Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Ethics in Tech and the Humanities Classroom

I don't know if you saw this piece in the Guardian the other day, about how part of the problem with modern technology and its role in our lives is that people in the tech industry tend to study computer science and math and not the humanities.

Of course it's a subject close to my heart, and I've always said that most of the world's difficult problems are social and political problems, not technology problems. But I was interested to see a certain number of apt comments challenging the idea that classes in the humanities or ethics would make people more ethical, more motivated to do the right thing, or even more perceptive about what the right thing is.

In certain ways, I think these comments are spot-on. For one thing, it's always strange when universities require cheating students to take an ethics course. In ethics class, we study ethical theories, debates in ethics, and how different ethical perspectives lead to different conclusions about practical issues. Not only doesn't that make you a better person, it might have the opposite effect, insofar as you might learn about all this debate and disagreement and think to yourself: "If the experts can't even agree, maybe this is all BS. Should I just do whatever I want?"

Furthermore, I agreed with this perceptive comment in the Guardian from a "tech insider." This commenter drew on experience working with kids to say that "the thing that makes the biggest difference in knocking adolescent heads is exposing kids to people that aren't like them." He said that if you take a group of rich white guys from rich families, and you put them in a room together to study Plato, that won't have much effect in terms of making them care about negative consequences of their actions for people "on the other side of the screen." But actually interacting with people from different backgrounds could make a difference.

This commenter also pointed out, correctly in my opinion, that if you really want change, you can't rely on the tech industry to change itself, through people having "ethics." In a world of venture capital and people relying on tech jobs for their income and well-being, the incentives are all on the other side. You need political will and structural change if you want things to be different. Regular readers will understand why this point resonates with me.

Indeed, another commenter replied to the first to express indignation at the way "elites" act like learning the truth about life and love requires learning Greek  and traveling to India, and then, only if you come back with the "right" opinions. Whatever the reality, if this is the perception, the humanities are in trouble.

But no one will be surprised to hear that I think that there are also many things to say about the importance of studying the humanities and how this study is relevant to issues, especially where there are societal consequences to be considered. There are lots of areas, but one of them is learning about how complicated things are, and thus how unlikely it is that you can find and use simple general statements about social facts to understand the world.

For example, when you first encounter the idea that the thing to do is the thing that will bring about the best consequences, it might sound like simple common sense. But then you might learn in a philosophy class that applying this theory can lead to the conclusion that it's OK to kill disabled infants, and you might start wondering about whether there are other important human norms. Or you might start out thinking that society being based on free choice and individualism is just how societies work, but then you might take a history class and learn that ideas about individual autonomy emerged through a contingent set of forces. You might think that preventing deaths of innocents abroad is a good thing, but then you might learn in political science class about the complex effects of using weapons to kill people in other countries, even when your aims are good.

I'm occasionally appalled by the simple statements expressed by people in the tech industry. When Mark Zuckerberg says that integrity requires acting the same in all contexts, or that he dreams of a fundamental law of human behavior, that increased sharing will lead to increased tolerance and openness in society or that the solution is just cracking down on "bad stuff" ... well, those things seem wildly wrong to me.

Maybe being in a humanities or social science classroom -- not just reading certain texts, but also having back and forth, seeing conflicting opinions, hearing from people who have the opposite point of view -- would at least shake someone's confidence about these things? Lend a little epistemic humility?

Also, if that first Guardian commenter is right when they say it's not individual responsibility but rather structural change that is needed, then it's not so much that "tech elites" need humanistic education as that the rest of us do.

If you want to understand why people spread misinformation online, why people seek out anti-vaccine evidence, and why people doubt climate change, you're going to get much further in a sociology and social epistemology class than anywhere else. That's not about "ethics," exactly, but it is about understanding why people do the things that they do -- not in the "fundamental law of human behavior" kind of way, but in the actual "why do people do the things that they do" kind of way. 


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Culture Theory Of Labor Economics

Given the role that the issue played in the US election last year, I've been really interested to follow the recent news about the coal mining industry. You may remember Clinton cheering about how they were going to put a lot of coal mining companies out of business, with the tone-deaf assumption that everyone would regard this as a Good Thing. I'm sure you remember Trump talking about bringing it back.

From one point of view, the issue might seem to be relatively simple. A shift to other energy forms would be good for the environment, and what the former coal miners then need is new jobs in other industries. As long as economic growth is happening, it can be a win-win. From this point of view, reluctance on the part of coal miners might be seen as irrational and obstreperous.

But it's interesting in this context to consider a few recent articles discussing the miner's point of view. This Reuters article describes miners who are resisting retraining and discusses their reasons. Among them: Mining pays well. Other industries are unfamiliar. There’s no income during retraining. Even if you put in all that effort to learn something new, there is no guarantee of a job afterward.

When it comes to replacements, they point out that coal jobs are seen as preferable to those in natural gas, because the mines are close to home, while pipeline work requires travel. One government official is quoted as hoping for "big companies like Amazon or Toyota."

These are all real reasons. And given what we know about working in an Amazon warehouse, it is any wonder people are resistant to that?

A deeper discussion of worker preferences and their implications for the economy is found in this New York Times piece about mining and environmentalism in Minnesota. It's complicated, but the basic story is that miners want mining jobs while environmentalists want to turn the area into a tourism location and beauty spot -- preserving the natural landscape and also providing new and different jobs.

I was struck both by the miners' calculations about their alternatives and by their cultural commitment to their way of life. For one thing, tourism jobs are really different from mining jobs. Tourism jobs are seasonal, and unreliable, and often not well-paid, while mining jobs -- at least so far -- have been solid and remunerative.

But it's not all cold calculation. Mining jobs are also seen as respectable and masculine, work you can take pride in, while tourism jobs are seen as subservient. One politician summed it up this way:

"[The miners] see it as fundamentally a question of dignity for families that have worked blue-collar jobs for generations ... 'I don’t want to be anybody’s Sherpa.'"

When I first read that I felt a little defensive. There's an implication that cooking, cleaning, and showing people around are somehow not "manly" -- the implication being that their OK work for women but that men are somehow above all that.

But I can also understand it. Especially in our society, where workers' rights and protections have been eroding, cooking, cleaning, and showing people around jobs often do have aspects associated with low status. Often you have to take orders, do things you otherwise wouldn't want to do, act nice, act happy to see people. Women in these jobs have had to put up with that kind of bullshit forever. It's not surprising that someone who hasn't had to doesn't want to have to start.

There are no easy answers, but I think one thing these articles show is that understanding the decisions of workers can't happen in a cultural vacuum. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that rational self-interested economic agents will do what seems to make "economic" sense. But even economics doesn't really tell us that. It tells us that people will maximize their own preference satisfaction.

As everyone has known forever, preferences are not just for things like "have more money" and "work fewer hours." They're also for amorphous things like respect, status, and community. Far from being squishy considerations that affect only the non-economic realm, these preferences affect the most starkly economic decisions there are.

So an analysis of labor has to include not only the obvious economic factors like money, but also cultural factors. I know "way of life" is not an easy variable to put into a quantitative analysis, but until we find a way to factor it in, we're just going to keep getting things wrong.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Opioid Epidemic As A Crisis Of System, Not Individuals

Like a lot of people I was gripped by this New Yorker story about the Purdue Pharma company and its role in creating and perpetuating the opioid epidemic. And, presumably like a lot of people, I was appalled by various aspects of the story -- like massive efforts to hide the addictive nature of the drug even in the face of massive harm.

But as I read along, I was also a bit weirded out by the focus on the individual family members who run Purdue Pharma. One reason this weirded me out is that a lot of the story seemed to involve examples of people doing everything they can to defend and preserve their company and their product. But isn't the way capitalism works in our society predicated on the idea that this is what people do?

We've known forever that if you create a system in which some of the methods you can use to get ahead will be collectively destructive, people will be incentivized to use those methods. And I would say recent history supports the idea that if you want that not to happen, you can't rely just on some vague notion like individual responsibility. You need systems in place.

That's why we have things like the FDA, and policies about conflicts of interest, and so on. Why wasn't more of this story about that?

The article describes various kinds of factors leading to the crisis. Sales reps were trained in "overcoming objections" from clinicians, sometimes with exaggerated or false information, where doctors were vulnerable because of "wishful thinking" -- they wanted a pill that would help their patients.  Purdue paid clinicians to attend medical conferences and give presentations about the merits of the drug -- in places like Boca Raton. The marketing thus involved a deadly circularity: "the company convinced doctors of the drug’s safety with literature that had been produced by doctors who were paid, or funded, by the company." They "duped" the FDA into thinking the drug lasted 12 hours and wasn't addictive. They created a concept of "pseudo-addiction," which they said explained addiction-like symptoms in terms of under-treatment  of pain.

Yes -- there is a lot of bad behavior here. But what was supposed to prevent this from happening? Modern capitalism is a cut-throat business. In a society where American Airlines can be criticized for raising pay for pilots and flight attendants, there are huge incentives in place to do whatever's necessary to make your product sell. If other people are behaving badly, you may have to behave badly too, just to stay in business.

I had always thought that this is why we have rules and systems in place. Isn't the FDA supposed to work on principles that make it extra difficult for an individual company to "dupe" it? Didn't there used to be stronger rules about conflicts-of-interest? This is one reason in the past that advertising wasn't allows for drugs -- as the article says, "advertising has always entailed some degree of persuasive license." What happened to that idea?

The company -- and the family who run it -- have been sued in court, but have settled, often for sums said to be small compared to the cost of righting the wrongs in question. In some cases, they have been ordered to pay fines, but again, the amounts won't make a dent in their profits. The article quotes Arlen Specter, the Republican senator from Pennsylvania, remarking that such fines amounted to "expensive licenses for criminal misconduct."

These all reflect problems with the system. Regular readers may remember a previous post on this issue discussing Sam Quinones's excellent book Dreamland. One thing that Quinones says is how often the people mitigating disaster and finding solutions come from some kind of governmental or collective institution or agency: they are in the court system, or the health care system, or whatever. Yes, there are people doing bad things and good things but everyone is ultimately caught up in a web of conflicting societal needs and pressures. This is a very different -- and I think more enlightening -- perspective.

The article lambasts the individual family members who run Purdue Pharma, asking how they can possibly live with themselves. I get that. But so many of us are complicit in some kind of awfulness -- buying gadgets with conflict minerals, depositing carbon into the air for holidays, enjoying the fruits of energy from companies engaging in global exploitation. In our society, complicity in harm is not restricted to a few bad actors.

As we've said before in this space, blaming corporate "greed" is often naive and misplaced, because in our corporate world, if you're not as cut-throat as the next guy, you're going to fail. It's not an "individual responsibility" sort of thing. It's a system thing. Sometimes, the framing of individual actors as good or bad loses some of its usefulness. Modern capitalism may be one of those times.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

What I Learned Using "Alternative" Tech

Regular readers know that I recently decided to use alternatives-to-Google. I am not boycotting Google, and I am not so naive to think that other tech products don't have the same ultra-surviellance-you-are-the-product problems that Google has. I just feel like, if tech companies are going to be the man-behind-the-curtain while we live out our little Oz-lives, wouldn't it better to have a few of them rather than just one? So -- you know, the one couldn't rule the world?

Two practical steps I've taken are 1) switching my search engine to Duck-Duck-Go and 2) deleting Google maps on my phone. Oh yeah -- I also disabled location on my weather app, when I read that weather apps sell data location and I came home one day after shopping for physical shoes and was inundated with shoe-related web ads. I know: whatever. But also: creepy.

So: what have I learned so far?

1. People have a lot of opinions about other people's technology choices. 

This starts with a long story, so bear with me. As regular readers also know, while I often take the Greyhound bus between Toronto and Waterloo, I decided to experiment recently with the GO bus. Specifically, in this case, I took a 7:20 am bus from Toronto to Bramalea, where I would change to catch a different bus to Kitchener terminal, where I'd get a local bus to Waterloo. This schedule has a "timed transfer," which means that the bus in Bramalea is supposed to wait to leave until after the bus from Toronto has arrived.

When I got on the bus in Toronto the driver got up in front and said, "Is anyone going to Kitchener"? I raised my hand. As he acknowledged me, his face fell. "OK, he said, I'll have them hold the bus for you. There's an accident and long delay on the 401, so we're likely to be quite late."

As we started off, I sat in the pre-dawn darkness digesting this information and fretting about my responsibilities. If we were going to be late, should I ethically tell the drive not to bother, that I'd just catch whatever bus I could? But they only come every hour. How late would we be? This is the kind of small stupid thing that I can really get myself into an anxiety about, so I was thrilled when a guy, Mr. X we'll call him, got on at the next stop and said, "I'm going to Kitchener. They're going to hold the bus, right?" Out of my hands.

The trip ended up being epic and complicated along multiple dimensions. We were quite late. At first, the driver couldn't get ahold of the Bramalea drive to ask him to wait. At the last minute, he did, but the Bramalea bus had already left the stop, so we had to catch up to him along the service road. We were admonished "Do not run to catch the bus!" which I guess is because they're afraid people will fall. Then between Bramalea and Kitchener, an even more massive car crash had actually closed the highway, and our bus, along with a million other vehicles, got off and crept along the side streets.

As we'd made our bus connection, I had briefly engaged Mr. X in conversation about our situation. Turns out he was making this trip for the first time as well. Didn't know where he was going, was heading to some kind of business conference thing near Kitchener. He asked me for directions. I didn't know. He asked me what I taught at the university. I told him. He leaned in for follow up convo. I put my headphones on.

At something like 11:00, when we'd all been trapped on this bathroom-less bus together literally for hours, Mr. X asked me if I had data on my phone, and I told him yes, and he asked me to look up the location of his event, and I said why don't you just borrow my phone and look up whatever you need to. And he took my phone -- an iPhone -- and he stared at it, befuddled.

"Um," I said, "are you looking for the browser or the maps program?" And he said, "Google maps." And I said, "Yeah ... I don't have Google maps. You can use the Apple maps, or a browser." And he looked up, and -- honest to god -- started lecturing me on how Google maps was better than other maps programs, including Apple maps. He had a friend in tech. He knew all about it. There was research. Google was better. Way better. I'm sitting there, looking at this guy, a stranger to whom I have just lent my phone, a profound act of trust and -- he is fucking lecturing me?

I didn't tell him I was engaged in a complicated non-boycott. I didn't tell him I knew that Apple is just as bad as everyone, but that it didn't seem in the same world-domination business as everyone else which is one reason I feel OK using it. I just stared at him, and, eventually, took my phone back.

I wish I could say this is an isolated incident, but it's just a relatively dramatic one. Often I'm in conversation, and some question or problem comes up, and I'm like "Oh, I'll look it up," and enter into the search bar and  ... hmm. And I say to my friend or acquaintance, "I can't find it..." and they're like "Wait, you can't find it? Really?" And I start to explain, "Well, you see, Duck-Duck-Go ... and etc. etc., ..." and they look at me like "What planet are you from again?

2. The surveillance bubble is the surveillance bubble

I am constantly taken aback by my search results on alternative search engines. On Google, I search for a philosopher by name, and I see a philosopher. I search for a Toronto bar by name, and I see a Toronto bar. I search for health and science info, and I see help sites and scholarly sites.

It's not like that out in the search wilderness. You type in a philosopher's name, you see a million links of athletes and celebrities and random people with Instagram accounts who have the same name. You type in the name of a Toronto bar, and you see a pub in Idaho. You search for health and science info, and you get some site like "mystichealthhealing.com"

It's bracing. I mean, intellectually, I always knew that Google was shaping my results to tailor them to me based on the vast data about me that they had at their fingertips. But seeing it in action is something else. For one thing, it makes you realize your part of the world is way smaller than you think-- a salutary lesson that probably most of us could stand to have reinforced every day. For another thing, it reminds you that the bad things about Google -- the infinite tracking, the knowing your favorite brand of toothpaste -- is essential to the good thing about Google -- the knowing just what you were looking for.

This means the conflict between convenience and privacy is an essential one. There's no magic world where we get the one without losing the other. It's always going to be a trade off. The surveillance bubble that tells you what you want to learn is the same surveillance bubble that keeps you trapped in the world of your own information.

3.  Google is a really good search engine.

Sometimes when I really need to find something, I go to the Google search page. It works amazingly well. I guess we all knew this, but still.

If they could ratchet back the dreams of world domination, and stop trying to make entire "smart" neighborhoods in cities I care about, Google and I might be able to get back together.

In the meantime, though, not finding the things I'm looking for is not really that big of a deal. Sometimes, I ask people, and we chat. It's nice.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

No Post Today Because Grading

No post today because I got overwhelmed with grading and some other things. For some food for thought, however, here is a photo of a sign I first noticed a couple of days ago, in the Toronto downtown bus terminal. Note that this is the only elevator, and bathrooms are on the bottom floor. As we've discussed before, there are many mysteries to the Toronto bus terminal (update tho: one escalator is fixed). But 3-4 weeks with no elevator? I can take the stairs, but what about all the people who can't?


Monday, October 16, 2017

A Personal Perspective On Public Transit Commuting In The GTA


 As we've discussed before on this blog, I take the bus. If you're in the mood for a light-hearted and ultimately somewhat life-affirming post, may I suggest you go this older post instead of the one you're reading now? Among other things, you'll learn the phrase "Hobbsian logic of a traffic jam," which I now realize is something I should say way more often.

This post is just about my GTA commuting experience and ways it which the forces that control the universe have created outcomes that strike me as strange or surprising or whatever. If you know me, you know I spend a lot of time commuting between Toronto, my home base, and Waterloo, where I work. There isn't space here for the endless discussion of why I choose to do this, but let me just say it has less to do with "important culture" and more to do with the texture of big city life, which is something that cheers and comforts me big-time.

For a long time, I took the Greyhound commuter bus, and for a long time, it was a reasonable option. It goes right from downtown right to the university where I work, and it has a reasonable schedule. Lately the Greyhound has been a bit more annoying, with more lateness and added stops, partly due to traffic and factors beyond their control. And lately the GO system -- the public transit system for the Greater Toronto Area -- has expanded service to include Waterloo. Would the GO be a good choice?

The first surprising thing is how complicated the answer to this question is. Like a lot of transit, everything is set up for commuters who are living in the town and working in the city, so if you're trying to go from Toronto to Waterloo in the morning and back in the late afternoon, you are not their primary target audience. From this it turns out that there are zero straightforward ways to take the GO and at least three complicated ways.

I have an 800-word note on my phone outlining the options and I'll try not to bore you with the details. But basically if you're going from the University there are roughly three options: 1) you can take a bus from the University to a mall in Mississauga, and then wait, and then take a bus from Mississauga to Toronto. It's not a "timed transfer," which means if you miss the connection you're SOL. Also it takes about three hours, for a trip that is about an hour and twenty minutes by car.  2) you can take a Waterloo city bus to the Kitchener bus station, then catch a GO bus to the Bramalea station, then change there for a GO bus from Bramalea to Toronto. That is a timed transfer. Interesting fact: the Bramalea station is so large and confusing that the first time I tried this, I almost missed the connection despite a ten-minute layover. Takes a bit less time than option 1. 3) you can take a bus from the University to the mall in Mississauga, then take a Mississauga city bus from there to the Western-most point of the Toronto subway system, then hop on the subway to take you into the city. This takes the least time, but has the most unpredictable connections.

The most surprising thing to me in all this is how hard it is to avoid the insane traffic right around Toronto itself. The Greyhound and options 1) and 2) all involve getting to the edge of the city and then sitting in massive traffic jams with all the other people driving in and out of the city. Only option 3) allows you to to bypass some of this traffic by getting on the subway at the edge of the city. But weirdly, the express bus you'd take from the Mississauga mall to the subway takes the same congested route -- highway 427 -- that is part of the worst commuter chaos. This means when I take option 3), I take the local Mississauga. Which is fine -- but how weird is it that a commute makes most sense when it goes through tiny residential neighborhoods in a city that's just somewhere along the way.

Relatedly, it is surprising that there are not more options for connecting to the Western edge of the subway system instead of staying on a bus all the way into the city. If you live in the city, you know that once you're on a subway, things go like gangbusters; there's no traffic, you zoom along, it's great. Of course I would rather be on the subway for twenty minutes than spend fifty in traffic, even if it means extra connections switching routes or whatever. What makes this the most strange is that you'd think city planners would be interested and motivated in getting as many people off the road in the area of the city as possible. Why not have every bus drop off at the subway stop at the edge of the city?

Also, as I mentioned, it is strange that the local Mississauga forms a key component in the most efficient trip. The mall in Mississauga is a kind of transit hub for the GO system. There is, I think, train service that runs between this mall and the station in Toronto. But it only runs at certain times. And they are not the times that I am traveling. Given that traffic is one of the most-discussed problems facing Toronto, and given that everyone wants to incentivize public transit, wouldn't you think this route would be popular enough to have a train running all the time? Or at least some kind of improved express bus? It seems so weird.

I could go on and on, but those are my main issues. There's some talk of making Pearson into a hub, and then you could take the UP express in and out of the city, and as far as I'm concerned that would be awesome, so yes, please.

While we're talking about strange or dysfunctional transit situation, I'd like to close by discussing the trip from Kitchener-Waterloo, where I work, to Hamilton, a town about a fifty-minute drive away. I have friends in Hamilton, and I'd love to be able to go from work to see them. There used to be a Coach Canada bus that went this route reasonably well. But that folded for some reason.

Now, as you can see if you zoom in on the screenshot at the top of this post, that trip without a car is at least 2 hours and 40 minutes. I guess this is because no one wants to go between these places. But still, it seems sad!  

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

I Went Down The Ethical Cell Phone Rabbit Hole

Fairphone: modularity FTW.

I want a new phone. I don't need a new phone. I have a perfectly serviceable iPhone 6 that is about two and a half years old. But I never liked my iPhone 6. It's too big for me: I can't use it with one hand, which drives me crazy when I'm using it to read a book or when I'm trying to keep one hand in my pocket because it's freezing outside. When I got it, they hadn't had the brainstorm of the iPhone SE normal-size-phone concept. I also want a new phone because, like everyone else, I am a cog in the consumer paradise machine we are all caught up in.

I know that getting a new phone would be ridiculous along several dimensions. The most obvious is the negative impact that new phones have on the world. Some of these are obvious environmental impacts. But there are also issues related to conflict mines, where profits from minerals fund violence and war, children are working in dangerous conditions, workers sometimes handle toxic chemicals in contexts where workers have few protections. These latter impacts are negative impacts directly on people.

I often think about electronic gadget production when I'm teaching about theories of ownership in philosophy class. In one theory, ownership is historical. You have a right to what you get through voluntary exchanges, and the state of wealth distribution is just when it arises out of such exchanges. When exchanges are unjust -- through slavery or coercion or stealing or whatever -- the just distribution is the one that would have resulted had those injustices not happened.

As we've discussed before, it seems that if you take this literally, you'd end up with some dramatic conclusions, like the obligation for all non-Indigenous people to leave North America. But there are also smaller questions, like what about your phone?

I got my phone by paying for it in a voluntary transaction, but if you trace all the elements of the phone back, you get slavery and coercion and all the other things. What would it mean to truly own your phone under this theory of ownership?

Thinking about all this, I decided to see if there was an ethical phone available. I searched (with Duck Duck Go!) for "ethical cell phone." I found a lot of bad news, but I also found a phone. The "Fairphone." The Fairphone is an "ethical, modular smartphone." It's modular so that when it breaks, you can fix it easily, and use it longer, and recycle the parts. It's "ethical" in the sense of the supply chain and worker conditions

The complexity of the phone situation really comes to light when you see how many challenges Fairphone encounters. According to this article, they have sourced four out of thirty minerals in an ethical way. There is still child labor in the supply chain, because they get some minerals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Tin mining is still hugely environmentally destructive, even when done in a better way. The article concludes that Fairphone is making great progress, but still the concept of "ethical smartphone" is an oxymoron.

I probably wouldn't love the Fairphone. It's not a very attractive object, which is not surprising given that there's no Jonathan Ive equivalent hovering over everyone insisting on beauty. But whatever. It doesn't matter, because, surprise, surprise! the Fairphone doesn't even exist in North America. It's only available for Europeans.

Obviously, the thing to do is to not get a new phone. Compared to a lot of people, I don't even use my phone that much, so it's a testament to the power of advertising and consumerism that I'm even finding that any kind of challenge.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

I Just Bought An Official NFL Colin Kaepernick Jersey


I have almost no interest in sports, and particularly little interest in the NFL. But I've long admired Colin Kaepernick. When he started his protest of racial oppression and police brutality last year, I thought his idea of a sitting -- and later, kneeling -- during the anthem was brilliant: very visible, disruptive in just the way that would call attention to his point, and protesting about an issue of massive and immediate importance.

In September, I learned more about Kaepernick from this New York Times article, like the way he studied Black representation in popular culture in a course at Berkeley, knows a ton about history, culture and literature, gives away lots of money to charities -- especially small and lesser known ones, like the I Will Not Die Young Campaign, where the donation is a lifeline -- and traveled to Ghana to learn more about his African ancestral roots. I also learned about his "Know Your Rights" camps for kids, whose goals are "to raise awareness on higher education, self empowerment, and instruction to properly interact with law enforcement in various scenarios."

We all know what happened with the protest over the last few weeks. A few more people were kneeling, the president said some racist and offensive things about the protest, and managed to insult the whole NFL at the same time, so then people were all upset about that. More players started joining in on the protest, a good thing, but then, as so often happens, the whole conversation stopped being about the thing it was supposed to be about in the first place, namely racial oppression and police brutality, and started being about people who were mad at Trump and people who were mad at those people and so on and so forth. Mind-blowingly, Sports Illustrated ran an issue with a cover depicting protestors and left Kaepernick off it.

Then a week or so ago, I read that Kaepernick's merch is some of the best-selling NFL merch. And I thought, how great would it be to have an NFL shirt with Kaepernick's name on it?

Two reasons argued against doing this.

One, by doing this, I would be paying money directly to the NFL, and thus supporting them. Since I'm lucky enough to be uninterested in football, I haven't had to grapple with the moral problem of supporting a league that won't give Kaepernick a spot, or the moral problem of NFL concussions. For me, boycotting football is the same as living my ordinary life. But wouldn't buying a shirt be the opposite of a boycott? Actually supporting the wrong people?

Two, as Kaepernick keeps emphasizing, the protest isn't supposed to be about Colin Kaepernick. It's supposed to be about the issues. Personalizing the whole thing is, in a way, contrary to the whole spirit of the enterprise. And what could be more personalizing than a person who never watches football and never wears game jerseys going out of her way to buy and wear and game jersey?

On the other hand, I thought it was great that Kapernick's merch was the best-selling merch. And to reinforce that fact, I'd have to buy from the NFL. Buying some cute but unofficial Etsy pins instead of a shirt wouldn't help make that stay true. How great would it be if his merchandise keeps being on top?

And also, I think in some ways, and maybe as time goes on, the shirt can be itself a symbol of the issues. It's a 49er's shirt. As I understand it, if he gets "picked up" by a team (is that the expression?) it's likely he'll be playing for someone else. So this shirt is about this moment in a place and in time as much as anything else.

Thinking about all this reminded me of how this whole yes-but-also problem is so characteristic of our modern age. Almost everything that we do is either complicated in some way, or bad in some way, or at the least plays into massive social structures that are, themselves, wildly unjust. I don't know in this case whether my reasons really balanced out in an OK way, or whether I just wanted the shirt because I thought it would be cool, and rationalized myself into it.

I think it's in Amazons, the mascot book of this blog, that the character of Murray Jay Suskind explains to our hero Cleo that his wife may have left him for a man, but she may have left him for another woman, or she may have left him for a man and then created some diversion making him think she left him for a man. And Cleo asks, from his point of view, which would be feel hurtful? And he doesn't know. "It's a real, modern, thumb-sucking dilemma," he says. I think about that expression all the time, because that is where we find ourselves.

When I got to the NFL online shop, they only had Kaepernick shirts in youth sizes, so I had to check out the sizing chart. And then I found myself in another ultra-characteristic modern condition: thinking about politics while also asking myself: if you start with this many inches in bra size, and you add this many inches in cup size, does that fit this many inches in "chest" measurement? Hmmm.

I took a gamble and went ahead and bought it.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Nothing Human Is Just Biology: Kid And Food Edition

About a year and a half ago, the New York Times ran this story by a mother whose baby girl Violet was born with a heart defect and who, as a result of complex treatments for that, ended up with another problem: she didn't eat.

You should read the whole story, because it is emotionally moving, intellectually sophisticated, and philosophically interesting. Basically, her daughter needed a temporary nasogastral feeding tube, and after that were various struggles to get her to eat. But she was so weak, she never could get more calories than she spent, and she grew to associate eating with pain and suffering. This aversion to eating was so severe that they had to continue with the tube.

Heartbreakingly, the tube intensified Violet's aversion to eating. Once a week it had to be changed; her parents had to hold her down while she screamed and cried and then they had to wait til she stopped to breath to try to get it down her throat. Horrible. Of course, after that, Violet didn't want anything near her mouth, ever. When Violet was around six months old, they put in a permanent tube directly into her stomach. As her mother says, "devastating." And also "a relief."

Not surprisingly, given modern medicine, Violet's story is common, and the essay discusses the various approaches experts take to try to reintroduce children to the feeling that eating is something they can and want to do. Many take a behavioral approach. Because a big part of "oral aversion" is the association between pain and food, a lot of this involves creating positive external associations with foods -- for example, associating successful eating with toys -- and reinforcement that eating is going to happen. When another child in treatment eats she gets rewarded; but when she spits out her food, the therapist feeds it back to her.

A slightly different approach involves trying to reconnect the child with the internal cues of hunger and pleasure. Of course, this is tricky and potentially dangerous, since you have to let the child feel hunger, which means you have to feed them, through the tube, less food than they need, which must be terrifying with a child whose health is already a bit shaky.

One of the interesting aspects of the latter approach is the idea that to associate food with pleasure, you have to let kids spit out food and not worry about it. Violet's mother describes how, when they were beginning, Violet would put a bit of food, and then eventually more food, into her mouth, and then -- instead of swallowing, she'd spit it all out. Frustrating! but the therapist says that spitting is an essential part of the process: it lets Violet know that she can spit it out, so it is safe to experiment with another bite.

The first time through, at this point in the story, I didn't really know how it was all going to turn out. Was Violet going to be able to eat? Before I got to the textual resolution of this question, I came across a photo accompanying the story. The photos before had all been of Violet with her tubes. But in this one, she had chocolate avocado pudding all over her face, with a huge smile because -- yes, she was eating it! The image brought tears to my eyes the first time, and then it did again an hour ago when I reread the story.

After getting Violet to disassociate food and pain and associate food with pleasure -- or, at least, curiosity -- they had to let Violet get hungrier and hungrier. But in the end, it worked. Like a month later, they're all out at a diner and Violet is scarfing down a grilled cheese sandwich.

This story came out in early 2016 but I think about it regularly, even now. Partly I guess it's because it's interesting and happy, which so few things are these days. But partly I think it's because it shows something important about human nature. That everything -- even something so seemingly straightforward as eating, transcends biology. Everything is social and environmental.

In some philosophy I was doing with a student recently we were talking about the idea of idealizing people as if they were "mushroom men" -- people who sprang from the earth as fully formed adults, ready to make decisions, form goals, and negotiate with others for what they need. This was in the context of talking about economics, where sometimes the metaphor is used to explicate models of economic rationality and exchange. But of course it's long been central to philosophy as well, for example in the contractarian and contractualist traditions in historical philosophers like Hobbes and, to a certain extent, in more contemporary ones like Rawls.

Like all idealizations, this one might work better in some contexts and worse in others, it might capture or obscure what we want to see in certain settings, it might be more or less of a misrepresentation depending on what we're using it for.

Still, I found the story a great reminder of how far from that we really are. It's not just that when we're small, we're temporarily unable to forage for food or work at jobs. It's also that everything we do -- even something like eating! -- depends on a fragile and contingent network of things happening and people who love us there to make sure those things work the way they're supposed to.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Selective Implementation Of The Algorithmic Ideal Is Intellectually Dishonest: Hillary Clinton Book Review Edition

The thing that got me wildly, disproportionately pissed off this week was the news that Amazon had been deleting one-star reviews of Hillary Clinton's new book. What the actual fuck?

The reason this enraged me so much didn't have anything to do with Hillary Clinton or the content of her book, but rather the way it laid bare the depth of intellectual dishonesty and cynicism of the tech-retail industry. I used to think the algorithmic approach to the world was coherent and reasonably well-intentioned, while also massively and dangerously flawed. But this episode shows that "coherent and reasonably well-intentioned" may have been giving people too much credit.

As we've discussed before, and as you can learn much more about from the master herself, Cathy O'Neill, the algorithmic approach to the world is massively and dangerously flawed along several dimensions. There's a pernicious illusion that algorithms are "neutral," when they're anything but. The problems of legitimacy are problems of trust, not data. The attempt to draw lines while avoiding ethical judgment leads to policies that disproportionately target people who are already oppressed.

Still, I was able to sort of see the inner logic of the thing. I mean, I believe algorithms are problematic. But I could see how someone who didn't believe that might push forward toward more data and more rules and less judgment and so on. I think they'd be wrong, but they'd have a coherent position on the world, and might be acting with integrity.

But then going on and making an exception ... for Hillary Clinton? Are you kidding?

As I understand it, the main reason was that they thought the reviews were posted by people who hadn't read the book. As the publisher is quoted saying here, “It seems highly unlikely that approximately 1,500 people read Hillary Clinton’s book overnight and came to the stark conclusion that it is either brilliant or awful.”

But ... this a problem for all Amazon reviews. Admittedly, it's usually a less dramatic problem. But there are plenty of stories of people trying to sandbag other people's books for all kinds of reasons, there's sock-puppetry, and there are all kinds of other problems with the review system.

While yes, Hillary Clinton's book prompted a dramatic showcase of some of these issues, she's also like one of the most powerful people on the planet. She hardly needs protection from her critics to get people interested in reading her book. It's bizarre to me that it would be like, well, when it's everyone else, sorry, but when it's a power player politician, oh, then we have to do something.

When things like this happen, I always try to imagine how these decisions get made. Does Amazon have a hundred meetings in a row where someone brings up fake reviews and blah blah blah, and then on the 101st they bring up Hillary Clinton and people suddenly say OMG we have to do something? Is it that the issue doesn't come up those 100 previous times because the incentive structure of power players at places like Amazon discourages it?

Or is the ultra cynical interpretation the right one: that PR with prospective customers will work best when they intervene selectively in only the most high-profile situations -- i. e., just when it is the power players of the world?

In any case, I'd just like to remind everyone that they can shop for books at Indigo, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, and Powell's. I'm not saying these are some kind of do-gooder organizations: in a dog-eat-dog capitalist society, being less than ruthless than your competitors is death, so bad behavior is kind of baked into the system. But isn't it better to have several flawed tech-retail companies than just one flawed tech company, which can then go ahead and rule the world?