Monday, November 19, 2018

Statistics, Randomness, And My Misspent Youth

I've just been reading Nassim Taleb's Fooled by Randomness. It is a fun read, but at the risk of sounding intellectually immodest, I feel like it is full of things I already knew. Rare, unexpected, and often bad things can happen. It is easy to be fooled by statistics. It is easy to be fooled by life in general. You never really know what's going to happen. Plan accordingly.

Taleb's main target audience is traders and others who think they're succeeding and failing because of skill and insight or lack thereof. He says they are often just the victims of survivorship bias and other forms of bad reasoning. Survivorship bias is when you look at the winners and assume that whatever they did made them winners, while failing to look at the losers and what they were doing. Everyone might be throwing darts at the Wall Street Journal stock pages. Some might be winners, and tautologously, some will be winners relative to others. If you focus on the winners and blindly follow their strategy or their stock picks, you'll be SOL.

More broadly, the book is about unpredictability and how unexpected and surprising things can derail your life. This is something I knew from a young age, mostly because it features prominently in both fiction and reality. You might study for years then develop a brain tumor. You might train as an athlete then get hit by a car. You might raise your kids on organic food and still one of them might die -- from food poisoning, or a really bad flu, or ... anything, for god's sake. If I hadn't had the predictability of unpredictable events hammered home to me enough by the time I was fifteen, I definitely absorbed it when my father died suddenly -- and unexpectedly! -- from a heart attack at that time. He was forty-eight years old.

So I absorbed the epistemological lesson early. From a practical point of view, Taleb says that in the face of uncertainty, a reasonable response is to be risk-averse, and I completely agree. As I understand it, for a trader this means seeker smaller steadier gains, but to be honest I sort of zoned out on that part of the book because I am almost aggressively uninterested in thinking about investment strategy.

At this point you may be wondering: So, Patricia, did you become a risk-averse young person? Why yes -- yes I did! I skipped class, stayed up late drinking with friends, majored in two abstract and relatively useless majors (math and dance), drove around in my mom's ancient and poorly maintained VW Rabbit, and engaged in various activities we won't describe here but that are usually represented as paradigm cases of adolescent devil-may-care behavior.

To me, these were risk-averse activities. My reasoning -- which I stand by today -- was that the pleasures of impulsive behavior have an excellent chance of working out in the immediate moment, while the pleasures of planning and carefulness are distant in time and thus far less likely to actually work out.

The pleasures of hanging out with friends with you should be in class, eating cake for lunch, drinking and smoking, dancing at parties, spending a beautiful sunny day with a romantic interest instead of writing papers, etc. -- when you're a bright-eyed eighteen year-old, these are very dependable pleasures in the short-term run. Sure, they often lead to unhappiness in the long run. But whatever -- the long run is unpredictable. That is the whole point.

To forego these pleasures in the moment to get better grades, avoid lung cancer at middle-age, or even just try to live a longer period of time seemed to me like a crazy and extremely risky strategy. What if you followed all the rules and got hit by a bus at age 20? FFS. To me, my life strategy was based on getting while the getting was good -- a paradigm example of risk-averseness if ever there was one.

Over time, I stopped being so impulsive. Partly it was because the pleasures of short-term pleasures got less intense for me as I got older (as they do for so many people), and I started getting bored. Partly it was because I started to experience the negative effects of doing whatever I wanted to do in the moment: my health declined, I worked at shitty jobs like waitressing, and I had no health insurance. Partly it was because I formed close relationships with people who wanted me to flourish in the long term, which made me want to flourish in the long term as well.

For whatever it's worth, none of these reasons has to do directly with the kind of caring about the future me that is supposed to characterize rational risk-averse thinking in the standard model of human decision-making.

When people talk about risk-averseness and the rationality of overcoming impulse, I feel like there are assumptions in the background: that what it makes sense to do is plan for the future, store up your chestnuts for the winter, try to live to a ripe old age. But from the unpredictability-of-life perspective, those assumptions are peculiar and it's more the other way around. When you do whatever thing you want to do in the moment, that pleasure -- even if it's just the pleasure of a desire immediately satisfied -- is yours, and no one can take it away from you. It's a sure thing. Whereas the long term? You never really know what's going to happen.

Monday, October 8, 2018

The Pointlessness And Paradoxes Of Responsible Consumerism: Apple Edition

I woke up this morning and one of the first things I saw was this headline "Apple’s New Proprietary Software Locks Will Kill Independent Repair on New MacBook Pros."  

This is bad. It's bad for sustainability. It violates the "right to repair." It put small repair shops out of business. It's bad for schools, who fix computers at large scale, and people in rural areas who are not well-served by Apple's own technicians. 

I had one of those vaguely admirable but ultimately ignorable impulses toward responsible consumerism, and I started thinking about breaking my Mac habit. I had long been toying with the idea of learning to use Linux, as a small way bucking the consumer tyranny of the big tech companies. And I thought this could be the moment, the thing that set all that in motion. I felt the momentary warm glow you get when you see some disturbing news item and form some half-baked plan to Do Something.

To learn Linux, I thought, I might buy a used or cheap laptop to learn on. The only computer I have now is my work computer, and for all kinds of reasons I didn't want to use that one. Already my plan was going the way so many responsible consumerism plans go, where you start off wanting to save the planet and you end up buying something. But whatever.

To think about what kind of laptop would make the most sense for this project, I went to This great site not only has guides for how to fix things, they also rate products with respect to how repairable they are.

I quickly found ratings for phones and tablets, but they didn't have one for laptops. What they did have, though, was a link to Greenpeace's guide to greener electronics.

At the guide, I learned that no consumer electronics company gets an "A" for environmental impact. The only company that gets a "B" or above is Fairphone. As we've discussed before ("I Went Down The Ethical Cell Phone Rabbit Hole,") Fairphone is just phones and they're not even available in North America.

After Fairphone, the best company for environmental impact was ... Apple, with a "B-."

It's a testament to the power of consumer culture how powerfully it hit me that I might be able to satisfy my impulse to responsible consumerism by actually buying something I wanted. I could get a used Mac, and use it to learn Linux. I could even tell myself that this plan was most rational, because if I did ultimately shift over to using Linux all the time, having a Mac would allow me to access the documents I've created in software like Pages, which is Mac only. 

I went to the Apple website to check out what refurbished laptops they had. The have no refurbished MacBook Airs available -- probably because these are affordable and reliable and everyone wants one. What they do have is MacBooks, the fancy high end super thin no-ports machine. I had wanted a MacBook when they came out. Hmmm...

I don't know what to say about the ridiculous of starting with an I'll-show-you-Apple Mac-avoidance plan and ending with MacBook shopping, except that it doesn't feel like a one-off to me. It feels sort of like an experience I have all the time.

I guess the moral of the story is that when you live in a society where people are paid millions to convince you that shopping is the answer to your problems, you tend to think that shopping is the answer to your problems.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

This Blog Is Shifting Gears

This blog is going to change from regular once-a-week posting to occasional, irregular posting when I have something to say. If you want to stay connected, you can sign up to subscribe to the blog by email using the feature on the right hand side, or you could just check in occasionally when you feel like it.

The main reason is that I seem to lack the mental energy for regular blogging right now. Maybe it will come back at some point. Thanks for being awesome readers : )

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

No Post Because Chairing

I don't know whether to say I lacked the time, or whether it's not enough mental energy (an understudied concept, IMHO), or maybe it's an issue of Life Force, or perhaps it's related to the (difficult to replicate!) concept of ego depletion. But I wasn't able to write this week. See you all again next Tuesday!

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

My Favorite Beatle: Past And Present

When I discovered the Beatles I was eleven years old. I know because I found out about the Beatles by going to see the Bee Gees movie Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and some older person must have taken pity on me and kindly explained that in fact, those songs weren't really the Bee Gees, they were, in fact, this other band.

I got really into the Beatles between ages eleven and thirteen, and even though I don't listen to the Beatles any more, I'm happy for this phase of life, which I feel was an appropriate introduction to the world of English Language Pop Music.

Given my age, it was inevitable that I would form deep opinions about My Favorite Beatle, and also that My Favorite would basicall correlate with the one I thought was Cute and Attractive and Someone I Would Like to Date.

For me, that Beatle was Paul McCartney.

I know that people like me are supposed to like other Beatles best. Intellectuals and politically savvy people are supposed to like John. Non-conformists and introverts are supposed to like George. I'm not sure who has Ringo as their favorite and maybe I'm not alone: this quora question says "Who is your favorite Beatle if it is Ringo explain why" and none of the answers are "Ringo." But Paul is considered the sillier choice, the obvious choice, the lightweight.

Over the years since, I have occasionally thought about the Beatles about my interest in Paul as my favorite Beatle. For a while I was very dismissive of my former self. I wanted to like Wings, but I couldn't even get interested. OK, maybe "Live and Let Live," but you know what I mean. Meanwhile, John was making art with Yoko Ono and being Mister Interesting. While I have always agreed with the sentiment that when it comes to Silly Love Songs,  sure, "what's wrong with that?" I also felt like "Really, is that all you got?"

Then for a long time I didn't think about the Beatles, as I got obsessed with The Cure (not embarrassed to admit this), T. Rex (still think they are the best), The Velvet Underground (talk about obsession) and Pavement (not trying to be pretentious, just like their music).

Then around the time that Linda McCartney died (in 1998), I remember thinking: maybe I wasn't crazy to have Paul as my favorite Beatle, at least if I was thinking in terms of romance. I mean, this guy got married to an interesting woman, Linda Eastman, who was an artist and activist, and stayed married to her for 29 years until she died of cancer. OK, things didn't work out with Heather Mills, but then immediately after divorcing her he married Nancy Shevell. Paul seems to enjoy family life and spending time with his wives and kids. I thought to myself: "Paul could have actually been a good person to be in a romance with. He seems like kind of a romantic guy."

Lately, though, I've soured on the idea of Paul as a favorite Beatle. Paul is boring, and the older I get, the more I feel like boring is not OK. This sentiment was reinforced when Paul appeared on the WTF podcast, which I listen to obsessively. Usually, Marc's interviews get people to talk about some things that are painful, or conflictual, or that they just feel weird about. Paul's interview, by contrast, was like a PR plug that went on for an hour. Crushingly dull.

With respect to the other Beatles though, I'm not sure. John's particular brand of humorless activism feels kind of smug to me, and George is still a cipher. Ringo, perhaps? Songs like Octopus's Garden are weird, amusing, and lighthearted -- and isn't weird, amusing, and lighthearted in short supply these days? On the other hand, as one of the manifestations of the weirdness of modern life, I just learned that Ringo is a Brexiteer.

Maybe the moral of the story is that the more you know about pop idols, the less they can be pop idols -- something that seems obvious once you think about it a bit, but something the emotions of fandom never wanted me to admit.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

I Was In Hannover Germany

I didn't have time to write a proper blog post this week, and one reason is that I was giving a paper at the joint conference of the ENPOSS (European Network for Philosophy of Social Science) and the Philosophy of Social Science Roundtable. The conference was good: I was reminded how in areas like philosophy of social science (or philosophy of science more generally), there's something to talk about beyond philosophy. I mean, in ethics, it's often just you and your arguments and I sometimes feel like convincing people is partly force of personality. But with philosophy of science, there's ... science!

One of the things that struck me about Hannover was that there was a fair amount of graffiti. I had trouble interpreting or classifying or understanding the graffiti in Hannover, which seemed to cross a lot of genres in ways that were opaque to an outsider. I tried to talk to a Parisian about it, and he said "Oh, there's a lot of graffiti all over Europe, isn't it like that in North America?" and I said "No, not exactly, there are areas with a lot of graffiti and then areas with none." Then I asked him if he thought the graffiti in a place like Hannover was more created by disenfranchised or poor people expressing their discontent or whether the form was somehow broadened so that more people participated. He said he didn't know.

I don't know either. Some graffiti seemed to me like what I'd think of as conventional tagging. Some seemed more explicitly political, like anarchist signs. Then a lot was just -- impossible for me to classify, with words or style that I couldn't understand.

Here are two pictures of graffiti in Hannover -- both of these pictures were taken right near the University building where the conference was held. In the first, you see a range of styles. In the second, you see words -- "iron," "reset," "Mandy." WTF?

 I really don't know, so if you have interpretations, I'd be interested to hear them.

One other interesting visual thing I encountered in Germany was at the airport, where I saw this sign that said "Keep off this plain!" Sure, the word "plain" could just be a bad translation. But a bad translation for what? What is this?

I guess it's good there are still some mysteries in the universe. See you all next week!

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Is Everyone's First Job Now Public Relations?

Since I write a blog, I get an amazing number of PR emails. I get emails about books, research findings, new movies, and things like that, but often it's more of a vague invitation to interview a person or write about a thing so people will pay attention to it. For example, I recently got an email line with the subject heading "55% of Sugar daters prefer to meet over coffee for the first date." It's a bit of information, an invitation for an interview, all in the service of publicizing a service for I won't name here since that would be, in effect, providing public relations. These emails are all from senders like "Brianna Smith," PR coordinator for "XYZ media."

I used to be amazed that it was worth the while of so many people to seek out PR from this minor blogger. I know it's all automated, but someone has to click through to my website to find my email address. But as time went on I realized: PR is now everything. PR is getting people interesting enough in your thing so you can do your thing. PR is getting people on board with your start up so you can make a company. PR is getting your side out there, as Amazon did recently when people on Twitter said they should pay their employees more ("No, we're very well-paid," someone was paid to say).

I know PR has always been sort of the essence of capitalism. If you've read Trollope's great Victorian novel "The Way We Live Now," you know that hype has been the linchpin of economic activity for a long time. The novel tells the story of a huge finance boon-doggle in which rich guy August Melmotte uses schemes to increase the share price for a massive railway project -- a project that no one ever really intends to complete, but that everyone wants to profit on through the manipulation of other people's beliefs. It's all a big PR job.

But for a range of complicated reasons, I feel like PR has seeped into everything. Enrollment in the humanities is down, despite the fact that why people believe what they believe has become the main question of the early 21st century -- and despite the fact that employers say that communication and cooperation skills are the skills people need for modern jobs. Everywhere I turn, I hear that we need to do better at PR: Philosophy needs to tell its story, humanities needs to explain and justify itself more effectively, courses need to be advertised, everyone needs to court their alums to give money, so we're not dependent on the money we get from servicing our customers -- that is, from teaching our students.

Now, it feels like it's not only that the goods of a system that have to be advertised, but even the role that a particular person or part plays in the system. Instead of just competition among systems, it's that systems themselves are increasingly based on competition. For example, it used to be that the book industry worked on the concept that a publishing house would have an array of kinds of titles, and they would use the established success of some titles to support the work of less-known authors. Sure, publishing houses competed with one another, but with a house, you could have some judgment calls. Now it just feels like it's just every individual person is evaluated based on their immediate prospect for money-making, so the competition has seeped down, and everyone has to do PR, to convince other people that the thing they're doing is the hip new thing.

At an individual level, as we've discussed before, with the "entrepreneurial self," everyone has to be their own PR person, and whether you are likable has a profound effect on your prospects in life. Likability acts as a conduit for other forms of discrimination like racism and sexism, but it has a dimension all its own: if you're just kind of an unlikeable person, well, too bad for you.

I don't mind doing a bit of PR. But it can't take over everything. How can you have a thing, if all your time is spent on advertising?

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The World Is Ending. What Should I Wear?

Since a young age, I've had a keen sense of living in a radically screwed up and unjust world. I remember when I learned in elementary school about the American enslavement of people from Africa, about killings in war, about the brutal genocide of Native Americans, and about the likelihood we were all going to die in nuclear war, and I was like Gee we are fucked up. I'm not saying I understood the proper range of things -- I was a white kid in the US suburbs -- just that I knew things were deeply not OK.

When I was a young adult, you would have known from just looking at me that I felt this way. My self-presentation was ... weird. I guess style-wise it was mostly a mix between punk and something like goth, but it was more non-conformist than that. My clothes from the thrift store were often shabby and falling apart. I wore boots with my summer dresses, which for some reason drove people crazy. I let my hair become knotted into permanent tangles -- not like dreads, but like just a person who doesn't brush her hair. I had a lot of piercings, before that became a normal thing.

Looking back on my arrival at philosophy PhD school years later, one mentor said, "Well -- we thought you were really out there."

Over the years since, my self-presentation has become much more conformist. For one thing, I found that teaching undergraduates pushed me way toward conformism. There are many things that make teaching stressful and anxiety-producing, and for me one of them has to do with relating to a pretty wide range of people. I've never been that popular person, I'm not an extrovert, and the things that interest me often don't interest other people (and vice-versa!). Navigating the student-teacher relationship alongside the complexities of self-presentation non-conformism is too emotionally complicated for me.

Another pressure toward conformity has to do with my relationship to femininity and the way that changes with getting older. I've always been somewhat a girly-girl, and I love dresses and feminine clothes. Some of my earliest memories involve trying to talk my mother into buying me various skirts and cute crop-tops and heels -- her style of feminism pushing hard in the direction of denim and "clothes you can do things in."

It's one thing to be both girly and non-conformist when you're young, but I feel like it gets complicated when you get older. I'm a professor, but sometimes when I'm not "dressed up," strangers ask "Are you a student?" I know, whatever, but it gets annoying. Plus, it's easy to look good when you're young, even if you're wearing weird clothes, because duh -- young people are cute. Not so easy as time goes on.

Now that I look more conformist, though, it's disturbing to me that people might look at me and think that I'm a happy part of the system, or that I think things are mostly just peachy, or that I'm optimistic about the future. As time has gone on, I feel like more people now share the feelings I had back in the 1980s, that things are radically not-OK, and maybe I'm also more aware of people who feel this way. Racism and police brutality continue to be outrageous. Workers in the US need to earn $22.10 per hour to afford to rent a modest two-bedroom apartment; according to Forbes, the median US hourly wage is $16.71. Looming climate change has made dystopianism a mainstream mood. It's not just for goths anymore.

Whenever I'm on this train of thought, at some point I think to myself: why are you thinking about self-presentation, when action is what matters? Isn't it silly to be worrying about how you look, when what matters is what you do?

But I think they both matter. Years ago a student came up and asked me something about a slightly non-conformist thing, and I was like "of course!" and she was like "well, I didn't know, because you you look so normal." And I was like "Hmmmm." Plus, in our Instagramish age, where everything has to come with a photo, self-presentation has become a central form of communication. 

I'm not really sure what would be next. On the one hand, I hardly wear makeup, and I don't dye my grey hair, and it's a measure of how bizarre the world is that these things really are seen as non-conformist. But on the other hand, I'd like to do more. Maybe I should learn to sew and start wearing jeans with brightly colored fringe. Maybe I should put sparkles on everything I own. Maybe I should become that kind of ultra-femme who transcends conformist femininity. Maybe I should start wearing only sports-wear -- which would be conformist for some people, but pretty non-conformist for a woman in academia. Obviously, I don't have an answer or a plan, and hence the question of the title is really a question. The world is ending. What should I wear?

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Anthony Trollope And The Texture Of Human Unhappiness

As you may know, I am a fan of the novels of Anthony Trollope. For those of you who aren't Victorian-novel-enthusiasts, Trollope was a contemporary of Dickens -- and, in certain respects, sort of an anti-Dickens. Partly because of the political overtones of their differences, Dickens is far the more popular writer these days. And I get that. But I still think we need Trollope.

Dickens and Trollope are different in topic and style. Topic-wise, Dickens's books often feature poor and lower-class characters, and often have a sort of point to make about them. The poor are downtrodden; they are noble and worthy; they deserve better treatment. Trollope's books feature aristocrats, and they focus on family, money, and politics. Who will marry? Who will inherit? Who will prosper?

Style-wise, Dickens's books are often humorous, and I hope I'm being fair to Dickens when I say that they feature characters who are painted in vivid and simple colors. Good people. Bad people. Angry people. Grateful people. Trollope's books, on the other hand, are psychologically realistic and, as a result, full of ambiguity. There are people who are kind but also weak. People who are loving but also scheming. People who are torn between their commitments and their longings and, like all of us, bumble through as best they can.

Nathaniel Hawthorne said that Trollope's books were so realistic, they were "just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were made a show of." Trollope's books are so realistic that even though Trollope himself was sort of an anti-feminist, the books are plausibly feminist: they are full of complex, multifaceted female characters who think and reflect, act on their own internal motivations, accomplish a wide variety of things, and often bridle at the limits of their social roles. It's like Trollope found himself forced to tell the truth about women's inner lives and social status -- even when that conflicted with his beliefs.

So part of Trollope's unpopularity is the potentially suspect nature of writing only about rich British people. It's also that Trollope's topics are seen as soap-opera-ish and light. And Trollope's reputation took a hit when it was revealed that he made himself write a certain number of lines every morning -- for most of his life, every morning before starting his day job working for the postal service. This seemed to people unserious, workmanlike, and not consistent with literary genius.

I feel these views of Trollope are unjust, but I don't spend a lot of time talking and thinking about it. I mean, we're hardly lacking for stories about rich British people. But Trollope was on my mind recently as I was thinking recently about our bizarre cultural climate.

One thing I feel we learn from Trollope's books is the vast range of misery-sources that have nothing to do with money and social status. You can have money, status, even servants, and still feel not only unhappy but also cruelly shafted out of the good things in life. Maybe you're oafish or unattractive to others. Maybe you're a figure of fun. Maybe the person you love doesn't love you back. Maybe you're inextricably attached to someone who is driving you crazy. Maybe you devoted your life to a project that the world, moving on, decided was pointless. Maybe your life is predictable and dull. Maybe, despite -- or because of! -- your privileged life, you just can't get your shit together. 

I think this lesson is crucially important. First, it's important to know for yourself, so you can think about your life. Yes, you need a certain amount of money and social status to live. But more of those things is not a ticket to happiness, and neither is anything else, really. Instead of trying to get to misery-elimination, why not aim lower? Misery-management is, perhaps, a more appropriate goal.

I don't know if you remember when the DVD of Sesame Street was first issued, and it came with a warning: "These early ‘Sesame Street’ episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child." Writing in the New York Times, Virginia Heffernan wrote that "People on 'Sesame Street had limited possibilities and fixed identities, and (the best part) you weren’t expected to change much. The harshness of existence was a given, and no one was proposing that numbers and letters would lead you 'out' of your inner city to Elysian suburbs. Instead, 'Sesame Street' suggested that learning might merely make our days more bearable, more interesting, funnier. It encouraged us, above all, to be nice to our neighbors and to cultivate the safer pleasures that take the edge off -- taking baths, eating cookies, reading."

An era in which we're constantly told to live our best life and be thrilled about it could use this kind of acknowledgement of the basic principle-of-conservation-of-unhappiness.

A second reason we need to be reminded that people can have money and social status and still feel miserable and shafted is that these days, a lot of people with money and social status feel miserable and shafted. And sometimes because of this, they're making a certain amount trouble for the rest of us.

I'm not saying "oh boo-hoo for them" and I'm not saying "oh the poor rich people" and I'm not saying "oh, we should care more about rich people's problems." It's more like: we should remember, as we think about human nature and how we're all going to live together, that this is, in fact, a thing.

I'd never deny that books should give us insight into the lives of others and that -- duh -- when those lives are only those of British aristocrats, something has gone off the rails. But with all the stories and narratives out there, I hope we can make some room for the Trollopes of the world.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

No Post Because Chairing

Those of you who know me know that I became chair of my academic department in July. It's fine, but it's hard to combine with blogging, and this week I got nothing. Hope you are enjoying August and I'll see you next week!

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Metaphysics and Politics Of "A Calorie Is A Calorie"

I've always been fascinated by the staying power of "a calorie is a calorie" and the way people enjoy deploying this phrase.

In some literal sense, this statement is true -- but that sense is the one in which it is also a tautology, which means that it is true but empty of content. It may be true by definition, but it doesn't tell you anything about the way the world is.

When people say "a calorie is a calorie," though, they definitely mean to say something about the way the world is. They mean to say that what foods you eat doesn't matter for your weight, as long as you eat the same number of calories. Or they mean that your weight can be calculated through finding the difference between the calories you consume in food and the calories you burn in exercise and living. Or they mean that if two people eat the same way and move the same way, they will have the same experience in terms of weight gain or weight loss.

Stated this way, these things seem obviously false. I have an acquaintance who was in a bad car accident years ago. His digestive system was damaged, and he had to have a lot of surgeries. Now he is fine, but for a long time he struggled to keep his weight up, even when eating a lot of food, because his system didn't work well. Obviously, his condition contradicts the previous statements.

Maybe you're thinking, Well, those are exceptional circumstances. But there are many ordinary examples. Regular readers know that I'm a fan of the work of Dr. Jason Fung, whose book The Obesity Code proposes that weight is a matter of hormones and biology, not thermodynamics, so that you have to look at how your body is reacting to food and not just at its caloric content. Roughly speaking, frequent small meals mean your body produces a lot of insulin; this can cause insulin resistance, which causes the body to produce more insulin, which changes how your body responds to food. Even short periods of fasting can counter these effects.

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 these complicated factors, what is the point of "a calorie is a calorie"? I wrote before about why this strange tautology might be so attractive to people. But there's also an interesting kind of metaphysical way to look at it. I was recently reading Philip Mirowski's More Heat Than Light, about the relationship of economics and physics. In an early chapter, he discusses the work of Emile Meyerson, who Mirowski says proposed that "a sweeping postulate of the identity of things in time" was "central to all human thought." Things are always changing, but we can't understand things unless we take them as, in some sense, fixed.

In a passage I really like, Mirowski says that the story goes like this: "Someone proposes some hypothesis, and then a mathematical savant constructs an "equivalent" statement H*(x) of the hypothesis, highlighting some mathematical quantity x. The Meyersonian tendency then exerts its sway, and x begins to be treated analogously to the general philosophical category of substance: Namely, it is thought to obey some conservation laws [e. g., -- "a calorie is a calorie!"]... These conservation laws, in turn, provide the accounting framework that enables quantitative manipulation. Somewhere along the line, entity x gets conflated with object x', which becomes associated with all sorts of metaphysical overtones, such as the permanence of natural law, the bedrock of phenomenological reality, the identity of mind and body, and so forth."

That is, the whole concept of a calorie might just be a reifying projection of the fact that the science of thermodynamics works well with one mathematical formalism rather than another. We then make the leap, possibly unjustified, to the idea of reality that is conserved and unchanging, so that a calorie is a calorie. 

Of course, statements like "a calorie is a calorie" also take on a life of their own because they fit into people's social and political commitments and allow them to blame "individual responsibility" for things that, as Dr. Fung elegantly explains, have nothing to do with choices and everything to do with the social and political aspects of food and nutrition science -- for example, the fact that "eat small frequent meals" and "a calorie is a calorie" both allow for nutrition "advice" that doesn't harm the bottom line of large food corporation.

In fact, in "The Foreign Policy of the Calorie," historian Nick Cullather traces the emergence of the calorie framework through its use as a social, political and cultural tool, arguing that the calorie framework "popularized and factualized a set of assumptions that allowed Americans to see food as an instrument of power, and to envisage a 'world food problem' amenable to political and scientific intervention."

Well. After decades of calorie-is-a-calorie bullshit, the New York Times just ran an article saying it might not be just "what" you eat, but also "when" you eat that matters. In my opinion, the focus of the article on circadian rhythms makes no sense -- as commenters pointed out, many cultures have late night dining habits and excellent health. But at least they will willing to break away from the ridiculous metaphysics and get into the fact that there are, in fact, many variables in play, and they may well interact in complicated ways that we just don't understand. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

A Guide To Quitting Amazon From Someone Who Cares

There are many reasons to want to quit Amazon. Maybe you're worried by the fact that one company dominates the book-selling industry, so their trade wars dramatically affect what books you can buy. Maybe you're weirded out by the fact that when a tech reporter was recently asked "Is it possible to buy used books on the internet without buying from Amazon?" he said "It's certainly not easy" -- because Amazon owns, Book Depository, and everything else. Maybe you're still haunted -- as I am! -- by the fact that Amazon secretly removed Orwell's 1984 from people's Kindles in 2009.

Maybe you're disturbed that Amazon creates "intolerable" working conditions, where people are punished for taking sick days and have to camp outside the workplace. Maybe it bothers you that pickers are under constant surveillance and can't talk to one another or sit as they walk the 10-12 miles usually demanded per shift. Maybe you're outraged that in addition to all the other pressures, Amazon requires temporary low-paid workers to sign 18-month non-compete clauses, so they can't get another job if they quit.

Maybe you're annoyed that the low prices are partly attributable to the fact that Amazon isn't really selling you things, it's more using things to collect your data, which they make a profit off of. Maybe you dread a future in which Amazon can charge you more because your browsing or buying habits put you in a high-flyer category.

Even if none of that matters to you: doesn't it just creep you out one private online company is going to completely control the economy of medium-sized durable goods and five of them will control ... everything?

For many people, quitting Amazon isn't easy. I get it. Everyone has things they rely on to make the chaos of modern life manageable, and I'm not here to tell you what to do. These are just some nudges from someone who loves you. Most of these options are marginally more expensive, so if you're poor, you're off the hook -- this is for people who can afford a few extra dollars.

First: what are you buying? I am often a little unclear what, exactly, people buy so much of on Amazon. Books, groceries, and ... what exactly? Let's call that last category "everything else."

Books: The number of book-related sites and apps that Amazon has purchased truly verges into the dystopian future category. There used to be an app called Stanza you could use to read free Gutenberg books: Amazon bought it and closed it down. There used to be Audible for audiobooks: Amazon bought it. As mentioned above, people often try to use and Book Depository: Amazon owns both of these.

My advice: if you're buying hardcopies new, you can use good old Barnes and Noble in the US or in Canada. If you're buying used books, you can use For e-books, I use with the Kobo app. There's also the Nook, which I know nothing about. Of course the best thing is to buy your books at a bookstore. I am crazy enough to intentionally travel out to bookstores to see if they have what I want before going and buying it online, but I don't expect that level of commitment from everyone.

Groceries: Especially with food, the more you buy in a store near your home the better. Won't you hate it if all your grocery stores go out of business? But I know, sometimes you need heavy and cumbersome things. I don't have a car, so I sympathize. It depends a lot where you live, but in many communities there are delivery services that specialized in groceries. Even in the poor run-down town of Rockville, CT, where my mom lived, there was PeaPod, associated with Stop & Shop.

Yes, these services often come with a fee, and yes the prices are often higher. That's what happens when the delivery people are getting paid and the company is trying to make a profit in the old-fashioned way, by selling you things. If you can't afford it, no judgment!

Everything else: I don't have a lot of experience with everything else. I never buy clothes online, because everything fits me weirdly and I have to try stuff on. I spend a lot of money on things like lunch and coffee and wine, but as we've discussed, I am sick of stuff in general and want less of it, not more, so I don't buy a lot of things.

But really, if you can't get to a store, almost every major retailer will sell you you things online. You can buy things online from Target, and Bed Bath and Beyond, and Best Buy, and a million clothing stores.

It's true that shopping this way can be a pain. You have to get different things from different places, and it costs more in shipping, and it's more of a hassle. I tried to buy a book directly from Duke University Press recently, because it wasn't available on Indigo, and weeks later I got some kind of slip about paying for customs, and I went online and did that, but I still don't have the book. Who knows what happened.

That's why I am not judging. I recently read that book about Not Giving A Fuck that people are talking about, and one thing in it that I liked was about how life was always pain, you just had to choose the kind of pain you were best at dealing with, the kind of pain you wanted. For me, quitting Amazon is bearable pain. It's a pain I can absorb easily, not like giving up Pinot Grigio. As always, your mileage may vary.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

I Scattered My Mom's Ashes In The Ocean

I didn't have time to write a TKIN post, because I was too busy traveling to Cape Cod to scatter my mom's ashes.

If you're following along at home, my mom died about a year ago. You can read my post about her here. We had a small memorial for her at the time, but then last weekend a larger group of family members got together in Hyannis and took a small boat with a crew who knew all about the ashes scattering process.

It was an incredibly beautiful day, and here's a picture of me watching the ashes slowly disperse into the ocean:

Au revoir, Audrey!

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Things That Annoyed Me Between 6:00 And 7:30 PM On Monday July 9

These aren't big life problems. They're not even my big life problems. I'm going to write about them anyway.

At 6:00 PM I showed up for a yoga class, and I was immediately annoyed to see that the instructor had brought a bunch of those mini plastic fake candles and was putting one of them at each person's mat. I know this is crabby, but all I could think of was how each candle had a battery, and each battery had some small amount of those compounds that make batteries work that are bad for the environment, and how once the batteries wore out the candles would probably be thrown in the trash.

Let me be clear: it's not the idea of candles I'm complaining about. It's the pointless waste of plastic and other crap. All this future landfill -- and for what? And during yoga class? Aren't we supposed to be extra mindful of our relation to the earth when we're doing yoga? Somehow I feel like there's this environmentalism frame of mind, and there's the "other" frame of mind, and when we're doing one we're not doing the other.

Yoga class was fine, but it's supposed to end at 7:00, and as the clock said 6:58, the instructor started winding things down and getting ready for the meditation. The reason I'm fussy about the ending time is that on Mondays I take a bus back from yoga, and here in Waterloo (where I work) the bus goes only every half hour. If I leave yoga class at 7, I almost always make an earlier bus. If I leave at 7:05, I often miss it.

It's a measure of the power of the social environment of yoga, I guess, that I don't pack up my stuff and leave before we're done. This seems disruptive, and wrong. So, instead, I lie there getting mad that it's getting late and I'm going to miss my bus. I know -- it's the opposite of the whole point of the exercise. But what can I do?

This time I caught the bus and stopped by the grocery store. This store always plays some kind of classic rock, which always annoys me, because classic rock might have its time and place but grocery shopping is not it. On Monday, it was The Rolling Stones, Shattered. I have nothing against the Rolling Stones and if I heard this at a party I might have a moment of light nostalgia. But it's a song about sex and NYC. Do I want to think about these things while I'm selecting a red pepper? No.

When I'm in Waterloo it's a ten-minute walk from the grocery store to my place. It's along a wide road with a lot of cars, which always reminds me how a ten-minute walk along a lovely path or an urban street feels like nothing, while a ten minute walk by the side of cars, cars, cars feels like forever. When I lived in Palo Alto, it was a ten-minute walk from my apartment, on the edge of Menlo Park, to this large outdoor mall-type thing with restaurants and cafes. The walk took me along a busy road, with drivers rushing past, car dealerships on the sides, and a narrow sidewalk. The longest ten-minute walk ever.

While I was walking along on Monday, I encountered an automated sprinkler system. I have come to think of these as the bane of pedestrian existence. When I was in graduate school in Irvine, California, the working assumption seemed to be that no one would ever actually use a path or sidewalk -- they were there just to look nice. Walking, I was constantly attacked by these systems. In Irvine, they were set on timers, which meant I'd be quietly ambling to class or back from the pub, and BOOM -- suddenly I'd be drenched with water. On Monday the sprinkler was already on, so I just had to pick my way through the drenched grass on the side of the sidewalk.

On one level this is just complaining, but I think there is something interesting in the fact that the modern world so often feels hostile, aggressive, or just annoying. You might think several of the items above are particular to me as a non-driver, but in my experience the drivers have it even worse. Often, yoga class starts with an acknowledgement that if you battled your way through traffic and fought for a parking space before showing up, you're going to need extra time to decompress.

These are first-world problems. As I said, they're not big problems -- and if I were describing my life, I probably wouldn't even mention them. But I don't think I'm the only one who feels that even just the regular texture of daily life in modern society can be stressful and exhausting. Somehow, we've set things up so that buying a flat-screen TV is easy and fun, while walking on a sidewalk is difficult. And forget about things like feeding kids healthy food or getting a plumbing problem fixed while working a full-time job. How did the treats become the center of things and the ordinary essentials become so strange and difficult?

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Irrationality: Why Not Make It Work For You?

Sometimes I read an advice column that advises people to save money by avoiding general or monthly fees in favor of a more pay-as-you-go approach. So, for example, as I understand it a lot of people who sign up for a gym at X dollars per month then use the gym less often than they expected, to the extent that they would have been better off financially paying per visit or something like that.

I think that often this is bad advice. It assumes several things that are certainly or maybe false:  that the number of times you go to the gym doesn't depend on how you pay, that your goal is to get as much gym time for as few dollars as possible, and that you are a rational decision maker.

If you drop all those assumptions, you get a different perspective on the problem. What if you articulate your main goal as working out as much as possible without spending more than X dollars? Suddenly the monthly payment system starts to look pretty good, even if you could have saved money by doing it the other way.

The reason this difference arises, I think, is that having paid a monthly fee incentivizes you to work out, while paying per use incentivizes you not to work out. What's interesting about this is that strictly speaking, there's a sense in which being incentivized to work out by having paid a monthly fee is irrational. And yet, it's such a common and familiar feeling. And you can use it to your advantage.

The reason it's seen as irrational has to do with the "sunk cost" fallacy. According to one strand of decision-making theory, the only factors you should consider when evaluating what to do are factors that actually come into play in your decision. When it's time to decide whether to go to the gym or stay on the sofa, this system says, the only things you should be considering are the options you have and how well those options satisfy your current needs and desires. The fact that you paid a non-recoverable fee for a gym membership is irrelevant, because you can't change it: it's the same no matter what you choose.

But we know from behavioral economics and from life that this isn't how it works. Of course having paid a fixed fee, you feel you should go to the gym -- to "get your money's worth," whatever that means. You pay a fee and you don't use the gym, you feel like an idiot. So you feel you should get to the gym. The pay-per-use is almost the opposite, encouraging you to think, again, on every occasion, are these dollars maximally satisfying my happiness and well-being when I spend them on the gym? Or would ice cream be even better?

Of course, if you pay a flat fee, you may pay more than you would have paid per-use. But you may also work out more than you would have worked out had you paid-per-visit. So it really depends on what your goal is. If your goal is to go to the gym more, even though it costs a bit extra per time, then the flat fee makes total sense. You can think of it like a self-nudge: you structure your own environment to exploit your own systematic irrationalities for your own gain. A nudge without the creepier effects of being nudged by the other people, because you're doing the nudging yourself.

I do this all the time -- structuring my own environment to make my impulses draw me toward a more desirable rather than a less desirable conclusion. And I can tell you: there's a lot to be said for seeing the emotive force aspect of your self and the logical structure aspect of yourself as cooperating friends, rather than enemies at war.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

How Is It Possible That Several-Hundred Dollar Handbags Feel Essential To Adulthood?

For me, one of the most striking things in the aftermath of Kate Spade's suicide was learning how many other people thought of her bags -- and her bags' general price range, of several hundred dollars -- as lying in what was seen as sort of modal zone of "grown-up."

The sentiment runs throughout this piece in The New York Times:

"At midrange prices of several hundred dollars, they were aspirational but within reach of some women who were starting their careers."

"for so many women, buying that first kate spade bag was your first grown-up purchase."

"A Kate Spade handbag was the very first 'nice' 'grownup' thing I ever had."

I realize I am out of step with the nation along several dimensions. But really? You have to spend hundreds of dollars on a bag to count as a modern grown-up? 

No doubt my life in academia helps explain how off-trend I am. The most expensive bag I ever bought was one of those collapsible Longchamps nylon bags, at 70 dollars. The nicest bag I own is a Coach bag I got at a thrift store for 25 dollars. I've looked at Kate Spade, and I've thought to myself, "Hm, kind of pricey." I'm so off-trend I don't even carry a bag most of the time. I'm just throwing everything into my backpack.

In many ways, my ability to use a backpack and carry a cheap bag are manifestations of my privileged position in society. Back in 2013, Tressie MC wrote a great piece about how poor people have to buy, and wear, expensive accessories in order to gain respect from the fellow citizens, and thus to be employable. Many people need nice accessories, because they're literally a job requirement.

I would also like to emphasize that I am not saying there is something wrong with buying nice bags because you like them. I buy and love other expensive things, and I am not criticizing the purchasing of expensive bags for fun.

However, what I am saying is just that in a society where $15/hr is an aspirational minimum wage for most places, the idea that a few hundred dollars is considered an entry-level adulthood bag is strange and fucked up.

Of course, it's significant that this sentiment was appearing in The New York Times, and so you might think "Well, what did you expect"?

It's true that when I started reading the New York Times I was an easily bored college student sitting with some eggs-over-medium with friends. The fact that the homes were millions of dollars and "cheap" wines were my weekly paycheck didn't bother me, because I just thought of that part of the paper as written for aliens. I could just read the news, and ignore all that.

But newspapers have changed. The fact that Kate Spade's bags were accessibly aspirational is now intertwined with everything else. Newspapers want to be relevant, they want to reach us in different ways, and they want to reflect our concerns.

Like so many people, I have been prompted by this to obsess over the question of who the news thinks it is for. The answers are frequently disturbing. The New York Times is obviously for people with the kind of financial background in which spending hundreds of dollars on a bag is part of the baseline of what's just normal in life.

The creepiest aspect of the whole thing is the use of that word "grown-up." So: you can't be an adult if you're poor? Minimum wage earners are condemned to eternal childhood? WTF? If that's the way expectations are set up, it's not surprising that young people are stressed out of their minds.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Why Does Buying Something Feel Like Such A Thing?

I've had a kind of self-imposed moratorium on buying stuff, because 1) I already have most the stuff I need and 2) there are other things I can use that money for and 3) the environment. I'm not boasting or treat-deprived: I still spend a lot of money on things like coffee and wine and having people make food for me -- because preparing food in advancing and bringing it with me some place is somehow an activity I've never been able to manage.

Since I'm not treat-deprived, I've been surprised at the urge to buy stuff and by the texture of the anticipated pleasure of buying stuff. I kind of gave myself an exception-clause for buying clothes for exercise or dance class, because 1) I actually did need more exercise clothes and 2) who doesn't want to look good while they're dancing?

As a woman of a certain age, it's not every day I find exercise clothes that I think make me look good, so when I found a cool Nike mesh top that fit me perfectly, with cool sleeves between short-sleeves and three-quarter length sleeves, I was pretty excited and I bought it on the spot. Yes, I waffled about supporting Nike, yes, I did the merry-go-round of weighing the options of trying to buy a shirt from some other company and whether they would treat their workers better, and yes, I went briefly down the rabbit hole of what it meant to support a giant corporation. Those thoughts didn't get me anywhere. In the end, I was like, "If it's good enough for Serena Williams, it's good enough for me."

I wore it, and I liked it so much, I thought I might buy another one in another color, or at least swing by the Nike store to check that out as a possibility. I thought about what times I'd be over by the mall or whatever and how I could squeeze that in, and it felt like such a prospect of a treat. Like really something to look forward to at the end of a day.

The more I thought about the idea of another shirt, though, the more it seemed like a bad idea. I was trying to buy less -- did I really need two mesh shirts? Plus, if I bought a shirt now, it'd be less reasonable to buy some other slightly different shirt later, since I'd already have enough. And wouldn't it be more fun to have a potential future shirt, with all the open-ended and unseen magic that could entail, than a repeat of a shirt I already have, already fading from being washed, hanging in my closet?

I decided not to buy the shirt. But, bizarrely, the idea that I had something to buy stuck around in the back of my mind. I continued to think about when I'd be near the mall, so I could go to the Nike store. I kept fitting it into my imaginary future days, and when I pictured it, I felt such a ping of pleasure at imagining the process. 

And that is what was so surprising to me. I'd already decided against buying the shirt, and yet the prospect of having something to buy --the sheer prospect of a purchase -- felt like something to look forward to. As I thought about it, I realized this is a common thing for me, to feel like buying something is somehow a thing, it's something to look forward to in itself, the buying being some kind of additional pleasure to the object itself -- an object that may well, for various reasons, ultimately be a bit disappointing.

It's surely not news that buying stuff can be a pleasure in itself, adding to or even transcending the feeling of the thing purchased. Why else would we live in a world where people's houses are full of stuff? But, still, I found myself weirded out by it. Why? Why should paying money and getting a thing feel like a thing? What kind of thing is it? Does it feel like a treat, like a cupcake? Or is it more like the pleasure of an accomplishment -- oh, I'm taking steps to feather my nest?

In a previous post I wrote about how the frictionlessness of payment systems makes people experience more pleasure in buying, and so they spend more and feel less invested in the purchases they end up with. But I pay with cash a lot. And honestly, even though I find it much harder to part with cash than to pay by card (as do we all, I guess), even the buying with cash experience feels like a pleasure, or at least a thing -- a thing to be registered on the positive side, something to be planned for and something to look forward to.

In any case, given that there are so few things I need and want to buy, I've been surprised at how often my mind goes to "buy something" as a pick-me-up for a low mood and how weak the rationality part of my mind works in response.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Mystery Of The Omnipresent Starbucks Disposable Coffee Cup

Regular readers know that I recently upped my game with respect to carrying my own coffee cup. In my perfect world, every coffee place has reusable ceramic mugs that can be washed. In my actual world, it's often a paper cup or carry your own mug around.

Regular readers may remember my previous reflection on these matters, which focused on the way that, having upped my game on this one tiny thing, I then became ultra notice-y, and dare I say even a bit judgey, about other people and their coffee cup choices. Which is a bit ridiculous, since I regularly forget or misplace my coffee cup and use the paper ones myself. But I'm sure I'm not the only person out there who is committing a transgression one day and moralizing about it the next.

Still, once I started being notice-y about coffee cups, I started to notice the really stunning number of disposable coffee cups out there. Virtually everyone who goes to Starbucks gets their coffee in a disposable cup.

For a while, I really thought of this as a mystery. I mean, I expect a lot of the people getting coffee at Starbucks consider themselves environmentalists, or at least people who recycle and do basic things to cut down on their garbage production. The Venn diagram overlap of Starbucks type customer, climate-sensitive vegetarian, and careful recycler seems pretty large to me. And coffee cups are hard to recycle and usually end up in the trash.

Yes, carrying a mug around is a bit of a pain. But the crazy thing is that even people who are sitting at Starbucks are usually drinking out of a paper cup. All you have to do is ask to have your coffee "for here" and get it in a ceramic cup and you're good. So, WTF?

The more I thought about it, the more I came to think that Starbucks isn't only selling coffee. They are selling that coffee-paper-cup experience. There is something about that cup -- and, let's be honest, the sophisticated and superior lid system -- that makes the Starbucks coffee drinking experience what it is. The coffee cools at the right rate, the cup is clean and white, the shape is pleasing to drink out of.

Then I thought: there's something about modern life that makes that coffee-paper-cup experience feel like a tiny luxury, in a world where for most of us, luxuries are hard to come by. The crapification of everything means that most of the objects and systems we interact with on a day to day basis are in some way frustrating, or easily broken, or fragile in a dumb way. My god, just using a modern public washroom is insane: the automatic toilet flushes when you don't want it to, and then it doesn't flush when you want it to, and then you can't get the automatic water faucet to go on so you're desperately shaking your hands, and then your ears are assaulted by those new hand driers.

So many things are like that now. But the Starbucks coffee-paper-cup experience isn't like that. It works and it feels nice. Why else would the Starbucks in the US automatically put a lid on your cup, instead of letting you decide whether you need a lid or not? The only explanation is they're trying to give you the full coffee-paper-cup experience. No decisions required.

Recently I visited a suburban sprawl area of Connecticut. This is where my mom used to live, and it gives you some sense of what it's like that until recently, the closest Starbucks was a 20 minute drive away on a major highway. But now there is a Starbucks right in town, and while I was visiting, I went there to catch up on email and do some work.

And the damnedest thing happened. I found myself drawn to that ridiculous paper cup. I had my travel mug with me, and instead of putting it in my backpack like I always do, I left it in the hotel room. I wish I had a convincing psychological explanation for my absurd behavior, but I really don't. The only thing I can think is I was worn down by the driving and the endless ugly plazas and whatever. My reusable mug seemed old and scratched up and coffee stained, and I wanted that coffee-paper-cup experience.

So my theory is that the coffee-paper-cup experience is a tiny luxury island in an ocean of annoyances, and that's why it's an exception to all the other social norms of life.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

I Get Tired Of Having Opinions

For me, one of the most exhausting things about being a humanities scholar is the constant having of opinions. As regular readers know, I used to study math, and then I switched to philosophy. One of the first things I noticed when I made this switch was the fantastical number of opinions I was suddenly expected to have. "What did you think about that article"? "What do you think about framing the issue that way?" " What do you think about the curriculum being this rather than that?" And of course, the omnipresent "What do you think of that philosopher? Are they smart or what"?

In case it's not obvious, "I don't know what I think about that" is not an escape from having an opinion. It is, in its own way, an expression of a point of view. If your interlocutor is like "Isn't X completely outrageous"? and you say "I don't know what I think about that," you're not going to be heard as expressing "no opinion."

By comparison, math is a haven of rest for the mind. Most of what you do in advanced theoretical mathematics is find and write out proofs of things. While there are debates at the margins, there is vast agreement about how you do it, and what there is to be done. The difficult part is the doing it, because, as Barbie knows, Math Is Hard. But you don't have to have a million opinions about it. You just have to do it. I remember I would spend hours in mental effort and frustration working on math problems, and I would come away refreshed: my mind would be pleasantly tired and worn out, and would have escaped thinking about things like global injustice or whatever for a few hours.

In my experience, there are a few strong opinions in math, but they tend to focus around a few math-y issues, like "How should we teach math to non-math people" and the all-important "Is that branch of math difficult and important or easy and stupid?"

By contrast, in philosophy, opinions infuse everything, and they're often opinions about huge topics that many people have strong feelings about. Obviously you're having opinions when you draw philosophical conclusions. But it goes way beyond that. There are opinions about what you choose to talk about or not talk about, what you choose to draw on in making your argument, what you think is "persuasive" or "relevant."

I sometimes encounter the idea that there should be fewer opinions in university teaching, and that one problem with the humanities is the way professors rely on or convey their own opinions in teaching. In some ways it is a complicated issue, because I agree that opinions are constantly flying in all directions, and it matters which opinions are where. But I'd say the issue with opinions in humanities teaching is never "if," but always "how."

In choosing to assign some readings rather than others, you're expressing an opinion. In responding to student questions, even if it's just to draw connections between their comment and the readings or other comments, you're expressing opinions -- about what is significant, interesting, similar or different.

I actually go out of my way to de-opinionize, especially with controversial topics, asking students questions like "From the point of view of author X's theory, what conclusion would we draw about this example?" We can explore that question together, regardless of what opinion we have about author X's theory. I also try to assign readings that express a range of views. I am often cagey about my own opinion, not because I am under the delusion that I can be "objective," but just because when the professor says "I think X," that makes it easier or harder for some students to express an opinion of X or not-X or something else like Y. It's a tricky dynamic.

But there are limits to de-opinionization. What is "a range of views"? Over what topics should views range? If we're studying medical aid in dying, and I assign one text saying that it's immoral because of the sacredness of life, and another saying it should not be legalized because of the way its use discriminates against people with disabilities, is that a "range of views"? Any way of framing the issue makes assumptions about what the main question is and what is, and is not, up for debate.

A million choices about how to respond in classroom interactions also convey opinions. In my teaching evaluations not that long ago, a student expressed strong satisfaction that the classroom interaction was one in which they felt comfortable asking or saying whatever they wanted, without fear of being attacked or shut down. In the same batch, another student expressed the feeling that because of the open dialogue, the contributions of the other students verged on being misogynistic or problematic in other ways.

What this shows is partly that what is a good class atmosphere for one person is not necessarily a good class atmosphere for everyone in the same way. What atmosphere you want in class is, like everything else, not a matter of objective matter of fact, but always reflects a set of opinions. You can't get away from opinions. You can only try to use the ones you think best in the most constructive way. Exhaustingly, even that project is often difficult.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Bus Riding Experience And Living In Late Capitalism

Last weekend I went to Vernon, Connecticut to visit some family members. Vernon is kind of near East Hartford, kind of in the middle of Connecticut, which means it's like a suburb in a state that is, itself, almost like a suburb of something else. All of that to say: it's a place where transportation becomes a major issue for me.

As regular readers know, I hate to drive -- and I often take the bus. I find it exhausting to pay close attention to a high-stakes and potentially lethal activity over a sustained period of time, and I find it stressful knowing that a wrong move could cause life-changing injuries or death for other people or myself. As someone who doesn't drive a lot, I'm constantly amazed that this kind of insane activity has become so embedded in everyday life.

Anyway, for complicated reasons, when I visit Vernon I usually fly in and out of Logan Airport in Boston. This is because a bus ride between Toronto and Hartford takes around 15 hours (literally, as we say nowadays -- you can look it up), and because flying between Toronto and Hartford is complicated and expensive. Going between Logan Airport and Vernon, I face a major decision: I can drive, which is around 1 hour and 45 minutes, in some pretty intense traffic, or I can take a sort of long public transit journey involving  the Silver Line bus between Logan and South Station and a bus between South Station and Hartford.

In the past, I've usually settled myself into what seems to be everyone else's denial, that driving is a normal everyday sort of activity, and done the drive between Logan and Vernon. This time, though, I was sick with a bad cold. So on the way back, I decided to do the transit option. And for the bus between Hartford and South Station, my best option was the Megabus (the fancy Acela doesn't stop in Hartford).

I have no complaint about the Megabus itself, which left on time and arrived early. What this post is about is about the Megabus ... um ... pick up spot? Which is 1) not associated with a station 2) not associated with a street address, 3) not marked as a Megabus location, and 4) not near any normal places where you could get some water or use a bathroom.

On the ticket, the "from" location is listed as "Hartford, CT, Columbus Blvd between Morgan & Talcott St." Here is the place viewed from across the street:

And here is the view from the bus stop:

I feel like having a bus that picks you up at an unmarked location between one street and another, surrounded by freeway overpasses, is a symbol of something distinctive about modern capitalism even if I'm not sure exactly what it is. Hartford has a perfectly good bus station, one that is actually linked with the train station, and is right downtown, very convenient. So I'm assuming this arrangement arises because there are fees associating with using the terminal that Megabus wants to avoid. I'm not blaming Megabus -- they want to offer cheap fares and make money. And who knows how those fees are set? Still, the outcome seems bad, and I hate the feeling that the things poor people use get worse and the things rich people use get better.

From a governance point of view, driving is massively subsidized, even though car accidents are a major cause of death and horrible for the environment. You couldn't toss in a few bucks for a bathroom, a water fountain -- or, I'm really dreaming now -- a ticket counter for bus riders? Maybe you could even incentivize companies like Megabus to use your station, rather than charging them for it?

From a markets point of view, when I'm reflecting on these matters, I frequently find myself thinking more broadly about the market forces that shape the options I have and don't have as a consumer. I want to take a reasonably comfortable bus ride, and I am willing to pay a bit extra for that, since I am lucky in making a good salary. But that option doesn't exist for me, partly because the other people who make the money I make prefer to spend it on driving. So, to satisfy my consumer preference would require getting enough people to share it that it becomes a profitable option for someone else.

When it comes to driving and busses, I think that project is a lost cause. Nobody likes to take the bus. In enjoying a ride of kicking back, with my podcasts and playlists, daydreaming out the window without a care in the world, I see to be in a tiny minority.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Juuling And The Youth Mood Of Comedic Despair

 I loved Jia Tolentino's recent New Yorker article about teen vaping and the rise of the Juul -- which was not only informative but also avoided the whole "OMG teens are doing a thing, oh no."

In case you don't know, a Juul is an electronic nicotine vaporizer that looks like a flash drive and that you can recharge using your computer. A lot of the article is about adults worrying that Juuling, like other kinds of vaping, is creating nicotine addicts instead of helping them -- but let's just pass over that part. From a cultural perspective, I'd say that the most noteworthy things about the Juul are the aesthetics, the mood, and the price.

Aesthetically, at first I was surprised to hear that teens found smoking "gross" and Juuling cool. I smoked for a long time, and though I quit years ago, I still miss smoking. And of course most of that is nicotine-related, but clearly I am not alone in thinking that smoking is cool. And if you're coming from a point of view in which smoking is cool, how could you prefer this ... piece of plastic with "rounded edges and a gently burnished finish"? It sounds like a generic piece of computer equipment.

But the cool of Juul is explained later: "Teen Juul iconography radiates a dirtbag silliness. Vapes are meme-ready, funny in a way that cigarettes never were: the black-and-white photograph of James Dean smoking in shirtsleeves has been replaced with paparazzi snaps of Ben Affleck ripping an e-cig in his car. In one popular video, a girl tries to Juul with four corn dogs in her mouth." This I can understand. If Instagram is your aesthetic reference point, and everything should either be sleekly sexy or humorously ridiculous, the Juul is going to fit your life and a cigarette is going to seem ash-producing and literally filthy. Of course, there's a generational factor: the teens interviewed are very clear that Juuling is for the young: one person describes her older sister as a Juuler -- and how weird that looks, because her sister, at 23, is "older."

The teens that Tolentino interviews have a perspective on Juuling, and on life, that I found not only familiar from my own youth but that actually resonated with my mood right now. One young man said that "Juul represents his generation’s 'tech-savvy ingenuity when it comes to making bad decisions,' but added that "his generation was most flippant when it came to serious things, 'like health, or mortality.'" When asked if Juuling was a destressor for young people or a source of stress, a young woman said, "I don’t know ... People definitely stress-Juul. But everything we do is like Tide Pods. Everyone in this generation is semi-ironically, like, We’re ready to die.”

In a way, I feel like this is a general feeling in adolescence, which is why teenagers engage in so many risky and unhealthy behaviors. Those behaviors are fun, and who cares? This is not a knock on teenagers, by the way -- they may very well be right about the meaning of life and it's the rest of us who are trapped in the risk-averseness of growing up.

But in another way, I feel like "semi-ironically ready to die" has a particular resonance to being young in modern America. With climate change, police shootings, school shootings, health-car-via-GoFundMe -- for fuck's sake. In this context, "semi-ironic" is kind of a heroic stance.

In any case, price-wise: at least for teens, Juul is expensive. Teens can't shop in the online store, so there's a whole resale-markup-dealer situation going on for them, and Juuling is associated with teens who have cars and money. I don't have much to say about this except that it is ultra coherent with every other trend in which extra money is more and more essential to having any of the things.

Part of me wants to share and partake in the generalized mood of comedic despair that the Juul seems to refer to. But, at my stage of life, I also feel an obligation not to be too ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. We older people are supposed to have perspective and experience that will enable us to be constructive and helpful, to maybe steer the world toward solutions; even if there aren't any solutions, we have an obligation to care for people and help them feel less alienated and frightened. Ultimately, like Juuling itself, comedic despair is not always good look on a middle-aged person.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

TKIN Is Back In Action

After a brief hiatus, this blog is back. The plan is to resume posting every Tuesday, starting today with a reflection on consumer loyalty programs, Canadian frugality, and American profligacy. Thank you, loyal readers, you're the best!

Why Do Canadians Love Consumer Loyalty Programs?

When I moved here in 2004, one thing I did not anticipate about Life In Canada was the ubiquity of consumer loyalty programs. As Canadians well know, these fall into two categories: there is the Mother Of All Loyalty Programs, the so-called "Air Miles" program, and then there are the zillions of smaller ones, like Canadian Tire Dollars, Shoppers' Drug Mart Optimum cards, and endless coffee punch cards. My university eateries even have a punch card loyalty program for soup.

I generally don't participate in consumer loyalty programs. I'd like to say this for high-minded reasons related to surveillance and resistance, and sure, that's part of it, but the real reason is that I'm trying to get on with my fucking life. I don't know how people have the patience and mental energy to carry around all these cards and fish them out of their wallets at the appropriate moment, never mind waiting for every other patron in front of them to do the same. Am I the only person who wants to die when I'm behind seven people in the LCBO line and the cashier says "Air Miles"? and the customer is like 'Oh ... yeah ... uh ... wait ... I can't ... um ... hold on ... can you do it with my phone number?"

I know there are loyalty programs in the US, and people use them at the grocery store, but somehow the whole thing takes on a different texture here. If you're not Canadian, you might not appreciate the way loyalty programs are such a centrality of life here.

The "Air Miles" program sounds like something to do with frequent flyer miles -- and when I first moved here I kept confusing it with "Aeroplan," which is the actual miles program associated with Air Canada. But AirMiles is everything. You get points on different kinds of purchases and then you spend them on all kinds of things. 

News and controversy about loyalty programs regularly feature on the front news page of the CBC webpage, and in recent years the rewards of Air Miles have been big news. It used to be that Air Miles didn't expire, and then in 2016 it was announced that they would, so people would lose miles received before 2012. People were enraged, and the company backed down. Then the federal government stepped in and said that loyalty programs can't have expiration dates. The Air Miles people were also accused of shenanigans, where you could only see the big rewards if you didn't have enough points for them, and later they disappeared. Then last year people started stealing Optimum points. I don't know how this works, but it's like you're racking up points at home in Sastaktoon and someone goes and spends your points in Quebec.

This corner of Canadian culture gives me mixed feelings. For one thing, seeing news stories like "Thieves steal millions of PC Optimum points" as headline news, I often go through a two-step emotional response. First, I feel a wash of gratitude, that I am lucky enough to live in a country so peaceful and prosperous that "Thieves steal loyalty program points" is big-time, national news. But then, there are newsworthy things happening in Canada, and sometimes I learn about Canadian news related to Indigenous people or foreign policy in The Guardian. So I'm like, Wait, why wasn't this covered at home? Why are we reading about loyalty points?

More fundamentally, I'm ambivalent about the kind of sensible Canadian frugality that seems to motivate the careful, ongoing, attentive use of loyalty programs. Canadian frugality is so different from American profligacy. These are, I think, deeply rooted cultural differences. Go to Buffalo and you'll see block after block of huge, beautiful Victorian houses, made of wood, with high ceilings. Cross into Ontario, and you'll see houses made of brick, with small, cozy living rooms, perfect for keeping warm in a cold climate. Even in the late 1800s, Americans were thinking Go Big Or Go Home.

I admire Canadian frugality -- it is probably linked to all kinds of other wonderful Canadian qualities like generosity and good sense -- but I cannot see myself reflected in it. I know that by punching 12 punches in a card I can get a free cup of coffee, but I just don't care. Sure, at this point I'm lucky to make enough money that I can just pay for the extra cup, but honestly I wasn't frugal in this way when I was a waitress and a grad student and trying to help my poor, widowed mother. I'd rather ratchet down my living standard altogether, or go without the extra cup of coffee, than attend to the ways that I can incrementally make things better by paying careful attention over time.

My reluctance to participate in loyalty programs is a source of ongoing interpersonal awkwardness for me, especially buying coffee on campus. The efficient and helpful people who work in food services here are always like "Coffee card?" and I'm like "No, thank you," and sometimes they ask "Why not?" and I try to explain "I can't handle keeping track of all those cards" -- and then we look at each other with mutual misunderstanding. It always reminds me of when an American colleague came to visit our Department, and went to buy wine at the LCBO, and the cashier said, "Air Miles"? And she, befuddled by what this could mean, answered "Sorry, I don't know what you're talking about. I'm not even from this country."

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Elena Ferrante Novels, Philosophy, Naples, and Me

It seems like forever that I'd been meaning to read the Elena Ferrante novels about Naples. I kept hearing how good they are, and how they are about Naples in some deep sense. Naples is interesting to me, partly because my grandmother's family was from Gaeta, near Naples. Also, I read the book Gamorrah and saw the movie, and it's about Naples. The movie has incredible scenes of housing projects that are simultaneously horribly run-down and dysfunctional and also weirdly beautiful. I remember when I saw the movie, the discomfort I felt at aestheticizing someone's poverty. But then, so much about movies involves complicity with some morally questionable aestheticizing of something.

Finally in April I started reading them, and once I started I couldn't put them down, and now I am in the middle of the fourth and final book. In one sense, the books are primarily about the state of womanhood in the modern world: about women's relations with other women, with men, with family, with work, with the various constraints that form the tracks that guide our lives into territory we hadn't meant to be heading toward.

But the books are also speaking to me in more specific ways. One theme has to do with the relationship between the world of books, learning and ideas and the worlds of practicality, poverty, and politics. Not surprisingly, this is something I think about often. As I often tell people, my journey into academia was initially prompted by my condition as an American without health insurance working as a waitress. Though I didn't have money, I was lucky to have had a lot of cultural capital, and I was good at math, so I figured it might work out. A zillion years later, here I am, a professor of philosophy.

Over these years I've become increasingly interested in doing philosophy in ways that connects it up with ordinary life, but in my darker moods I despair of this even being possible. You have ideas, and you want to bring them to life in context; but very quickly the situation reveals itself to be one of convincing some people to believe one thing rather than another or at least question something to which they've long been committed, which is no longer a problem in philosophy but more a problem in politics and rhetoric. And honestly, if you want people to reconsider how they see the world, a novel or a movie is going to be way more effective. So, in these moods, I'm like WTF am I doing?

I know there are answers; I wrote about some of them here and here. If you can't think things through for yourself, you can't form your own opinions at all; thinking is often difficult and uncomfortable. My friends have answers too, and they talk me down. Still, there is this feeling of a distance, between the idea world and world of people, events, and things. In the Naples books, this distance moves from metaphorical to literal, as the characters' different paths renders them able to communicate only imperfectly.

A second more particular theme is the specific social and class structure of Italian and Neapolitan society in the decades between 1945 and now. I have to admit an uncomfortable truth: that there is something about the dysfunction of Italy that soothes and appeals to me. This is uncomfortable for the obvious reason that it's horrible to feel positive in response to people miserable over lack of work and failing social structures. Of course, I don't feel positively about it on balance. I see its badness.

But if there is a twinge of something, I think I can chalk it up to this. Italian society seems explicitly and self-knowingly in a post-empire state: one in which the choices are often all bad, and the task is muddling through. In North America, by contrast, the mood of optimism, the relentless moral smugness, and the rhetoric of opportunity, meritocracy, and free choice exist exhaustingly alongside the reality of exploitation, global violence, and oppression. I feel like it would be comforting for me for the surface to match the reality, for the mood of the people and even the infrastructure to reflect, in an obvious way, the darkness.

I keep wondering who Elena Ferrante is. I know the name "Elena Ferrante" is a pseudonym, and I know that a few years ago there was an internet kerfuffle over her real identity. I do not know -- because I don't want to know, at least not yet -- whether that kerfuffle ended in her identity being revealed. As a result, I have exerted Herculean self-control not to look this up. I guess I don't want to know what her real relationship is to Naples, or to academia, or to other people. Given that all of this information is like ten keystrokes away at any given moment, it's hard to say how long my ignorance can last.