the United States government would have a whole stable full of native Farsi speakers with pre-existing security clearances and would not need to turn to a random linguistics professor. But the Farsi problem I am prepared to ignore as plot-set-up hand-waving. The problem of the Chinese general goes deeper. Because the movie imagines that once we know the magic code — the right phone number, the right words — we can wipe out all the stubborn competing interests that make this world such a complicated place to navigate. But of course, that’s the opposite of true. The general wants the aliens bombed because he thinks that they are offering a weapon to different sectors of humanity, hoping to lead us to fight amongst ourselves. It does not seem to me that learning that the aliens can also see the future — and train us to do the same — will wipe out those suspicions. That is assuming that her use of his private number and the dying words of his wife does anything other than convince him that American intelligence is more efficient than previously supposed.

I don’t think it is possible to write anything these days without thinking about the incredibly horrifying choice that the United States made in its most recent election. I am an American and a proud one and also I am sick to my stomach not just over what is to come but also about what the choice itself says about my country, how loudly it proclaims our worst-kept secrets. And day after day I thumb through my deck of narratives explaining what happened, hoping to find one I can live with, exasperated by the explanations of others which, for various dark psychological reasons, work like nails on the chalkboard of my mind. But one thing that I believe really deeply is that it is not a matter of finding a magic word or the right phone number. That what is required is a lot of arduous painful work of resistance that will happen day after day and that may, in the end, succeed or fail, but will not do either miraculously.

The other movie I saw this weekend was Moonlight and I walked back from that movie along the river to my house and the water in the river seemed like it was almost too high to be held by the banks and the world seemed brand-new and my heart was constricted with fear for the characters of that movie, and so there was that, also.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Election And Modern Education Priorities

Like so many people, I am still reeling from the election. As an American living in Canada, my emotions take on a particular complexity: while I feel so lucky to be here, I also feel weird being "away from home" at this moment, if you know what I mean. I don't really have anything original to contribute in an overall way, beyond OMFG, but it seemed wrong to ignore the election all together, as if it hadn't happened at all. So I'll just try to say something particular to my tiny corner of experience.

Not surprisingly, a lot of people here in Canada have expressed shock and horror at Trump's success, for all the reasons: his association with white supremacist and racist people and organizations, the likelihood of policies that will trample long-protected rights in the name of law-and-order and so on, his disbelief in climate change and commitment to undermining environmental efforts. All of this is mostly straightforward.

What's interesting to me, though, is to think about these expected sentiments in light of something else I sometimes hear in Canada, which is a particular take on priorities in Canadian higher education. Those priorities value STEM and business savvy, sometimes at the expense of humanities and social science. We hear a lot here about the importance of innovation and tech industries, sometimes with the implication that the humanities and social science are kind of luxury add-ons -- "nice" things you can do, if you can afford it, but not essential in tough times.

To which I'd just like to register a gentle reminder: if you disagree with the incoming approach to US-problem-solving, you really need to support humanities and social sciences in education at all levels.

For one thing, as we've discussed on this blog before, most of the difficult problems of modern life are not science and tech problems at all, but are actually problems of social coordination and values. Meaningful solutions to the refugee crisis, to global war and violence, to providing health care in a rational way -- these are all problems of how to live together, problems you can't solve without studying history, sociology, economics, politics, and so on.

Even problems like global hunger and climate change, while they are often treated as science problems, are also primarily social problems. The world produces enough food to feed everyone. You don't need new biotechnologies: you need new ways of organizing how food moves around. Sure, we need green energy, but we also need to think differently about how environmental action comes from social changes.

For another thing, if you're worried about keeping alive the flames of democracy and liberty, you have to be able to think for yourself and express your own ideas. As we've discussed on this blog before, if you can't think for yourself and assess the evidence, you're a pawn of someone else's interests. Sure, that requires some scientific knowledge and numeracy skills, but it also crucially involves developing the habit of actual thinking -- a habit we all know is easily lost.

Getting the citizens out of the habit serves some political interests. It should give people pause that getting rid of philosophy and literature departments is a goal both of ISIS and of some US politicians.

Finally, you can't even talk about what is wrong with the kinds of policies the incoming administration is likely to pursue without getting immediately in to social and ethical matters. When does protecting the citizens become trampling over liberty rights? How much should we spend or sacrifice to ameliorate climate change, and who pays? When does free speech become threats and harassment?

In the rush of think-pieces about the election, one thing I've read again and again from Trump supporters is "He's a businessman; he'll know how to run things."

Maybe you agree with me that being a businessman is not the right preparation for dealing with massively complex social problems where "making money" is not the main goal. Maybe you also think that understanding human motivation and culture and expression and rights and values are all essential to solving these kinds of problems.

If you do, don't forget to keep a dose of skepticism handy next time someone seems too excited about innovation, tech, and STEM, and how they're all going to save the world.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

My Encounter With A Creepy Guy At A Bar, Or, How Is It That Other People Structure Our Experiences?

I was in Connecticut visiting my mother this past weekend, and when I'm visiting my mother I always stay at the same hotel, and when I stay at that hotel I always go at least once for dinner at the nice Italian restaurant that's about thirty feet away from the hotel.

So on Sunday night, after hanging out 'til early evening with my mom, I went over there to eat. It was late for a Sunday evening dinner, probably around 8:15. This place has a bar area as well as a restaurant; it's a small bar and the whole place is set in a kind of down-market suburban town, on one of those roads where you can't walk there from anywhere else -- except the hotel. So -- it's not a very "bar-like" atmosphere. There are TV's, though, and a bartender, and sometimes people drinking.

I like to sit at the bar when I'm eating alone at a restaurant. In fact, I'd go so far as to say I often like to sit alone at a bar and eat and drink. I bring something to read or I watch TV or I just zone out while I drink my wine. I listen to the chit chat. I'm usually pretty good at just doing what I want and being impervious to people's judgments so I almost never feel embarrassed or ashamed or weird for being out alone and eating and drinking at the bar.

On this occasion, there were two guys also at the bar -- guys who seemed not to know one another from before but who were deep in conversation. There was a regular-seeming guy and a creepy guy. I say he was a creepy guy because at one point he said something about how awful it was having to do his line of work which required doing awful things to people and the regular guy said, very tentatively, well you could quit and do something else, couldn't you? and the creepy guy said no, he couldn't, because "the wife" needed her nice things.

He then told a story about how, because the wife didn't like car shopping, he'd brought home a Mercedes, an Audi, an Accord, and something else and let her pick one. He asked the regular guy to guess which one the wife had chosen and the regular guy guessed "Mercedes." It's what I would have guessed too, but no, the creepy guy said she'd chosen the Accord. The regular guy said, "Well .. the Accord is a nice car." And the creepy guy said, "I thought she'd pick the Mercedes too."

I was avoiding glancing over at them because while I'm not averse to a bit of chit chat at the bar I could tell that the creepy guy was not a guy who would have light chit chat with a woman alone but would obviously try to turn it into something creepy. I was concentrating on reading my book on my iPhone -- (don't knock this method of novel reading 'til you have tried it, BTW).

Then the creepy guy started in. He was saying something about women and he said ".. and then there's this type here. Beautiful but totally unapproachable." I didn't look up. The regular guy must have looked uncertain because the creepy guy said, "This one, over here. Looking at her iPhone." The creepy guy said something under his breath to the regular guy and they both started laughing loudly.

Then the creepy guy turned to me and said "So. You live around here?" I don't want to be rude, I just want to read my book and avoid too much creepy conversation. So I turned to them and said, "I'm here visiting my mother." The creepy guy started in with more questions, but I decided it would be best to just convey my point of view unambiguously. So I read my book and didn't answer.

Not surprisingly, this caused the creepy guy to become agitated. In a tone of indignation verging on anger, he began a long disquisition on how outrageous it is that while he's "just trying to strike up a conversation" someone could be so rude as to not answer him back.

I struggled to concentrate on my book as I finished my dinner, and I thought about this whole experience, which I've had a few times over the years, and why it is so troubling. For me, it's not a feeling that it's somehow wrong to try to talk to or flirt with strangers at a bar. I am in favor of talking to and flirting with strangers at bars, when it's the right context and circumstance and tone. In fact, just a few weeks before, when I'd been in the same exact bar, the woman bartender and a guy client were deep in conversation about horses and horse-back riding, and they included my briefly in the conversation, and the guy may even have asked, "So, you live around here?" and I would have said "No, I'm visiting my mother." We definitely chatted briefly and it was absolutely fine and not weird because it was a normal conversation.

A conversation at a bar with a guy like the creepy guy is never a normal conversation. You know, and he makes it known, that he is there to make a point, and to make you feel uncomfortable, and that no matter what you do he will use it against you somehow. If you're too nice you'll be a trashy slut; if you're not nice (like me) you're a bitch, and if you're nice but not nice enough you're a tease and a manipulative bitch to boot.

As someone who is, as I've said, pretty impervious to things, it's always interesting to me that there are ways that other people can structure my experience. I was reading my book, but I was no longer happily reading my book and enjoying my food. I could ignore the creepy guy, but I couldn't go back to the same carefree mood I'd had before. Even though I don't care about what that guy thinks, and even though I didn't feel in literal danger, he can still get under my skin, which is interesting in and of itself.

Eventually the regular guy proposed going out for a smoke. I learned from their conversation they were both staying at the hotel next door as well. They paid, and walked out, and I figured they were gone. I enjoyed the rest of my dinner and got ready to go myself.

As I walked out, I saw they were sitting on a bench outside the restaurant, smoking. I walked right past them, and they watched me go. As I walked, I felt a surge of gratitude for being in this particular place and time, where hotels have locks and it's considered reasonably normal for a women to staying in a hotel alone. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Miscellaneous Thoughts About Clothing, Sex, Food, and Capitalism

As regular readers know, there is a health problem in my family (mom, congestive heart failure, in a rehab place trying to regain her strength to go home. Stressful and time-consuming!). I didn't have the mental energy for a regular post. But here are some things that are on my mind this week:

1. Free love and politics

I just finished reading the Oryx and Crake trilogy by Margaret Atwood and I thought it was really good and full of interesting things. In case you don't know, it tells the story of a dystopian future where biotech has run amok, much of the environment is ruined, and society is divided into safe and bland "compounds," where wealthy educated people live and work, and the "pleeblands" where people are poor are things are violent and shady and unpredictable.

One of my favorite things in this book is the way Atwood depicts the "God's Gardeners," who are a gang of animal-loving, anti-materialistic, anti-technologist zealots. The Gods Gardeners are basically the heroes of the story, and there's no question they are "right" about things in some deep and important way. But Atwood also goes out of her way to say how they're also kind of dull and moralizing, insisting on drab clothing and low-key social life.

I was glad to have this pointed out. Contrary to the "harmony myth of human nature," things like making your own soap can be both really boring and the right thing to do.

At one point there's a discussion of why Katrina, who runs a fancy pleebland sex club, can't escape trouble by going to live with the God's Gardeners. The answer is that "it wouldn't have worked out" because "wrong wardrobe preferences."

I never highlight things in novels, but I highlighted that -- because it captures something deep and real and sometimes very puzzling, namely, that "free love" rebels and other kinds of political rebels often can't get along. Really: why can't you be pro-environment and pro-equality in a miniskirt and heels?

2. The cultural and personal aspects of meal skipping

After I read The Obesity Code by Dr. Jason Fung I put into practice some of its recommendations, and I started skipping breakfast and avoiding snacks. Not only did I lose weight and start to feel better physically, I also experienced other surprising positives.

Though I think of myself as someone who isn't easily seduced by nutrition orthodoxy, I had somehow really bought into the commandment to "eat frequent small meals." Only now do I realize how ridiculously and pointlessly stressful this made my life. Being out and about all day and trying to find healthy food to eat four or five times a day? It's impossible. The standard advice -- to prepare and carry food around -- was unworkable for me.

I can't believe how liberating it is to just ... not eat when it's not convenient. My god. Yes, you get a bit hungry. But honestly, once I started separating the feeling of "hungry" from the anxiety of "not eating! unhealthy!" I found being hungry is not really a big deal.

On top of everything else, it saves money, it's consistent with environmentally friendly eating, and it requires no consumer products. Dr. Fung points out in his book how much standard nutrition advice is influenced by corporations need to make money. Skipping meals is like the opposite of that - it's like the food equivalent of buy-nothing-day.

3. How is late capitalism so strange?

It's fascinating to me how many of the things that we need most for happiness and well-being are things late capitalism is proving terrible at providing. Job security, time to care for children and others, time to cook food, opportunities for moving around and being outside, basic health care -- all things we need most, all things late capitalism seems to be eroding.

Sometimes it seems like the aspects of life that other societies are most focused on providing are just the ones we somehow expect people to deal with in the corners of their lives, as things they'll have to find a way to work out. Things like who is going to watch the kids when a parent gets sick -- it's like such a basic, basic thing, and yet somehow in late capitalism it gets treated like some kind of personal problem that everyone has to solve on their own.

I'd like to say I saw this coming, but I didn't. I was young during the days of middle-capitalism, when it really looked like with a bit of planning you could have it all kind of work. You could have the pleasures of technology and fashion without rampant inequality and with environmental protections and with structures in place to make all the difficult things work the way they should. Somehow, though, that's not how it all seems to be going.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

It Was The Russians! No, Wait, It Was A Shadowy Collective! DDoS, IoT, and WTF

Last week I wrote about a minor DDoS attack that harnessed an army of small household appliances and cameras to take down websites. Then this week, there was a major DDoS attack that harnessed an army of small household appliances and cameras to take down major parts of the internet. Am I surfing the zeitgeist or what?

Reaction to these events has been somewhat puzzling. The party line seems to be something like "It was the Russians." At CBS News, the "homeland security consultant" Fran Townsend immediately pointed to Russia, asking "Is this sort of a brushback pitch from the Russians sending us a message that we should be pretty careful about engaging in this sort of cyberactivity with them because they are very capable[?]" A Guardian writer who, like me, wanted a chance to fly off the handle about the Internet of Things (IoT) and how stupid and pointless it is got the headline "Do you want your shower to help Russian hackers?"

But the same CBS story quoting expert opinion alleging state sponsored cyber-terrorism then goes on to explain that a "shadowy collective" called "New World Hacking" had claimed responsibility. People speaking anonymously and claiming to be associated with New World Hacking said they did it to "test power," that they "sought only to expose security vulnerabilities," and that when it came to demands, there was only one: "We will make one demand actually. Secure your website and get better servers, otherwise be attacked again."

I don't know about you, but I thought these seemed like intelligent and reasonable things to say. I don't know if they're true -- whatever that means in this day and age -- but, as we say nowadays, whatever.

I was standing in the espresso line when I first encountered this news on my phone, and I decided to go and look up New World Hacking. From Google I was able to easily find their website, where I saw a simple form with boxes and a simple message -- offering DDoS attacks. Not powerful enough to bring down a government, they said, but if you want to harass your friends and stir up trouble, you've come to the right place!

OK I am paraphrasing that part -- because New World Hackers took down their site. On their Twitter account they said they've retired, hanging it all up. Now when you try to visit their page, you just get "The fact that you are seeing this page indicates that the website you just visited is either experiencing problems or is undergoing routine maintenance."

When we're entering the realm of thermostats and children's toys taking down the internet, things are sufficiently bizarre that I can't claim to have a handle on the situation. But here are some questions I have.

1. Why am I the only one freaking out about this?

This DDoS attack was treated as news but it was not treated as major, earth-shattering news. This seems bizarre to me. If, as seems utterly plausible, someone manages to stymie major parts of the internet -- meaning people can't communicate, can't move money around, and probably can't even make stop lights work -- how long do you think it's going to be before there's no more food in the supermarket, no more water coming out of the tap, and no more electricity to charge your phone?

I feel like people have this idea that somehow because we used to do all these things without the internet we can go back to doing things "the old way." But as we've said before, that's an illusion. The analogue systems of society aren't somehow buried somewhere, ready to be dusted off and used. They're over. For example: masses of people used to be employed in huge buildings all over North America to old-fashioned banking a thing. There's no simple "going back to the way it was."

2. Why doesn't the media talk to actual hackers?

These stories are always the same: they talk to security experts, they talk to the target of the attack (who knows nothing), they talk to some political person. Everyone says the same thing: we don't know the motives, sinister forces are out there trying to get us, there is a problem with internet security because blah blah blah reasons that people have known about for a long time.

As far as I know, one AP reporter had one DM with New World Hackers on Twitter, and some people tried to talk to people who said they'd been involved with a similar hack before. Aren't there other people who know more about this who can be interviewed? Not "security experts" but people who actually do these things and know why people do them and have relevant thoughts instead of just dumb boiler-plate? Why not talk to those people?

3. What is going on with "decentralized" control?

Part of the relevant "blah blah blah" in these circumstances always has to do with how there's no one really in charge of the internet, because it's not really that kind of thing, and there's no governing body that is supposed to oversee stuff and make sure things are secure, and there's no government that contains a bureaucracy devoted to such matters. Sometimes you get the feeling that there are people who think this is a really good thing, because governments are "political" and because "decentralized" control is actually safer because of the way nodes and important parts are all distributed around instead of being physically or logically organized.

But it's no secret that when you leave things alone to organize themselves, they often ... organize themselves. What results is the opposite of decentralized control and is more like massively centralized control. This DDoS attack, for example, worked so well because the target, Dyn, was providing infrastructure and domain name support to a large number of large clients like Twitter, Netflix, and PayPal. It's not really decentralized. It's more like auto-centralized: it centralized itself.

4. Do some people sort of want it to be proto-war with Russia? 

There's a lot I just don't understand.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Don't Tech People Ever Encounter Dystopian Fiction?

The drones from Iron Man.

 Often when I read the news these days, I think to myself: don't these people ever encounter dystopian futuristic books and movies?

To me, it seems like modern narratives are full of of very plausible depictions of the very awful and disastrous consequences of creating and adopting new technologies that are of very dubious usefulness in the first place. Don't the people creating these technologies ever think to themselves "Wow, I'm like the inadvertently evil person in a futuristic disaster movie"?

One obvious example is the Internet of Things. I'm not even a huge sci-fi fan, but even I know that many of the classics depict objects turning, or being turned, against us. It's not in the least far-fetched. In fact, just recently a successful DDoS attack was executed by a bunch of "innocuous things like digital video recorders and security cameras."

When I first read that, I felt like, 'Well, duh." This is what novelists and artists have been telling us for years. Isn't one of the main sci-fi moments when Dave says "Open the pod bay doors, HAL," and Hal says "I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that"? Didn't Philip K. Dick write about a door that wouldn't open unless you pay? Aren't these the logical extensions of having your fridge or your front door connected to the internet, and, by obvious extension, to mega-corporations and the NSA?

I don't even get why people want the Internet of Things. What's so tough about making a note to buy milk, and if you forget and run out one day, it's not the end of the world? What's inadequate about the existing concept of, say, a key to get into your home? The electric grid is fragile from years of neglect. One good shot could knock out communications satellite. If the power is out, do you really want to be unable to get into your own home? I picture the poor befuddled people of the future, thinking "If only there were some simple technology where you could fashion a device, maybe out of metal and it would just ... open the door." Sad!

I thought the same thing when I read about how Facebook wants to help banks evaluate your credit-worthiness by looking at the creditworthiness of your friends. For fuck's sake, people. Isn't this well-worn territory? In just the latest incarnation I happen to know of, Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story describes a system where people's scores are constantly broadcast so everyone knows exactly how you stack up mony-wise and prestige-wise. I'd tell you more about Super Sad True Love Story but the truth is I haven't read it, partly because it seems too insanely depressing and I have other things to worry about.

And what about new and improved facial recognition technology? The dystopian possibilities of 100 percent surveillance are well-explored, and yet we keep marching forward. The always great MathBabe says that a new company headed by "two 20-something Russian tech dudes" is producing software pretty good at it. Faced with the obvious ethical questions, their response is along the lines of "It's too late to worry; we can distinguish the good guys from the bad guys; Luddites gonna be Luddites."

Finally, I'm sure you've read about Amazon testing drone delivery, out in the back-wilds of the UK (and, I now learn, in Canada!). Drones? To bring consumer crap to your house? Don't these people go to the movies? You'd think the Iron Man franchise was some kind of Indie cult film you could only get on Blu-ray.

So: what is the deal? Is it that the powers of capitalism are so intense that people forge ahead knowing that it will all end in tears? Is it some kind of cognitive bias for optimism, where people just think "this time it will be different"?

The popularity and style of modern dystopian narratives almost suggests to me a much darker and creepier possibility: that there is a desire for dystopia, a yearning for a crisis that will throw us out of our current state of moral complexity and our compromised ways of living and boredom. The problems of modern life are so complicated and unglamorous. It's hard to do a good thing without worrying you're also doing bad. Solutions to problems like the refugee crisis, systemic injustice, and climate change are going to require thinking and dealing with laws, education, and bureaucracy.

Are people secretly longing for a new situation, one where some of us are heroes and some of us are vulture food? Where instead of dealing with difficult problems that we don't know how to solve, we'll be in a more Mad Max situation, where it's like "Weakness = bad! Protecting daughter by killing guy = good!"

I don't know. But whenever I go along with this train of thought, I always end up in the same place. Should I give up this whole "philosophy professor" biz, and to learn how to repair low-tech kitchen appliances?

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Thank You For Your Patience

As regular readers know, there is a health problem in my family (mom, congestive heart failure, in a rehab place trying to regain her strength to go home -- thanks for asking!). I didn't have time to write a post.

In case you stopped in to say hi though, here are some things on my mind.

1. What happened to Jezebel.com? When I started reading in 2007, there were posts where the gang would drink wine and try out the "shenis"and record the whole thing and put it online, and Moe was all about the economic news and whatever else she was mad about, like homes where you can't flush tampons, and Slut Machine was all about "One D a Day." It's completely different now. What happened?

2. Why didn't Richard Russo write another book like Straight Man? Straight Man is an actually really funny book. If I could write something like that, that is what I would do all the time. But he's gotten more and more serious and less and less funny. Why? Is it because "serious" seems more important? If that's it, wow, do I think he's got the wrong end of the stick.

3. What the fucking fuck with RBG's comments on Colin Kaepernick?

4.  I've been driving around suburban US the last few days, and I keep thinking about that movie Wall-E, where the people of the future have these moving chairs and cup holders and they can't move. Yikes!

 OK, I'll try to see y'all back here next week. Thank you for reading! I hope everyone is well!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Please, Move Money Around -- But Don't Call It "Redistribution."

Ever since I started studying distributive justice, income inequality, and philosophy of economics, one of my biggest pet peeves has been the term "redistribution." I get why conservatives and free-marketers use this terminology, since it supports the ideas they support: that you have a full entitlement to whatever our current system says you "own." But why do liberals and progressives use it? It seems to me like it undermines their position.

Liberals regularly do use the term. In his criticisms of Mitt Romney in 2012, Krugman described Medicare as "strongly redistributive." George Soros has argued that "redistribution" is important because without it, wealth accumulates in the hands of a few.

But it seems to me that these remarks buy into the very ideology that liberals would, and should, oppose. Outside of the trivial sense in which all economic activity involves a change in who has what, to call a tax-funded program "redistributive" makes sense only within a certain kind of libertarian or fiscally conservative framework.

As this very apt article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) points out, the problem is the problem of the baseline. The whole concept of "redistribution" assumes that there is a baseline from which things have been redistributed. To say that governmental economic programs are "redistributive" establishes this baseline by appeal to what one would own in the absence of taxation and government.

But this way of establishing a baseline must say that people are fully and justly entitled to full ownership of their pre-tax income, and that from this baseline funds are "redistributed." And this is true only within a particular theory of individual ownership rights: that they are determined outside of societal structures and in the absence of government. Such a theory of property rights is usually associated with conservative and free-market thinking.

Liberals and progressives should disavow these kinds of theories of property rights for several reasons. For one thing, seeing ownership rights as the only kind of rights, or as rights that cannot be overridden or compromised, doesn't fit with liberal values.

But more importantly, it seems to me that these approaches to property rights are an uncomfortable fit for the modern world, since all contemporary economic activity is now enmeshed in complex webs of social, cultural, and economic relationships. Corporations depend on international banking systems; social networking companies depend on the content produced by armies of users. After the financial collapse of the last few years resounded throughout the entire globe, how can we trust a model that requires viewing people as economically independent actors?

Finally, who can say that their ownership of money, land, or things has an untainted history that would justify simple and full entitlement? If you get something fairly through exchange, but that thing was itself stolen, your entitlement to it is murky at best. But not only does America have an ownership history of violence and fraud -- including, most obviously, that perpetrated against Native Americans -- any nation with a history that includes wars, slavery, political coercion, corruption, and organized crime will be one in which an untainted history of ownership will be impossible. That covers the entire world.

Needless to say, there are sophisticated alternatives to the free-market theory of property rights and distributive justice. Just as one example, the 20th-century philosopher John Rawls argued that just distributions are ones we would agree to from behind a "veil of ignorance," not knowing whether we were rich or poor, educated or not, disabled or able-bodied. In Rawls's view, from this perspective we would tolerate only limited inequality.

From the point of view of these alternative theories of property, just policies do not move money from a pre-existing baseline; they establish a baseline. Taxation is not coercive taking; it's not a taking at all. The beneficiaries of government programs are not recipients of kindness or charity; they are entitled to what they receive, as a matter of justice.

As the author of the SEP article says, using concepts associated with "redistribution" "smuggles in associations of forceful takings and rights infringements, which are not obviously appropriate in the context of evaluating social programs funded through taxation, or to discussions of reforms of the global economy."

That is to say, when liberals talk of "redistribution," they're sort of undermining their own position. If you want to talk social justice, and you want to support programs to bring it about, maybe the word you want is not "redistribution," but rather just "distribution." It couldn't hurt to occasionally also use words like "fairness" and "equality" too -- just so no one forgets they exist.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Sometimes I'm Uncomfortable With The Rhetoric Of The Progressive Left

I guess I consider myself a member of the "progressive left." I'm in favor of taxation and regulation, and I think there is too much income inequality. I think most western societies are racist and discriminatory, I think climate change is going to doom us all and I think that my god, yes, we should be doing something about it

But lately some of the rhetoric of the progressive left has been weirding me out and making me feel uncomfortable. Here are a couple of examples.

1. Calling people "stupid" for objecting to free-trade policies.

During all the heated discussions over Brexit, and sometimes in US politics as well, objections to opening up trade are sometimes treated by the progressive left as if they are simply ignorant. Underlying this idea seems to be the thought that since trade leads to overall economic growth, people worried about their own well-being ought to be for it.

For example, some "Remain" proponents were really dismissive of Brexiters who raised issues about economic well-being as one of their concerns. Even now, one often sees in commentary the idea that economic concerns helped the "Leave" vote only because of the lies told by Cameron, Johnson and Co.

But it's not stupid or ignorant to object to free trade when that trade is hurting and not benefitting you personally. It's possible to have overall economic growth and also have that growth benefit some people while hurting others. It's certainly not hard to believe that some tradespeople were hurt by the open EU: if a plumber or carpenter from a poorer EU country will charge half of what you would normally charge to do some bit of work, then yeah -- you're definitely being harmed by being in the trade zone of the EU.

It's funny, because I'd always thought of this tactic as characteristic of the other side. It's usually fiscal conservatives who run the "too stupid to understand economics" line -- as when P. J. O'Rourke referred to the Occupy protestors as "drum bangers who had failed Econ 101." I'm embarrassed to have this condescension associated with my otherwise allies.

None of this is to deny, of course, that the Leave campaign was also associated with certain hateful and racist sentiments. You can object to that without bringing in the economic-trade-stupidity business.

2. Treating cosmopolitanism as a moral requirement.

This one is a bit more complicated. In one sense, the ideal of different people all living happily side by side is not only an ethical ideal, but probably the only possible future of the actual world. So in that sense yes, we're all going to have to learn to accept and respect differences. Personally I love living in a city like Toronto where everyone is here living together. It's the best.

But I don't think it's somehow ignorant or backward to value your community, or to want to live with people with whom you share values, and culture, and language, and food tastes, and all those other things that make up the texture of life.

In fact, I thought one of the good ideas of the academic left over the past few decades was an acknowledgment that communities matter -- that we're not separated individual agents calculating preferences but rather embedded social beings linked through communities and culture. You can't just uproot a person from their surroundings and expect them to be OK. But a certain kind of insistence on cosmopolitanism seems me to deny this -- as if being attached to your own way of life is somehow a problem.

It's complicated, but I feel like part of the problem is a failure to grapple with the fact that a diverse and heterogeneous society is, itself, a certain kind of community with a certain texture. As I've said, it's a kind of community I love and thrive in. And I don't want it to change too much: I would be much  less happy in a different kind of world. But I think acknowledging that means acknowledging that others, too, might be much less happy in a different kind of world. They have their community, and they don't want it to change too much either.

I was reminded of all this when I read this piece in the Guardian a few days ago. A physicist, reflecting on philosophy, describes its importance for science, then goes on to explain that one reason Brexit won the day is that its opponents failed to address the deeper philosophical issues at stake and talked only about numbers and consequences. I don't know if that's true, but I was struck by the end passages, where the author talks about the importance of "universalism" and how the wise man is at home everywhere.

When I read that, I thought to myself that I, at least, do not feel at home everywhere. As a woman, I would not feel at home in any society that enforces strict or traditional gender roles -- and I don't even really feel at home in a country like France, now that they've gone off the deep end with their anti-modest-clothing crusade. It made me feel like "feeling at home everywhere" is less about being an enlightened universalist and more about privilege -- the ultimate sign of privilege being that you can, in fact, make yourself at home no matter where you are.

Again, none of this is to deny that the forces against cosmopolitanism are sometimes allied with racism and bigotry and discrimination. But the impulse toward protecting a way of life doesn't have to be a bad one, and even if you don't share or agree with it, it's possible to treat it with respect.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

See You All Next Week

Due to a health problem in the family, I'm unable to post again this week. (I think everyone is going to be OK - thanks!). I'll be back on the 26th. Thank you for your patience!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

British Trade Secretary Unwittingly Expresses The Idea That We're All In This Together

Whenever you bring up prosperity and inequality these days, you almost always hear something about "incentives." If there's too much equality, the thinking goes, people won't be motivated to work as hard, and overall economic growth will suffer. People aren't going to work just out of a sense of obligation or whatever -- you have to structure it so that they need more money and more money is the reward.

Crucial to this picture is the idea that you have to appeal to self-interest, and that what that means in practical terms is money-as-motivator.

Because I think of this as so much a part of a certain kind of orthodoxy, I was very surprised to find the British Trade Secretary recently appealing to the opposite logic. People have to work harder out of duty, he said -- not thinking of what they want for themselves, but thinking instead of what they owe to others. What's even more surprising to me is that he wasn't talking about poor people and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and all that yada yada. He was actually talking about rich people -- about the power-players of British industry.

The Secretary, a "Euroskeptic," was chastising these power players for being unwilling to engage in the wheeling and dealing he thought necessary to give post-Brexit Britain prosperity and a strategic advantage.

Calling the British "fat and lazy," he said that business leaders had an obligation to work harder and longer:

"We’ve got to change the culture in our country," he said. "People have got to stop thinking about exporting as an opportunity and start thinking about it as a duty -- companies who could be contributing to our national prosperity but choose not to because it might be too difficult or too time-consuming or because they can’t play golf on a Friday afternoon."

So: rich people are relaxing and hanging out, instead of working to earn more money, and the Secretary is telling them to suck it up and put their nose to the grindstone because it's their moral obligation.

Let me unpack the surprising things in this series of remarks. First, there's an acknowledgement that money isn't the only thing in life. As we've written about before, this directly contradicts the working assumption of many policy-makers and managers. For example, doctors trying to negotiate for more time just kept being asked what financial compensation they wanted. When they tried to explain -- no, it's not about money -- the response was basically, "Don't be ridiculous. It's always about money."

The Secretary's remarks are interesting because they explicitly acknowledge that it's rational and self-interested to act in ways that earn you less -- because you want to be doing other things. As indeed all of us do.

The second surprising thing is that there's an appeal to the concept of "duty" or obligation. Usually when you're talking about prosperity and economics, bringing up ethics and morals is verboten. In the economic model, people are self-interested -- there are no duties and obligations, there are just preferences you might have for doing one thing rather than another.

Now, suddenly, duties are back in the picture! Wow. This is potentially a big deal. Because if we can have duties and obligations to contribute to overall prosperity, even when we don't feel like it, then surely we can have a whole host of other obligations? Like making sure no one is going hungry or without medical care in one of the richest countries on the planet? Where will it all end?

Actually, the whole "duties of prosperity" thing brings up another thing we've covered previously -- about how economic thinking is weird when it comes to motivations. Because when we use economics, we're supposed to imagine ourselves as self-interested from the individual point of view. But we're also supposed to choose policies that maximize wealth or well-being overall -- choosing for general prosperity. The two are obviously different: what makes me wealthy or well may not be what makes everyone else wealthy or well. The chastised business leaders exemplify this perfectly: what makes them better off is golf. What makes the country more prosperous is something else entirely.

I guess one question all of this raises in my mind is something like this: if rich people want to golf more and poor people need more money, why can't we just move some money around? I mean, who needs British prosperity? Evidently not the business leaders. They're doing fine. They'd rather be kicking back with a pint.

The people who really need British prosperity are the poorer people. So here's a crazy idea: maybe instead of forcing rich people to work more when they'd really rather not, maybe we could just give the poorer people some of the extra money lying around in the richer people's bank accounts. Doesn't this seem like a simpler solution?

Don't the Secretary's remarks have a tone of "we're all in this together?" And if we're all in this together, why not go all the way?

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Due To Forces Beyond Our Control ...

... there is no new post today. You might enjoy these photographs though. I took them in Buffalo, New York, downtown. There is no sign to indicate anything about what they are or even what the context is.

See y'all here next week!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Calories-In-Calories-Out And The Fetish For Epistemological Simplicity

This post considers why, given all the evidence against it, the calorie-in-calorie-out theory of weight has such a grip on people's imaginations.

I started thinking about this because a couple of weeks ago I was looking up some boring nutrition thing online and I came across the website of Dr. Jason Fung, a doctor and kidney specialist. Dr. Fung has a theory about obesity being cause not by overeating but rather by excessive insulin. I found it interesting enough to buy and read his book, The Obesity Code.

The Obesity Code draws on a range of evidence to argue against the calories-in-calories-out model -- in which weight gain and loss is governed by amounts of food and exercise -- and in favor of a different model, in which there are many factors but hormones -- and especially insulin -- are central. Insulin acts to direct the body's regulatory system: too much insulin and we gain weight. It's like a thermostat set at the wrong temperature.

I gather this is similar to what other people, like Gary Taubes, have been saying. But Dr. Fung adds an interesting point about meal timing. The main problem, Dr Fung says, is that our modern way of eating -- lots of carbohydrates, lots of "small meals" and snacking -- generates a lot of insulin. Frequent eating means that insulin is released often, and this means that our bodies develop a resistance to it -- just as they develop resistance to other things like drugs. We need more and more to get the effect insulin is supposed to provide, of helping us process sugar, and the body produces more and more insulin. And we gain weight.

The solution is to eat fewer carbohydrates, especially processed ones, but also to pay attention to meal timing. Don't snack. And if you want to lose weight, try skipping meals or fasting.

I'm not a physiologist so obviously I can't assess the scientific evidence of this book, but you don't have to be a scientist to know there is something very wrong with the idea of "calories-in-calories-out." You can easily observe that if you give the same food to different people their bodies will respond differently. In fact, if you give the same food to the same people at different times of their lives their bodies will respond differently.

Right at the start of his book Dr. Fung mentions several obvious examples of the how the calories-in-calories-out model obviously fails. Prior to puberty, boys and girls have the same body fat percentage. After puberty, women have almost 50 percent more body fat, despite eating less. Pregnancy induces weight gain, beyond the effect of eating more. Various drugs are known to cause weight gain, regardless of food intake. If you give people insulin, they gain weight; in fact there's a thing called "diabulemia" where people with Type 1 diabetes deliberately give themselves less insulin than they need, in order to lose weight.

Given all of this easily observable evidence, isn't it strange how often people, including scientists and health care professionals, constantly bring up this idea of calories-in-calories-out? The idea that to lose weight you should eat less and move more is like gospel in this country.

Proponents of calories-in-calories out would, I expect, want to say something like this: Sure, we know that there are many factors influencing the body. The idea of calories-in-calories-out doesn't mean calories are the only factor. It just means that "all things being equal," the more calories you take in and the fewer you use, the more you'll gain weight. Sometimes this is followed up with "It's thermodynamics! You can't change the laws of thermodynamics!"

I find this response unpersuasive. Obviously, I think it's true at some level that biochemical processes obey the laws of science. But so what? If there are many factors contributing to weight, then what is the point of saying calories-in-calories out? Even if it is true, it is irrelevant.

It's especially irrelevant if you're looking for understanding and explanation of cause and effect. Adapting one of Dr. Fung's analogies, imagine if you were looking to explain why a plane crash happened, and the answer was "there was not enough lift to overcome gravity." Yes, this is a law of physics. But how is it relevant? What we want to know is whether there was human error or mechanical problems or weather or what.

To say calories-in-calories-out and imply that it is relevant is to say something else: that if a person choses to eat less and move more, they will lose weight, and vice versa. This is the statement we're arguing about. It is clearly debatable, and there is increasing evidence that it is false. There's a large genetic component to weight. Foods like olive oil are processed differently from foods like sugar. Fat stores are regulated through homeostasis. The body is not a machine, but rather a delicately responsive organism that regulates itself through all kinds of delicately tuned mechanisms. 

And yet, you can't get away from calories-in-calories-out. It's brought up all the time, sometimes in a sneering tone. It's the cornerstone of policies like the Obama administration's "Let's Move" campaign. Just the other day I read something on the Guardian presenting a multifactorial theory, and bam -- first comment I saw was about how, duh, you can't break the laws of thermodynamics. Why does everyone love to say and believe this? Here are a few thoughts.

1. The simplicity fetish
Modern westerners love a simple theory. I don't know what it is that makes people think a simpler theory is better than a more complicated one, especially when you're dealing with complex things like nutrition. In my book, Moral Reasoning in a Pluralistic World, I talk about how, even in ethics, people show a preference for simple theories organized around a single principle, despite the fact that most of us value various things -- such as justice, liberty, and overall well-being -- that are different and can obviously conflict.

I don't know if people just got over excited about the simplicity of modern physics, expressed in those elegant equations, or what, but this is definitely a thing. Somehow the idea that you could express the complexities of nutrition through a single equation -- I think it appeals to people on some visceral level.

2. The harmony myth

I think there's also a vague and often subconscious preference for seeing things all fit together, as if things that are good in one way are good in other ways and vice versa. High calorie foods strike some people as indulgent, and some high calorie foods, like meat, are a problem from an ethical and environmental point of view. As with the "harmony myth of human nature," we think it should all fit together. But of course it doesn't.

There's really no reason certain foods can't be bad from one point of view and good from another.

3. Politics and capitalism

One of the most interesting ideas in The Obesity Code is the idea that capitalism creates pressure for governments to endorse a calorie theory of weight. Because here's what the calories-in-calories-out theory doesn't say: it doesn't say "don't eat that." If official policy said to avoid starchy foods, the grain industry would have a freak out. By falsely treating all foods as the same, the calories-in-calories-out theory avoids demonizing any particular food, and thus satisfies certain political pressures.

In general, the capitalism angle on nutrition is pretty out of control. Nina Teicholz's book The Big Fat Surprise is full of hair-raising stories about how much of modern food science is funded by giant food corporations and industry. I think of myself as skeptical and cynical, but even I was shocked at the role olive oil companies played in organizing lush mega-conferences around the concept of the "Mediterranean diet."

Since this post is about weight gain and weight loss, I'd like to end by reminding everyone that weight is not a predictor of health, and that people can be healthy at any size. In fact, I expect the same dysfunctions creating chaos in the world of nutrition are also getting creating some of the misplaced hysteria over weight. 

Someday, a social epistemologist is going to have a field day with the whole thing.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Guest Post: The Dream Of The Unvalenced Style Object And The Ill-Fated Honda Crosstour


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

Who are the people who bought the Honda Crosstour, which ceased production in 2015? I have thoughts, but they are probably wrong. My qualifications: I drove the Honda Crosstour for almost a full day, which, given the sales figures cited in Car and Driver’s April 2015 obituary for the Crosstour, puts me ahead of most Americans. I am a Honda enthusiast. The only two cars I have owned have been Honda Civics and barring startling change in either Honda design or my own financial circumstances, I will buy a new Civic at 12-20 year intervals for the rest of my life. (The current Civic is probably the only two-door I will buy, though, which means that my car choices will only become even less remarkable over the course of my life.) I once spent a week being driven to elementary school in a series of incredibly exotic cars that included an Aston Martin and two different Rolls Royces because of an unlikely collision of circumstances (I was staying with my mother’s rich friend). These are not good qualifications, but it doesn’t matter because I don’t really plan on answering the question.

Here is how I came to drive a Honda Crosstour. At 7:30 in the morning I took my two-door Honda Civic in for its 60,000 mile service. I was going to make the service an excuse to call in late to work and sit in the brand new renovated lounge area with proprietary Honda television that my Honda dealership recently installed as its service center and surf the internet until I had forgotten who and where I was. But I was told that the service would take all day, that the service would cost three times as much as my most lavish estimate, and that I was eligible for a loaner car.

I am a bad driver, and for that reason I don’t like driving other people’s cars. I drove for one year in my twenties and then I gave up driving again until I was thirty-five because it freaked me out too much. But I actually had to drive somewhere that day and I had had too many awkward conversations with the dealership’s shuttle drivers in the last few months as the result of a rash of tire punctures and also I was still discombobulated from the early hour. So I accepted the gleaming white Honda Crosstour loaner car and was taught how to start it with a button. It felt like a scam, the whole thing, especially when they told me that I was eligible for an upgrade and if I traded my car in in the next 30 days they would refund the price of the service as well as give me an above-market trade-in value. (A month after I bought my current car the dealership started sending me letters suggesting that I might want another better, newer car.)

The thing that it felt the most like was one of those movies where the hero swaps bodies with somebody else. There I was, and the controls were more or less the same, but different and the steering wheel was different. The steering wheel was actually my favorite part of the Crosstour. I don’t know if it was really leather-wrapped or if it was a synthetic leather-like substance, but the thick braided grip around the edge of the steering wheel was very comforting. My steering wheel is rubbery and sometimes when I get nervous I gouge out small piece with my fingernails. My car, to be frank, looks terrible. There is a scratch along the side, and the bumper gives the impression that I drive with reckless abandon, which is untrue. I’m just not good at judging distances. And now I was in the Crosstour and everything was so big. The back window was so far away. The side and rear cameras made me feel that I was living in some kind of virtual reality, and I found that destabilizing. (I don’t like to wear sunglasses when I drive because the extra layer of lens is too complicating.)

And there I was, puttering around in this gleaming unmarked Crosstour and wondering who the hell would decide that this was the car of their dreams. It was a weird mix of the fancy and the unfancy. There were seat warmers. I didn’t like the seat warmers, especially because I didn’t realize mine was on at first and then when I did realize it I didn’t know how to turn it off. There was an AC control that purported to allow you to set the precise degree of cooling. And it was huge. But it didn’t feel luxurious. Partly that was because I thought it was so ugly. It was the kind of car that has a small or at least normal-sized car shape, and then when you get up close to it it turns out to be large. But not so large as to be comical, not so large as to be obviously a joke, just large enough to be constantly disorienting. Which is my least favorite genre of car. Along the same lines, the chair returned to an extreme reclining position every time I turned off the engine, so every time I turned it on I had to crank it upright again so I could drive the way I like to, in the manner of an eighty year old.

It turns out nobody thinks the Crosstour is the car of their dreams, or at least only a statistically and capitalistically insignificant portion of the population thinks that. That segment was out in force in the comments to the Car and Driver article, talking about the secret excellence of the Crosstour. One person was taking pleasure in how the demise of the Crosstour would give the extant ones rarity value. One person was asking, plaintively, what happened to owners of the Crosstour once it was discontinued, which is a beautiful question.

The Crosstour made me think of the Lotto brand sneakers I had my mother buy me when I was eleven or so. I knew my previous sneakers were uncool. I also knew that I was uncool. If I showed up in school in sneakers that were actively cool, it would be too obvious that I was striving to fit in. If I showed up in school with sneakers that were the same as I had previously worn, I would be stuck where I was. No, I needed to find something new, I needed to find something unvalenced. Lotto — I had never seen anyone wearing Lotto sneakers. But of course the out-of-left-field choice only reinforced everything that everybody already knew about me. Nothing is actually unvalenced; it’s just that sometimes you haven’t done the math.

There are people that have the courage of their convictions and love their Crosstours, but if I had bought a Crosstour I wouldn’t have been one of them. Which is why I have given up trying and why when I bought a car I bought a Civic, so ubiquitous that it admits its defeat up front. Also, for a car, it’s pretty cheap. Which is nice, except when you’ve been scammed into paying too much for your 60,000 mile tuneup. I complained, at the end when I had turned in the Crosstour. I said that they should have told me when I scheduled the appointment how much it would cost. Oh, the guy said, well, how about I take ten percent off? I really appreciate, he said, the chance to make this right. I was just happy to be back in my Civic. I love my Civic.