Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Don't Tech People Ever Encounter Dystopian Fiction?

The drones from Iron Man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Thank You For Your Patience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Treating cosmopolitanism as a moral requirement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

See You All Next Week

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

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Due To Forces Beyond Our Control ...

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

See y'all here next week!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. The harmony myth

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

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

3. Politics and capitalism

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Dancehall, Nordic Kids Songs, The Golden Age Of Magic, Other Things

I'm traveling this week, and I don't have time to write a proper post, but let me share with you this little story.

It all starts with this song "Too Original,' by Major Lazer, featuring Elliphant and Jovi Rockwell. As regular readers know, I usually get exposed to new music during my Les Mills exercise classes. "Too Original" was Track 5 for release 92 of BodyAttack, and I fell in love with it right away.

If you know the song or you've watched this video, maybe you had the same experience that I had, namely: WTF is this song about? In fact, most things about this song were obscure to me. So I started looking things up.

First I learned that "Too Original" is a song in the tradition of Jamaican dancehall. Like other people, I inferred from this that the lead singer was Jamaican. But then I learned that Elliphant is "a Swedish singer, songwriter and rapper." (Also, "Elliphant,"as Wikipedia warns, is "not to be confused with elephant.").

Elliphant in the other video for "Too Original."
Over at genius.com, I learned that in the chorus Elliphant is saying "Too original fi dem pawdie," and from the internet I learned that "pawdie" is Jamaican patois for friend and that "fi dem" means "for them." I learned from the comments of Diplo, the actual producer, that when it comes to the meaning of lyrics like "Drop baba juice, make it goddamn strong," don't bother trying to figure it out, because, as he says, "Elliphant makes up her own language. That’s why we love her."

Then I got to the middle of the lyrics, where Elliphant says "Simsalabim naah, I'm a norden gyal, Bim bim sala, kicking dreadlock style." With respect to "Simsalabim," some random commenter wrote: "'Simsalabim' is a word for 'abracadabra' used almost everywhere in Europe. Her trick consists in being a northern Swedish girl with a Jamaican music style."

And I was like, "wait, what?" I'd never heard "simsalabim." It's used "almost everywhere in Europe?" I looked it up. Turns out "Sim Sala Bim" is the famous because of a guy named "Dante the Magician," who was born in 1883 and worked in "vaudeville, burlesque, legitimate theatre, films, and in later years, television."

Dante, who was born Harry August Jansen in Copenhagen, took "Sim Sala Bim" from a Danish children's song. Wikipedia notes that Dante the Magician "can be seen using these words in the Swedish 1931 feature Dantes mysterier and in the 1942 Laurel and Hardy comedy "A-Haunting We Will Go," and also that "with Dante's death, what historically has been known as the 'Golden Age of Magic' came to an end."

I don't know if Elliphant knows "Sim Sala Bim," because she's Swedish and it comes from a Danish children's song, or whether some causal chain links Dante the musician to dancehall, or whether random commenter has the right story about "Europe," or what. But I was very happy to learn all these things. For a brief shining moment, it all felt like one peaceful and interconnected world.