Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Thank You For Your Patience

Loyal readers, I was too busy and over-committed this week and I thought I'd have time to write something but then I didn't. Just wanted to post this note so no one would worry. Thank you for reading, as always, I appreciate it! See you back here next Tuesday.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Is Giving Away More Money Easy Or Hard?

Sometimes in discussions about poverty, taxation, charity and inequality, I encounter a very specific debate over whether choosing to give money away is more difficult in some way than paying a required tax. If yes, the suggestion goes, that'd be an argument for a system involving taxes to move money around. If not, things are less clear. 

Some people seem to suggest that it's no more difficult to give your money away than to have it taxed. I remember that this thought comes up in Cohen's book If You're an Egalitarian Why Are You So Rich?  It's not really harder to give money away voluntarily, the thinking goes. If you're the kind of person who has trouble being motivated or who tends to get distracted and spend your money on other things, you can just automate the process. You know, monthly auto-pay or something. By pre-committing to donation, you can lock yourself in.

Let me say first that while I appreciate the debate over voluntary action and alternatives, it seems to me first that this is the wrong framework to apply to questions of poverty, charity, and taxation. As I've said before, the real problem is the theory of ownership that implies -- falsely IMO -- that what we end up with after some exchange is uncomplicatedly "ours" -- as if our interaction were happening outside of history and outside of a social structure with vast historical and contemporary injustices already built in. From my point of view, moving money around isn't a matter of charity but rather a matter of justice. So it's a different kind of thing altogether.

The other reason this framework seems to me wrong for this problem is that there are vastly different effects from individual voluntary giving than from general taxation. If everyone at my income level is taxed in the same way, all those people have less money, and this will affect prices and which goods are available and whether or not I can afford various things. With individual giving, you're just individually making yourself financially worse off than other people with none of the ameliorating effects.

But let's leave all those problems aside for the moment and just consider this question about difficulty. Is it difficult to give away more? For me, I would say that the answer is yes. The pleasures that money can buy speak to me just as they speak to anyone else, and it's not news that in our version of capitalism the forces encouraging you to buy things are relentless. When I have discretionary income, I want to spend it. More treats for me! More gifts for my people!

It's interesting to me that the question of automation comes up in this domain. I see the point: if you automate the process of giving, then the giving happens automatically and there's a sense in which you don't have to "make a decision" about it over and over. It just happens. You're locked in.

But you know what? For me, there's locked-in, and then there's locked-in. Voluntary automated systems that take money away from me are just not the same as involuntary systems like taxation. They're not the same because I can simply change my mind any time. And knowing I can change my mind any time, continuing to give requires the same mental energy and the same motivation and the same -- let's be honest, struggle -- that non-automated giving entails.

I don't know what it's like for everyone else, but I'd say there are some reasons to think my feelings are not uncommon. We're constantly reading that people are not saving enough for retirement, or saving enough for emergencies, or allowing their credit card debt to pile up. If automating a payment system solved the problems of motivation and commitment, then dealing with these problems would be a no-brainer for most people. But obviously that is not the case.

So, while I don't buy the framework of comparing voluntary giving to taxation in addressing poverty and inequality, I will say this: within that framework, my answer to the question of whether giving away more money is easy or hard is clear: it's hard, not easy.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Accidental Philosopher Photographs Some Things Part 3

It's the first day of school -- which if you work anywhere near the education field you know induces in most of us the same kind of anxiety and freakout that we all felt when we were back in kindergarden. What if I miss the bus? What if the other kids make fun of my lunchbox? Then when you're the teacher you have to add on top of that mundane things like getting your syllabus finished and your course list downloaded and yada yada yada.

With all that going on I didn't have time for a full essay. But here are some recent images that interested me:

I never understood --and I still don't understand -- how people are excited about 3D printing. What things exactly are there that you feel you want or need that have no special parts, that you feel could make more easily at home? I can't even think of things in that category. The only exciting thing I know about 3D printing is how kids are using it to create their own superhero cyborg prosthetics. Now that is cool. Anyway, here's the answer, in a San Francisco shop window. 3D printed replicas of .. yourself! Um .. thanks but ... I think I'm good.

I saw this lage ... mirrored lion? .. for sale in at at Home Goods (like Marshalls or Winners but home stuff) in the goodhearted but downmarket town of Vernon CT. WTF? I like to imagine it in someone's home. With the right context it'd be awesome.

It probably just goes to show I don't get out enough, but this sign at Indigo Books made me laugh. They're selling.. large letters you can put on things. The whole idea of the letters being "exclusive" and "available in black and white" with the warning of "select letters only" -- I just thought that was amusing. What if you're looking for one of the other letters? You're SOL? How hard would it have been to include all 26 letters?

OK this isn't a photograph but it's an image capture of something I find so astonishing I had to capture and save it. What this shows is that if you want to get from Hamilton, ON, to Buffalo, NY -- which is about an hour's drive -- on transit, that trip will take you almost five hours. Four hours and fifty-five minutes, to be precise. It didn't used to be this way. I take the bus, so I know. You used to be able to catch a very reasonable CoachCanada bus. But that's not there any more. What happened? Why isn't the end of a bus route major news in all the papers? What's wrong with the world, anyway?

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Some Books To Alleviate Holiday Boredom And Dread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tarquin Hall, The Vish Puri detective series

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

Happy New Year, everyone!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The "Surrendered Person" As A Model For Us All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

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

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

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

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

1. Philosophy of science: evidence and social epistemology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Capitalism and philosophy of economics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Is the human experience essentially a pain?

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Election And Modern Education Priorities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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